BRATTLEBORO — As business owners, husband-and-wife team Kate Barry and Bruce Hunt know all about the challenges facing the downtown area.
Barry co-owns the Collective Lounge & Bar on Elliot Street, and together, she and Hunt operate a property management company. Barry also runs the local office of a real estate brokerage, eXp Realty, from the Hooker-Dunham Building on Main Street.
But Barry and Hunt also know all about what makes Brattleboro a place where people want to live and work and play. So when the opportunity arose to buy an iconic and well-loved Main Street business, they jumped at the chance.
Ellen and Pierre Capy opened Mocha Joe's Coffee House in 1991, in the space formerly occupied by Joe's Shoe Repair, and they brought gourmet and organically grown coffee to town. The café spawned a successful whole-bean roasting business that now supplies more than 100 stores and restaurants around New England.
In recent years, the Capys have wanted to focus on their roasting operation on Frost Street rather than the coffee shop on Main Street, but they also wanted to make sure that the coffee shop would end up in the hands of someone local who would continue it in its present form.
While the Capys had multiple offers for the café, they went with Barry and Hunt, who officially took over the operation on Nov. 29.
The Capys are not retiring, though. They will continue to run their Frost Street roasting operation, confident that the coffee shop they started more than three decades ago is in good hands.
While it sounds like Barry and Hunt already have their hands full raising a family and running multiple businesses, Barry said she was unfazed by the challenge of adding Mocha Joe's to their portfolio.
"When you create enough good systems, you can do anything when you have a good team around you and a vision, a plan, and a method of execution," she said. "The reason we really liked this business is that it is a turnkey operation. All the hard work has been done [by Ellen and Pierre Capy] - they built the brand, they built the customer base, they have the beans and the quality of their products."
Barry and Hunt also inherit a staff that she describes as "incredible."
"There's really not that much for us to do, except put our money into it," she said of the business.
"They are such an established brand and such a part of Brattleboro for such a long time," said Hunt. "It's a lot of value."
Those factors are why they're adopting an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it approach. Aside from adding a few new locally produced baked goods to the menu and expanding the café's social media presence, Barry and Hunt promised that all the things that made Mocha Joe's successful on Main Street won't change.
"A lot of the other offers were coming from out of state," said Barry, who added that in the process of purchasing the business, they learned that other prospective buyers "wanted to change the name or redo the space."
"It was too tragic, almost," she said. "Mocha Joe's is really special to us. We've lived, worked, breathed downtown Brattleboro. It's the first place I ever came to in Brattleboro. It made me feel like, 'Wow, this is a place I could live and feel comfortable.' There was just a vibe."
Not wanting to lose that vibe, she said, is the reason why they are so bullish about Brattleboro.
Falling in love with Brattleboro
Barry grew up in Rindge, New Hampshire and came to Brattleboro in 2010 to work on a master's degree in sustainable community development at SIT Graduate Institute.
Hunt came to Brattleboro from Hoosick Falls, New York to work at Echo Point Books, an online book dealer in the former Book Press complex on Putney Road.
They met at the former Mole's Eye Cafe, not long before the bar was destroyed in the Brooks House fire in 2011.
"It was very cliché," Hunt said. "I taught her how to shoot pool."
"And then I left, and said, 'See you later,' but there was something about Brattleboro that I just couldn't get out of my head," Barry said. "I felt I needed to go back there and be with him and start a family and put my roots down."
It was, she said, "one of those moments where it was not my trajectory and not the plan."
"I was coming back to a place where I can't necessarily use my degree and make any money," she said. "I had a lot of student loans to pay off."
So the new trajectory was bar management and catering, along with being a real estate agent.
"All customer service things," said Hunt, noting that it has taken "a lot of years, a lot of change, a lot of planning and re-planning and pivoting to adjust to change" to get to where they are now.
And they said they are taking what they've earned in the real estate field and reinvesting in the town they fell in love with.
"Brattleboro, and the people here, are quite resilient," Hunt said. "There is a 'can-do' attitude."
"There are so many people moving to southern Vermont because they want to live here, raise their families here, and bring their businesses here," Barry said. "We do, of course, have an extreme housing affordability crisis on our hands, and I know that's the top topic in the Legislature right now. People want to live here, and we need to create the supply to meet the demand."
A downtown transition
Barry and Hunt admitted they've had "some sleepless nights" since quietly closing the Mocha Joe's deal. Not long after the deal was done, Sam's Outdoor Outfitters announced it would be closing its flagship store at the corner of Main and Flat streets.
She said it was "a holy-crap-what-are-we-getting-ourselves-into moment," but she also noted that it is just part of an ongoing transition of longtime Brattleboro businesses changing hands.
In just the last couple of months, Robert "Woody" Woodworth sold Burrows Specialized Sports to Peter "Fish" Case, and Nancy Braus sold Everyone's Books to Red Durkin.
"We know there will be challenges," Barry said. "It feels more like a changing of the guard, a transition to a new generation downtown, rather than something being lost."
While the headlines of late are dominated by the ongoing drug problem, Barry said she and Hunt "are extremely aware" of the bad things happening downtown.
"It's a challenge, but it's not the whole picture," she said. "There still are a lot of people here who want the best for our town and are putting their skills and creativity into businesses downtown."
And both say they been encouraged by the positive response to the transition at Mocha Joe's.
"It's people saying, 'Wow, people are investing in downtown,'" Barry said. "People believe [in downtown Brattleboro] and they want to keep that spirit alive and keep the momentum going."
She said it's "easy to nag on downtown and focus solely on the problems. You have to acknowledge them, and they have been acknowledged. But you also have to acknowledge the other half of the picture."
Saying that most people downtown "don't have time to complain because they're too busy working," Barry feels that if people want to make downtown Brattleboro better, they need to "shop locally, support local businesses, and see what happens from there."
"This is the time to do something, when everyone seems afraid," she said.
This News item by Randolph T. Holhut was written for The Commons.