Originally published in Business Digest, March 1997

From Bourbon Street to Main Street

by Kathryn Trudell

Late one evening in the 1980s, several months after Arthur and Manon O'Connor opened the Bourbon Street Grill on College Street in Burlington, the new owners were closing their restaurant for the night when five would-be diners knocked on the locked door. They said they were so disappointed they were too late for dinner, because they had heard great things about the restaurant. Without a moment's hesitation, Arthur and Manon unlocked the doors, turned on the lights, and served dinner to the party. These people are regular customers to this day.

Flash forward to the 1990s, several months after the O'Connors had opened Mona's Restaurant in the Corner Stone Building on Main Street in Burlington. It was July 3, and the outside deck was crowded with diners. A slight drizzle was falling. One of the tables did not have an umbrella, and the party was distressed. Arthur O'Connor fought the holiday traffic to get his patio umbrella from home for them.

Two examples of the O'Connor's customer service philosophy, summed up in the words, "The answer is yes! What was the question?" which they have incorporated into their mission statement.

"These are the standards of customer service which Burlingtonians have come to expect from our restaurants -- and we cannot deliver less," Manon says. "Our customers must always feel that no request is too hard to fulfill. We need to go far out of our way for every guest who walks in the door." The O'Connors' aim is to combine that level of service with the best and freshest foods carefully prepared.

"Cooking to me is almost sacred," Arthur says. "Flavors should explode in your mouth and leave you thinking 'Wow!' I like food that reaches out, grabs you by the throat, and begs you to eat more of it. That's why I like Cajun food so much.

"If you have impeccably fresh food, lovingly cooked and presented with artistry, you don't even need to get fancy with extra garnishes that aren't for any particular purpose. Everything on the plate should belong there, should contrast and complement the other food in flavor and texture, and should beg to be eaten."

[photo] Manon and Arthur O'Connor own and operate the Bourbon Street Grill and Mona's, two Burlington restaurants with distinctly different personalities. The couple met while working in a Stowe restaurant. Their daughter, Alison, wrote and designed the children's menu for Mona's. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

O'Connor's passion for cooking and determination to serve the best is seconded by David Hershberg, sales representative for Black River Produce in Proctorsville, a major supplier of produce and some fresh fish for the O'Connors' restaurants. "Art and Manon are very professional business people," Hershberg says. "They ask the right questions about any product they purchase. Art is a wonderful chef. He always knows the best seasonal products to use in his cooking. He is very tuned in to what would taste best during a particular time of year. He has high standards -- only the best, only the freshest. If your product isn't good, you won't be selling it to Art.

"I don't just sell to Art and Manon, " Hershberg continues. "My wife and I dine in their restaurants. I really like the way Art prepares and presents his food. We used to eat at the Bourbon Street Grill long before I ever began selling him produce."

Manon Lupien was born in Victoriaville, Quebec, the third of four children. Her father was a mine supervisor, so the family moved frequently, eventually immigrating to Vermont from Manitoba when Manon was eight years old. They eventually settled in Stowe, where her mother now manages a hotel. Manon graduated from high school in 1982, and the dental assisting program at Champlain College in 1986. In between, she waited tables at the Toll House Restaurant at the Inn at the Mountain in Stowe, where she met her husband.

Arthur O'Connor grew up in Connecticut, graduating from North Branford High School in 1975. After one year of college he knew it wasn't for him. He worked at a number of jobs, some that involved cooking, which he discovered he really enjoyed. He applied to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and in 1978, received an associates's degree in occupational studies, having completed rigorous courses in food preparation and management. After graduation, O'Connor worked at several Connecticut restaurants, working his way up until he was head chef at the Mill Pond Tavern in Northford. While there, he heard about a position in Stowe as an executive chef for the Mount Mansfield Co., a job he pursued and got.

In June 1983, Arthur began his new job that involved spending the majority of his time at the Toll House Restaurant. In July, Manon began waiting tables there.

In November 1985 O'Connor left the Toll House for a position as executive chef at the Waterville Valley Ski Resort in Waterville Valley, N.H., where he worked for two years. He and Manon were married in June of 1986, one month after Manon's graduation from Champlain College. She moved to New Hampshire with her husband and went to work for a dentist in Concord. During this time, the couple often discussed opening their own business.

"When Manon became pregnant with our daughter, Alison, we decided that if we didn't take the plunge before the baby was born we might never do it," O'Connor recalls. "We wanted to open our own restaurant, but because there was a baby on the way we decided to move either to Connecticut to be near my family, or to Vermont to be near Manon's. Vermont won. We didn't want to operate a seasonal restaurant, so we decided to locate in the Burlington area. It seemed like the best choice. It's a great city; it's got everything."

They quit their jobs and moved to Vermont. "The birth of our daughter and the opening of our first restaurant, the Bourbon Street Grill, were only six weeks apart," Manon recalls. "Alison Chantal was born on Jan. 7, 1988. Bourbon Street opened its doors Feb. 16, 1988, during Mardi Gras. Although it is very successful now, the first few years were a terrible struggle for us. We had no source of income for a long time. We didn't pay ourselves salaries for two years. I waited tables at Bourbon Street for six years because we needed the money. Before we opened our doors we knew it would be hard, but we had no idea! Floods of people didn't pour in as soon as we opened. We never had a shut-out meal, but one day we had only two customers. It was rough."

"We wanted to start with a small restaurant and bar," Arthur says, picking up the story line from his wife, "that, in a worst case scenario, we could run ourselves. I could run the kitchen and Manon could run the front. At the time, Cajun cooking was a popular trend. Like any other trend, parts of it come and go, but something always stays. Grill restaurants were emerging. This was a trend I felt very comfortable with. Man probably ate his first cooked meals grilled on a stick over a fire. I love spicy food, and Cajun is a base for that. All I can tell you now is that people love our menu, and our food sells very well."

Arthur is sensitive to the fact that not everyone likes Cajun food. The menu is varied enough to accommodate a wide range of preferences, but there is no question that the most popular items are Cajun. "Our Cajun grilled flank steak is the most popular, along with the Caesar salad, either standing alone or topped with our sliced Cajun grilled chicken breast."

The Caesar salad dressing is Arthur's creation. It was such a sensation that customers asked to buy it for home consumption, leading O'Connor to bottle and market the dressing as a separate item, along with his fire sauce, Jamaican Jerk Marinade, and Big Art's Jazz Sauce. These products are sold at both Bourbon Street and Mona's as well as in grocery stores and specialty food shops under the label "Bourbon Street Specialty Products." The products have market penetration in 35 states, and gross about $40,000 a year in additional revenue. The O'Connors also operate a catering business -- Bourbon Street Catering.

"Summer is the busiest time for our catering business," Arthur says. "I show up with my six-foot barbecue grill and cook Jamaican Jerk Pork or flank steak or whatever people want. The absolute best times Manon and I have are catering on the ferry. It's beautiful. Once you leave port there's no going back, so if you forget something you have to improvise in a hurry or you're out of luck!"

"We love the catering," Manon adds. "Years later we can still recall the event, the people, and the location. Art does the cooking and I handle everything else."

In 1995 they received a telephone call from Lisa Steele of Main Street Landing Co. She told them that a mixed-use building was being constructed at the bottom of Main Street on the waterfront, and that a restaurant was one of the uses they were looking for. Steele asked them if they would consider opening one there. "We set up an appointment with Lisa and her partner, Melinda Moulton, in June and put the whole project together incredibly fast," recalls Manon. "We opened Mona's on Dec. 13 that same year, in time for the Christmas and New Year's season.

"We chose the name of our first restaurant because we wanted to evoke memories of Louisiana, Mardi Gras, Cajun food, and the way Art likes to cook. Mona's has a different ambiance. We were looking for an unusual name. We didn't want a typically waterfront or seafood name. We made lots of lists, but kept coming back to Mona's. It just seemed to work."

"It's mysterious, intriguing, and easy to remember," says Arthur. "It's also a bit elegant, but not too much."

Mona's decor is simple, subtly earth-toned, and timeless. The bar is a graceful sweep of gently curved marble. "Our atmosphere is bright, urban, and slightly elegant with enough of the casual about it so that people aren't intimidated," says Manon.

There is even a children's menu written by their 9-year-old daughter, Alison, who chose and named the meal selections, then designed and typeset her "Kids Menu" on the restaurant's office computer. Ali's Steak is named for herself. Other selections are named after cousins and friends, such as Paige's PB&J, Joe's Pasta, or The Jessie Dog. Parents can purchase a complete meal from Kids Menu, including dessert and a drink, for $3.95 or $4.95.

"Parents shouldn't have to pay $12.00 for a child's meal," says Manon emphatically.

The gross receipts from the restaurants, specialty products, and catering reached $2 million in 1996. "We haven't had the severe financial struggles we had when we opened Bourbon Street," Manon says, "but it has still been a great deal of work. We still worry and work hard to keep our costs under control. We're still stressed. I guess that comes with the territory when you run a restaurant, but we love it or we wouldn't be doing it. This is a much bigger project than Bourbon Street. We have loans to repay, and we take that obligation very seriously."

Mary Lisa Hummel, a kitchen supervisor at Mona's, enjoys working for the O'Connors. "Art and Manon work hard. They are very accessible to their employees because they have remained involved in the business at the actual working level. For example, Art listens to our suggestions in the kitchen as well as teaching us. It's a collaborative effort, which makes for a nice environment in which to work."

"While the atmosphere is delightful and the staff helpful, we come for the food," says Dick Weed, a recent diner from Charlotte. "Arthur lets well-chosen meats and vegetables speak for themselves -- artfully seasoned."

Arthur O'Connor summarizes the business philosophy he and Manon share: "It's the customer's food. It's the customer's money. Many chefs will grumble if, for example, a customer orders a steak well-done. Our attitude is that if one does, then we want to serve him the best well-done steak he has ever eaten."

Addendum: Arthur O'Connor died on Saturday, Nov. 28, 1998, of esophageal cancer. He was 41.