Michael and Adrienne Henzel are the owners of Miguel's Stowe Away in Stowe, which includes a rustic inn, a Mexican restaurant and some of the finest salsa and chips east of California.

Some like it Hot!

Salsa makes beautiful music for this couple

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

When Michael Henzel was in high school, he was called to the music teacher's office to see a copy of Saturday Review magazine. "Take a look at this," said the music teacher, who also happened to be Henzel's father, "We had been vacationing in Stowe for probably six to eight summers and had come up for a ski trip the year before," says Henzel. "In the magazine was a rustic ad for a ski lodge in Stowe, Vermont, and he said, 'Would you like to move to Stowe and be in a ski lodge?' I said, 'Sure, why not?' I was 15."

If Henzel were to create a personal slogan, "Sure, why not?" could be it. An affable guy, he's savvy enough to recognize an opportunity when he sees one and flexible enough to ponder it a bit and set off on the path. That summer of 1970, the path led to Stowe.

After a trip to look at potential properties, Henzel's father and mother, also a teacher, bought the Stowe Away Lodge. Nearly 34 years later, Henzel is president of Miguel's Stowe Away, a corporation that still runs the lodge plus an award-winning Mexican restaurant. Miguel's also makes and sells a line of salsas and chips that have gained national recognition.

In 1970, however, Miguel's was not even on the radar.

"They cashed in everything they had," says Henzel. "They sold their house, took their pensions, went out on a limb."

The Henzels lived at the inn and ran the business. There were 13 guest rooms. "I helped with the dishes and made beds; my mom waited tables; and my dad was the cook. We all did the rooms," he says. Because his brother and sister were in college at the time of the move, they stayed in Pennsylvania. In Stowe, says Henzel, "I finished high school, learned to ski, and life was different."

Upon graduating from Stowe High School in 1972, Henzel returned to Pennsylvania for two terms at Penn State, and then dropped out.

"He told his parents they were wasting their money on him," says Henzel's wife of six years, Adrienne, who is also his business partner.

Henzel returned to Vermont but was beset by the wanderlust, he says. He and a buddy took off for Florida, returned to Stowe for the winter of 1974-75, and left the following September to go west. It was a classic buddy trip, through Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, then to San Francisco for six weeks. "We thought about getting in the Merchant Marines, then we ran out of money and decided to head for Jackson Hole, Wyoming."

They arrived "broke and without a place to live," but landed jobs the first day, Henzel as a bus boy at the Jackson Hole Racquet Club, where, after a few weeks, he "decided that the best job was being the dishwasher, because you worked three days a week from 11 to 11, and I got to work with the chef. I got my professional training from him."

Henzel also worked with a chef at the Rock Resort in Jackson Hole and moonlighted with a French chef–owner of a restaurant, covering her days off.

His friend had returned to Stowe by 1977, and Henzel found himself at a turning point. In a phone call home, his parents let him know there was a job at Stowe Away if he wanted to return.

Chef Tim Maher (left) poses with the restaurant crew in the restaurant bar. The table in front of them was made from the former sign for the inn, before "Miguel's" was added.

To generate extra revenue at the lodge so his parents could pay him and his friend, they hatched a plan to work at the inn with another friend, do the breakfasts and dinners for the guests, and then open the bar to the public.

"The plan was to serve a different kind of food each night," he says, "Mexican one night, maybe German, Italian, vegetarian we'd rotate."

The door to Henzel's future opened that first night of service, Dec. 21, 1977, when the partners served Mexican to launch the menu, using ingredients bought from the Grand Union. "Four of our friends came in and had enchiladas, cheese crisps, chimichangas and guacamole," he says. "They liked it and said, 'We'll be back tomorrow night.' I couldn't very well do a different kind of food the next night, so we stuck with the Mexican."

The business grew. His buddies left to work in Cape Cod, but Henzel remained to keep the restaurant going, refining the menu. In 1981, his parents moved to Burlington, leaving Henzel in charge, and in 1983, he bought them out.

By 1985, people were asking to take chips and salsa home after dinner, telling him, "You ought to bottle this stuff and sell it."

"We put together a label, made some salsa in the kitchen and took it to the 1986 International Fancy Food and Confection Show in New York, along with the rest of the Vermont companies that were new and happening."

Buyers liked Miguel's Hot Salsa Cruda, but they also wanted to buy the chips he had made to help with the tastings. He returned home with eight orders for chips and salsa, one of which was "utterly destroyed in transit" to the West Coast, one he shipped to Mississippi, and six orders "I put in the car and delivered to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey"

Patty Foltz, a friend who owns Vermont Harvest, offered to sell for him. Working in the restaurant, he could make about five cases of salsa a day. As orders increased, he moved production, first to a community action center in Morrisville, then to Cherry Hill Co-op in Barre, now the Village Cannery, which made his salsa for 10 years. Eventually, when he had to find someone who would manage the production to his formula and do the purchasing, he hired a Brooklyn, N.Y., company to do it for four years, until the company "outgrew us," he says.

Production returned to Vermont, first at Drew's All Natural in Chester, and ultimately to Blanchard & Blanchard, which makes Annie's salad dressings, in Wilder. For quality control, Henzel buys the raw materials, has them delivered, and when the salsa is made, Miguel's trucks pick it up and take it to the company's warehouse in Stowe for shipping.

"Setting up a chip line is a lot more involved than setting up a salsa line," says Henzel, who describes an involved process for using rolling stock to bag them. He first cut the tortillas by hand in Stowe, then drove them to Burlington to be fried, bagged and packed in cases at Vermont Potato Chip Co., a process called co-packing.

When Vermont Potato Chip started making its own tortilla chips, Henzel moved to a company in Middletown, N.Y. In 1988, he found the Hartford, Conn., supplier where the chips are still co-packed.

A New York City native, Adrienne had visited Stowe in summers growing up, and Miguel's was her favorite place to hang out. In 1997, she says, "I moved up here, a divorced woman with two children, to try it out, and decided to be the pioneer woman and move to Stowe, Vermont. I loved it."

She bought a house in Stowe and the night of the closing, she went out with some girlfriends to celebrate. "I said we have to go to Miguel's and have a margarita." One of her friends introduced her to Henzel. That was in August 1997. They had their first date in late October or early November, were engaged on Dec. 14, and married in May.

Asked how it is to work with a spouse, Adrienne says, "Very stressing. I probably say, 'I quit!' monthly, but it can also build a very strong relationship, and when things start to move in the right direction and you can run your business and treat it as you would your extended family, I think it makes it really special."

"I think it's challenging for her, because she's kind of coming in on my thing," says Henzel. People are asking for me all the time, and they don't think she's involved, and she's very involved.."

Henzel splits his time between the inn/restaurant and the salsa business. Adrienne works largely at the restaurant. "Basically, I do all the hiring, very little firing, and make sure everything's running," she says. She works with the chef, Tim Maher, on the menu, pricing, wine list, drink list, decorating and uniforms. "We have a manager, Kevin Gannon, who's on the premises at night to run the show now," she says.

"She sees things that need to happen," says Henzel, "and that's really helped to build the business." She has made it a priority to make things look presentable, he says, wryly citing a restaurant review back in the 1980s that called the decor "early utilitarian."

"It was a real ski bum hangout," says Adrienne, "which people really loved, but it needed a little fine-tuning." After the first winter there, she realized how many people they were turning away because they couldn't fit them in. At her urging, several unused rooms on the first floor were converted, bringing occupancy to 130 with 20 more on the patio in summer.

Miguel's salsa and chips are distributed out of a warehouse behind the Rusty Nail in Stowe, in a building that once housed an indoor tennis court. Kurt Maher (left) coordinates shipping and salsa production; David Stormer is director of customer service and logistics.

The corporation employs about 35 people. Five of them work for the food production end of things at the warehouse, including Adrienne's brother, Craig Mooney, who is vice president of marketing and sales. Mooney and May Smith, the office manager, are "the mainstay of food production," says Henzel. David Stormer, director of customer service and logistics, is Smith's assistant, and Kurt Maher, Chef Tim's brother, coordinates shipping and salsa production.

The company is entering co-branding ventures with other Vermont producers, such as a promotion with Magic Hat in January at five food co-ops in the state. Testing is in the works for a line of chocolate-covered baked blue corn chips in partnership with Lake Champlain Chocolate Co.

A goal is to refocus the company on the natural end of the market, says Mooney, who points to a label on the chip package that says, "Recommended by Cook's Illustrated, America's Test Kitchen."

"It's their seal of approval," he says, citing the results of a national tasting that rated Miguel's tortilla chips the top boutique brand and second overall. A plaque on the wall at the inn from Hispanic magazine names Miguel's Stowe Away one of the "50 best Hispanic restaurants" in 1992.

For all their differences, the Henzels see eye to eye on many things, including the importance of family. Besides Adrienne's two, Philip and Alek, the Henzels have two boys of their own: Marc, 4, and Connor, 2.

"I think people have to hold on to their dreams," says Adrienne "... and dream big. There's something that drives Michael and me to keep going. We've had some rough patches where people say, I don't know if you're going to be in business any longer. I say, 'Look, Michael, you started this with $3 in your pocket, and we've always found a way to keep going, because we really believe in it."

Originally published in February 2004 Business People-Vermont