Crafty Inn-spiration

Mrs. B's B&B, owned by and Steve and Frances Boucher, is a landmark on Vermont 15 in Jericho. In the summer. Mrs. B's Gift Barn next door is chock full of Vermont products and interesting gifts to lure travelers.

Steve and Frances Boucher make a home away from home for travelers

by Rosalyn Graham

On June 10, 1998, Gerhard Raener, an Austrian tourist, was driving along Vermont 15 in Jericho, taking a scenic route from New York on his way to Maine, when he saw a man hanging out a sign for a bed-and-breakfast. A dedicated B&B fan, Raener realized this one was not in the guidebook he carried, and he stopped to ask why.

When Steve Boucher told Raener that Mrs. B's B&B was opening that day, the Austrian said, 'You mean I'd be your first customer? I'm going to try it for a night.' Raener stayed for almost a week, hiked Mount Mansfield twice every day and confirmed for the Bouchers that they had made a good choice in deciding to convert their home into a home-away-from-home for travelers. His was the first name in the Bouchers' guest book and the first in Steve's repertoire of stories about the fun he and his wife, Frances, have had and the friends they have made since they launched their venture into the hospitality industry.

The B&B began with an excellent foundation: a great location on the busy Route 15 tourist corridor, a handsome and spacious 10-year-old house that wraps modern efficiency and convenience in a classic clapboard-sided, dormered exterior that could have been there for a century, and a hospitable, energetic husband-and-wife team ready to put in the long hours a bed-and-breakfast requires.

Steve and Fran are Vermonters, she from Sheldon Springs and he from Swanton Hog Island, to be exact.

Steve is a former banker, having worked 15 years at the Chittenden Bank before developing what he calls "corporate-itis." From 1980 to 1998, he was in real estate as a one-man "country broker" focusing on lakeshore and agricultural properties, and occasionally brokering "stumpage" or logs.

"I always had three jobs," says Steve. As a boy growing up in the nursing home his parents owned on Hog Island, he spent hours in the kitchen learning to cook from the kitchen staff, local women adept at preparing wild game and other delicacies.

Also at the nursing home, Steve learned to grade furs from an old Jewish man, a fur buyer who had a private room near the entrance. "I was about 7 or 8 years old," Steve says, "and he would hand me the fur and tell me what pile each would go in, so I got to learn fur grading." Steve traded furs until the late 1970s.

The man was also a fish buyer, and "everything in the institution that would hold water had fish in it until the rabbis could get there for the kosher ceremony," says Steve. From these unusual early experiences, Steve has, at times, made a living as a trapper, fur trader, fisherman and trail cook, "cooking for hunters, canoe trips and hikers to places like the north shore of the St. Lawrence, James Bay and Newfoundland."

Steve and Frances Boucher enjoy a rare moment of quiet next to the large stone fireplace in the "gathering room."

Fran was a full-time mom until her youngest son was a teenager, when she started working part time at the University Health Center as a medical secretary in psychiatry, a job that quickly became full time.

Steve and Fran met through a real estate deal. "I was trying to sell a piece of property she owned up in Highgate through another broker," he says, "and eventually I got to really know who the owner was." By then, he was a divorced father of four grown children and she was a widow with five. Between them they have 11 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

The bed-and-breakfast is located on the former Malcolm Brown farm that Fran and her first husband bought in 1977. They spent years renovating the farmhouse, only to have it struck by lightning in 1987. "It wasn't burned down," Fran says, "but it was pretty much gutted upstairs, and the pipes burst causing further damage." After the insurance was settled, the couple decided to bulldoze the old house and build another on the spot. The new house was built in 1988; Fran's husband died in 1989.

When Fran and Steve were married in 1996, they began the conversion of the house to its new role by scouring antique shops for the treasures that now lend a century-spanning air to the two guest rooms and the common rooms in the B&B.

In 2000, Fran left UHC. "I really enjoyed that," she says, "but Steve was doing this and this was more fun. I really miss the girls I worked with for 18 years."

If comfortable beds are one key to the success of a bed-and-breakfast, then breakfast is the other. Steve slipped into the breakfast chef role with ease. "There is a bit of a science to sizing the guests up," he says of deciding on a menu. "They all seem to like home-fried potatoes with onions and peppers and garlic." He always includes maple syrup and Vermont products.

Steve prides himself on devising a variety of menus. "If guests are here for two nights, you can do it with your eyes closed," he says. "If they are here for 10 days, it is possible to give them a different breakfast every day."

He serves raspberries, blackberries and blueberries from their own bushes on the 40 acres of land bordered by the Browns River on the north, the ideal spot for their visitors to take a quiet walk before breakfast, listening to the birds and often seeing moose and deer. Fran's two Morgan horses add to the pastoral scene.

Many guests at Mrs. B's are in Vermont to visit their children and grandchildren. John and Liz Tobi come from Buffalo, Wyo., regularly to visit their son Don, his wife, Susan, and their four children in Jericho. "We don't have a lot of spare room in our house, so it's great to have a nice B&B so close to where we live for my parents to stay," Don says. "The Bouchers are very outdoors-minded like our family, so they have lots of things in common fishing and hunting, and politics to boot."

Although some guests are directed to Mrs. B's by their Jericho friends and relatives, most of the Bouchers' customers find them through the Internet at their website or through links from the chamber of commerce, the Lodging and Restaurant Association or from the Vermont Inns and B&Bs book that is the premier reference for many fans of bed-and-breakfast accommodations. "They're like a cult, the regular B&B people," Steve says. "They won't stay in a motel unless every bed-and-breakfast in the area doesn't have any room."

"About 80 percent of our business comes off the web," Fran adds, "That's been standard since we opened. And now we have a secure site so people can reserve on a card." Their reasonable rates $65 for double occupancy, $60 for single helps keep the rooms full.

Not all the Bouchers' activities are inside the house. They have also renovated the old barn that came with the property and turned it into Mrs. B's Gift Barn, a shop that features apparel, pewter, pottery and, Vermont products, of course. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to clear out the cluttered barn and get the horses into a newly built shelter. "Steve used a pressure sprayer to clean off whitewash, added tons of concrete to make the floor smooth, put in insulation and put up tongue-and-groove paneling inside," Fran says. "The fun part was traveling all over the state looking for Vermont products."

"It didn't take long to find out that you can't do a hundred percent Vermont products," Steve says. "We're 85 percent American products." In five years of operation, Mrs. B's has had guests from various parts of the world and almost every state. "We thought when we started out that we had the best guests you could ever have and they just keep getting better," Steve says, who adds that his favorite thing about running a B&B is "the great conversations. It's a continuing education."

Abbie, the Bouchers' 8-year-old Brittany Spaniel, greets guests and shares petting time with the Patches, the "house kitty," and Max, a black cat Frances rescued.

Fran says the best part is working in her own home with no commute. "I enjoy meeting the people, even though I didn't think I would and dragged my feet for about a year before we started. Now I wish we'd started a year earlier."

Last summer was a particularly busy one for the Bouchers, who keep the facility open from May to early January, when they head for warmer weather. "We never said 'No' all summer," says Steve. "From the 5th of May to August 28th, it was very rare that there wasn't anyone in the B&B; only three nights all summer were empty."

"...and in October we were straight out," Fran adds. "If anybody calls, we don't usually refuse them. This is our bread and butter; we have to pay attention. We haven't had a bad year for the B&B, but the gift shop suffered last year because of the IBM layoff."

What do they do when they need some time off? "In this business," says Fran with a laugh, " it's mostly called the no vacancy sign."

Originally published in February 2004 Business People-Vermont