Like many of their customers, John and Karen Goettelmann stumbled across Middlebury's Storm Café and decided to stay.

Dine-amite Duo

An enthusiasm for food and a creative approach have allowed the Storm Café to prosper

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Seven years ago, chefs John and Karen Goettelmann were living and working in Worcester, Mass., dreaming of opening a restaurant of their own. One day, they saw an ad in the business opportunities newsletter from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where they had studied and met in 1988. It was for a place called the Storm Café in Middlebury, Vermont.

"It had a cute little picture," recalls Karen, "the deck, a little creek, the whole nine yards. We decided to get the information over the phone, and figured the worst it could mean was a weekend in Vermont."

They drove to Middlebury, had lunch at the Storm, checked out the town, including most of the restaurants in town, and decided they could easily fill a niche among the competition, "so we made the other leap: We bought the restaurant and moved up in '97," says Karen.

The former owner had developed a very strong lunch business and was "dabbling in dinner," Karen says, but didn't quite have the commitment to take on serving dinners on a regular basis. "It took a while to convince people that we were open for dinner," she says, adding with a smile, "but we're still here."

Erin Sullivan and Brendan Smith prepare for their first day of lunch service.

Still here and thriving, it appears. Folks who have dined there aren't surprised: The intimate, 42-seat café plus a deck overlooking Otter Creek for summer patrons at the back of Frog Hollow Mill serves mighty fine food.

Lance Phelps, the owner of Phelps Engineering in Middlebury and the Goettelmann's landlord, laughs when asked if he eats there. "Are you kidding? I probably have gained 15 pounds in the seven years since they moved in. We average one dinner a week or one or two lunches a week in the restaurant."

Karen and John didn't just luck into a sweet deal. Everything they did before the Storm Café contributed to their future.

Karen grew up in Worcester, Mass., the daughter of a church secretary and a juvenile probation officer. "It kept you on the right side of the desk," she quips.

In her junior year at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where she earned her bachelor of arts in economics, Karen was waiting tables in Mystic, Conn., and "kind of got the bug, thinking it would be challenging to cook." Following graduation in May 1986, she spent the summer working in restaurants to gain the experience recommended before attending the Culinary Institute of America.

CIA's program at that time was 21 months, says Karen, noting it has recently evolved into a four-year program to be more academically competitive. A new class started every four to six weeks. John was one class ahead of her, and they met toward the end of their studies.

John grew up in Point Pleasant, N.J., on the shore. His father worked for Bell Labs designing computer programs, he says, "and my mom stayed home, but also did a lot of computer work."

His first job was washing dishes at the Shrimp Box in Point Pleasant, where for five or six seasons, he "worked all the way through the place dishwashing, prep, sauté, grill, everything. That was before and through high school. "Pretty much the only jobs I'd ever had were in the restaurant industry," he says.

John was almost certain he wanted to continue in the business, but he wasn't sure about jumping right in to culinary school. He though he might "miss something" by not trying college first.

He enrolled at Roger Williams in Bristol, R.I., for a semester. "I took all the business classes," he says "accounting, economics, English, everything they required and after the semester, I decided I couldn't see myself behind a desk 140 hours a week, so I enrolled in the Culinary Institute."

Following graduation in the fall of 1988, John worked for a restaurant in New Jersey until after Karen's graduation a month or so later. From then on, their lives could be said to be following the two-year plan. They left for jobs in Atlanta, his at the Ritz Carlton, hers at a four-star French restaurant. Two years later, they moved to the San Francisco area, where he was first chef at a private country club and she landed at Postrio, Wolfgang Puck's restaurant.

John's 1965 Microbus decorates the parking lot.

Two years later in 1992 it was back to New Jersey, where John worked at an Italian restaurant in Point Pleasant, and Karen was chef at The Fromagerie, a French restaurant in Rumson. They married in 1993, and John soon joined Karen at The Fromagerie, where they worked as co-chefs until the end of 1994.

"That was a little more challenging," Karen admits, "because I was there a while before John came on, but it worked out, and we were happy that we could try it with somebody else's money at first as a trial run."

In 1995, they moved back to Karen's home town of Worcester, Mass., where they were again co-chefs. In 1997, they answered the call to Middlebury.

The Goettelmanns pretty much lived at the Storm their first two years in Middlebury, planning and preparing lunches and dinners. That changed in May of 2000, when John David, the first of their two children was born.

"When the baby came, we closed for dinner and served a sit-down lunch and dinners to go for a year," says Karen. "It certainly made for better hours, but there was quite a demand still for a sit-down dinner. In fact, our customers are very committed to us, which is great and has allowed us to change our hours and still have a viable business."

"It's tough," says John, "because she's got a full-time job with the kids, and things just kind of fell into place for both of us. I took on more responsibility at the restaurant, and Karen takes care of most of the responsibility with the children. Karen is, in no specific order, a parachute for the restaurant, meaning she can cover for anyone who's sick or can't be at work; she takes care of the taxes and a lot of the payroll; and the main thing she does is she focuses on the dessert menu. That's her forte. She creates all the desserts and implements them to the point of even cooking some of the parts to be brought to work."

Nancy Geoghegan, the lunch chef, gets ready to prep for lunch in the Storm Café's sleek kitchen.

At least two days a week, John says, Karen is at the restaurant while John David is in preschool and John cares for their younger son, Timothy, at home. (Timothy is, not unexpectedly, two years younger than his brother.)

On a typical day, John arrives at the restaurant anywhere from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., says Karen, after the main lunch cook has received the products into the house and started lunch prep. Lunch begins at 11:30 and is usually strong until 1:30, tapering off from 1:30 to 2:30. The dinner crew then comes in. "All the while, John is either doing the actual cooking for lunch or prepping, butchering meat, whatever, to prepare for dinner, which starts at 5."

Dinner business is usually brisk until at least 8 p.m., and on weekends, stays strong until 9, says Karen.

In summer and fall, their high seasons, the Goettelmanns employ nine kitchen workers, including five full-time cooks, plus eight wait staff. "We're very fortunate to be in Middlebury, with the college," says Karen, "because it keeps us busy year-round. Our slowest time is the end of February or March."

In winter, she says, the college continues to support the restaurant, with "hockey fans, basketball fans, winter carnival and various things that bring people into town. We have a great core group of customers that have been with us and weathered the storm of our change of hours."

"You know," John adds, "on the snowiest, wintriest day, we will be just totally full. Everyone walks down from the college, walks around town. It's gotten to the point that if we have power and propane, we're open; if there's two to three feet of snow out there, we're open."

"They have an incredible group of regulars," says Phelps, "and it doesn't matter if it's 20 below zero or freezing rain or a blizzard they're here."

There was one period when the Goettelmanns closed up shop for almost a week: in 1999, for the filming of the Farrelly brothers' movie Me, Myself & Irene, in which the restaurant appears briefly, although camouflaged as a dump site, with 10-gallon barrels and tarps covering the deck.

The Storm Café's deck sits in the shadow of a striped awning on the bank as Otter Creek meanders through Middlebury.

The filmmakers sat down with several businesses in town, says Karen, to decide how they were going to compensate each business. "It wasn't as easy a process as we thought it was going to be, because in their minds, they didn't think they were going to impact our businesses at all, and offered a meager sum of money and said, 'You should be happy we're providing you all this publicity.' We worked out some numbers and it became a fair reason to have a vacation."

These days, the café is open Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. The menu, which Karen describes as "innovative American," features, at lunch, dishes like Spicy Steamed Mussels, a Turkey Club Panini and a Roasted Veggie Wrap with pan-roasted vegetables and "baby arugula rolled in a garlic- and herb-infused flour tortilla slathered with Vermont goat cheese." Dinner features entrées like Stormy Thai Stew "pan-seared shrimp, scallops, chicken breast, fish and mussels tossed in a zesty Thai coconut milk concoction with julienne vegetables and jasmine rice" and Sachetini alla Storm "egg pasta purses stuffed with six cheeses in a zesty wild mushroom cream sauce with roasted garlic, tomatoes and chipotle pepper puree on a bed of baby spinach." The dessert menu beckons like a Siren, with pecan pie, chocolate toffee tart, crème brulée and key lime tart.

John and Karen appear to have survived the two-year merry-go-round and are cruising into their eighth year in Middlebury. Now and then, they think about other career paths. Karen could see herself baking specialty cakes for a living; John, who owns a 1965 Volkswagen Microbus, fantasizes about opening a Volkswagen repair shop. Food service, though, continues draw them.

"It may sound strange," says John, "but cooking is what keeps me here. Sometimes I feel I could get my gratification simply being the chef at a restaurant. I've heard of countless owner-chefs bailing out of the kitchen and hiring a chef, and it's just simply not the same. Wherever I've worked, I've had the same attitude: Treat it like it's my own place; but turning it over to someone else is someone else's food. Right now, the people come to the Storm Café for my food."

Originally published in August 2004 Business People-Vermont