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The Fischers of Thatcher Brook

by Rosalyn Graham

This husband-and-wife team of innkeepers knew what they were getting into when they fell for buying a Vermont country inn

In November 1998, Lisa and John Fischer found a perfect spot for putting to work their varied backgrounds when they bought the graceful Thatcher Brook Inn in Waterbury.

Who hasn’t dreamed of owning a lovely country inn — pictured the fun of greeting happy families returning for their annual visit, the thrill of choosing charming wallpaper and curtains for all those elegant bedrooms, the pride of hearing guests beg for your secret muffin recipe?

“We knew better,” says Lisa Fischer with a laugh. Lisa owns Thatcher Brook Inn in Waterbury with her husband, John. They knew because both of them had experience that prepared them for the complexities of the hospitality industry. It was the kind of experience that brought everything to the innkeeper role, from cooking and front desk management to construction and handyman skills and a love of people. “When we put all our experience together, everything kind of fit.” 

photoApproaching Thatcher Brook reveals two gazebos and 243 feet of rambling porch.

Fischer and her husband were born in New Hampshire, she in Somersworth and John in Manchester. They met while they were students at Plymouth State College and graduated on the same day in 1981, as she collected her bachelor’s degree with a major in business, and he received his master of education. 

Her first job, ideal training for the inn in her future, was working on the Summit at Four Seasons project in Weir’s Beach, N.H. “I learned about the hospitality industry from the ground up on the project,” she says. “There was nothing there when I started, so I was working with contractors, developers — I learned so much. It wasn’t that a hospitality career was my goal, I just wanted a job where I would do a little bit of everything. When we got here, it all became useful.” 

Just as useful, she says, was the experience in business management and marketing that she accumulated during a subsequent job with Digital Equipment Corp. 

John’s education-oriented track, surprisingly enough, also provided valuable experience for a future innkeeper. During college he worked as a bartender and short-order cook. Early in his career he had a summer job coordinating the dining and residence facilities for science research conferences at Plymouth State. He learned a lot about everything from guest services to scheduling replacement of dorm mattresses and painting.

During 17 years at New Hampshire Community Technical College, where he was provost with responsibility for colleges in Nashua and Claremont, he also became proficient in everything related to computers, communications technology and the World Wide Web. Lisa, too, had computer savvy, having earned her MBA at Southern New Hampshire University with a minor in decision support systems, as MIS was called then, just as computers were becoming important in business. 

“We started talking about doing a bed and breakfast probably eight years before we did it,” Lisa says. “It was the kind of thing where John would get a promotion and we’d say, ‘It isn’t the right time,’ or we’d look at a property and say, ‘No, that’s not quite right.’ The kids came along, and then it was definitely not a good plan,” she adds.

photoAlmost three years ago, when the chef announced his departure, the Fischers decided to drop the public dining part of the business to focus more energy on the bed and breakfast aspect. Kate Bourneuf, the housekeeper, fiddles with table settings in the inn’s dining room.

Lisa’s brother and his wife blazed the innkeeper trail for the family, owning the Arlington Inn for quite a while. “When they sold it,” she says, “they were approached about the Thatcher Brook property, and they said, ‘No, but we know someone who might be interested.’ And that’s how it all came about.”

All it took was a visit to the historic inn. They fell in love with the area; agreed that the property had great potential; checked out the schools; confirmed that John was ready to make the move from his provost position; did the numbers and the audit. This looked like the right time and the right place.

Thatcher Brook Inn is a rambling white structure that dominates the west side of Vt. 100 about half a mile north of the interstate. Two houses, built in 1899 by lumber dealer Stedman Wheeler, were renovated and transformed over the years, serving as private residences, an assisted living facility and, since the 1980s, as an inn. Two gazebos and a 243-foot front porch instantly identify it as a getaway guaranteed to offer private nooks and friendly hospitality. It has been described as “one of the most romantic B&B inns in the country,” says Lisa.

When the Fischers arrived as keepers of the inn, they tackled a long list of renovations and repairs. “The big things had to be done first, like porches and heating systems and roofs,” Lisa recalls. “It was two years before we got to do the fun things like decorating all the rooms.” John put his experience as a handyman to work on many of the projects and found contractors to tackle the big jobs such as plumbing and electrical. 

photoCeleste Wells, the assistant innkeeper, fluffs pillows in one of the inn’s 22 guest rooms.

The Fischers had been skeptical about the operation of the tavern and the dining room. “We thought the tavern was just a place where people came and drank till 4 o’clock in the morning. When we got here we realized the tavern was a comfortable place where local people gathered. And the restaurant was magnificent, of course,” says Lisa. John changed his plan about returning to education and became a full-time innkeeper with his main emphasis on the food service while Lisa was in charge of guest services. 

“Every year when we evaluated the business, we looked at the restaurant and said, ‘It’s not our main business, do we want to continue it, in terms of the time and resources it demands?” Lisa says. Two events tipped the scale. Chef Jonathan Nelson, who had been at the inn since he began work as a dishwasher at 15, decided he wanted a job with weekends and holidays, and resigned. At the same time, assistant innkeeper Lindsey Dix decided to leave. 

“We said, ‘Somebody is trying to tell us something,’ and weighed the risk of closing the restaurant and tavern,” Lisa recalls. “We didn’t know if people came because of the restaurant, but we also thought we could easily start it again if we needed to.” The kitchen is still used for breakfasts served in the dining room for inn guests. It also serves as the Fischer family kitchen.

“After three months, we realized it was a good decision,” Lisa says. “Business didn’t fall off and I think we only had three or four guests say, ‘Oh, I thought you had a restaurant.’ If we were in the middle of nowhere we would have no choice, but in fact, we have counted 50 restaurants within 20 minutes of us here, in Montpelier, Waterbury, Stowe — lots of choices.”

The biggest plus from closing the restaurant and focusing on the inn is the time the Fischer family now has together. “We thought we had done a good job of spending time with our kids, but we know that with the restaurant we would never have been able to see their ball games or our daughter riding her horse,” says Lisa. 

Matthew, who was just a toddler when the Fischers moved to Thatcher Brook Inn (and was so amazed by the experience of having his home full of other people that he didn’t begin to talk for a year, say his parents) is now 10, in fifth grade, and loves to show guests the back way to Ben & Jerry’s. Amy, 15, is a sophomore at Harwood Union High School and spends her extracurricular time with her horse, the love of her life, according to John and Lisa. 

The inn, with its 22 guest rooms, has something for everyone, Lisa says, from small rooms with a double bed to rooms with queen-size beds, fireplaces and whirlpools. The tavern has been transformed into the inn’s luxury suite with a private sitting room. “We don’t consider ourselves a high-end kind of inn,” she says. “We concentrate on being a comfortable place where people feel at home.”

The staff who help to ensure that atmosphere are five housekeepers, all part-time, and the assistant innkeeper, Celeste Wells, a retired schoolteacher who lives around the corner. 

After the restaurant closed, the Fischers returned to their original plan, which was that John would continue to work in education. He recently took a position as a consultant at the state Division of Lifelong Learning, working with technical centers in Vermont. 

Lisa and John split kitchen duties, she during the week, he on weekends, and Lisa shares front desk duties with Celeste and John. Lisa is in charge of finances and working with vendors to set up ski trips, sleigh rides, river trips and weddings. John does all the Internet work, maintaining an extensive and informative website that they credit with bringing in 95 percent of their new business. 

Lisa says they pay heed to a piece of advice they received early in their inn-keeping endeavor: You run the inn, don’t let the inn run you. They do occasionally put a note on the door saying they’ll be back at 3 after taking some time to get out and enjoy the beautiful place where they live, and they do take off a week in April. In November they might make believe they are away. 

Still, says Lisa, it is a 24/7/365 business.

“I say to them, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’” says Sue Geiger, whose Mountain Valley Farm in Waitsfield is the place the Fischers send their guests for horse-drawn carriage rides, sleigh rides and visits with farm animals. “We deal with the public, but they are mostly here for an hour. They seem to have figured out how to do it 24 hours a day. I guess it’s a matter of character and personality.”

The payback for the Fischers is what they identify when asked for their favorite parts of inn keeping: Christmases when families who come every year are sitting in front of the fire telling family stories; the people they have met and consider friends from as far away as South Africa, Australia and Bahrain; the numbers of guests who keep in touch by email; and the guests who spent many happy times at the inn and decided to move to Vermont. •