Rise and Dine

This historic Waitsfield property offers fine dining to the general public and guests of its eight-room inn

by Keith Morrill

John LumbraJohn Lumbra, a Johnson & Wales–trained chef, bought the 1824 House Inn in Waitsfield in 2001. He has expanded the bed and breakfast by restoring the barn as a public restaurant facility and an events and catering center. Lumbra is pictured heading for the Hayloft, a recently completed mezzanine area where guests and the public can relax before or after dinner.

The 1824 House Inn in Waitsfield has redefined what it means to age gracefully. As it closes in on its 200th birthday, this crisp, white Vermont farmhouse and idyllic red barn glow with vitality. And while it may have had the help of a little cosmetic surgery, it can largely thank its most recent owner, John Lumbra, for this renewed vigor. Since acquiring the 1824 House Inn in 2001, Lumbra has turned it from a simple bed and breakfast into a well-balanced business trifecta consisting of an inn, a restaurant, and an events and catering service.

Looking at 1824 House, it’s hard to conceive of the changes it has seen. It started life as a farmhouse and private residence before being converted into a bed and breakfast nearly 21 years ago. Under its previous owners, Jack and Carol Rodie, it grew over time from a four- to an eight-bedroom establishment, each with its own private bathroom. It was in that state when Lumbra purchased it and set about adding the business’s other elements.

At the time, Lumbra was just back from California. A native Vermonter, he grew up in St. Albans, and went away for school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he graduated in 1989 with an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in food service management.

He moved to California in ’92, where he put his culinary arts to use as a chef.

He returned to Vermont in late 2001, under contract to buy the inn and settle in to what he expected to be a more laid-back lifestyle. “You think, ‘Well, this is going to be easy,’” he says.

Initially, 1824 House Inn operated as it always had, albeit with Lumbra’s own flair. According to him, not much has changed about the inn-side of business other than staff. Guests can expect affordable prices for their rooms and a stunning three-course breakfast prepared by Lumbra.

“1824 House Inn makes a great home base for travel,” says Trae Greene, the property manager and Lumbra’s life partner. “For people who want to see Vermont, this is a great place to get up in the morning, have your breakfast, and then go to Rutland or Burlington.”

Trae GreeneThe 1824 House is approaching its 200th birthday, and Lumbra and Trae Greene, his life and business partner, are mindful of that history. Greene is the property manager.

Of course, guests aren’t required to go anywhere, and Lumbra and Greene say there’s plenty they can do around 1824 House during their stay. Guests can choose to relax in their rooms or by the fireplace with a cocktail and a good book, or enjoy the property’s 15 acres, which feature a swimming hole for summer fun and a sledding hill for the long winters. In summer, much of the acreage is used for crops grown by organic farmer Dave Hartshorn.

Regardless of season, Lumbra says, visitors — whether there to stay at the inn, visit the restaurant, or hold a wedding on the grounds — will often return on the same date every year. Guests who were expecting a child on one visit often will return to introduce the new member of the family.

Over the years, changes have been made, although Lumbra insists he has made them delicately. “The property has come a long way,” he says. “I wanted to do it with the property instead of against the property,” he explains. “I learned to listen to it, what it needed, and what it was telling me.”

Foremost in his mind was ensuring that whatever changes he made didn’t ruin the inn’s authentic rural spirit and antique farmhouse look. “Whenever you own an old farmhouse, it comes with a lot of history,” he says. “Vermont is one of those states where every piece of property has a lot of history.”

Glancing at 1824 House Inn, one might never suspect the amount of work Lumbra has put into it. He moved the driveway from its original location to create a farmyard feel; he added an impressive garden just behind the barn and made other changes to the landscaping such as lighting improvements. Perhaps most significant, he completely renovated the barn, turning it into a fully operational restaurant and venue for the events and catering side of his business. That addition took care of any expectation of a relaxed life.

1824 House bedroomThe 1824 House sits on 15 acres, which include a swimming hole and a sledding hill. Pictured is one of the eight bedrooms, each with its own private bath.

When he purchased the property, the barn was little more than an aged aesthetic prop, but guests and public alike can now enjoy meals prepared by Lumbra, the restaurant’s executive chef, and special dining events such as Monday Night Barn-B-Ques, Sunday Suppers, and the recently finished Hayloft, a cushy place to relax, sip drinks, and munch on appetizers. Despite the big changes, the barn retains its original post-and-beam structure. Additionally, Lumbra and Greene have installed artwork they’ve collected to add a personal touch.

The restaurant is a convenience for guests at the inn, who have only to take a short stroll from their rooms to experience fine dining, but it’s not limited to guests. As a fully operational restaurant, it’s open to the public — a fact many Vermonters miss. “People are often surprised to hear the restaurant is open to the general public,” says Lumbra. There are those who are keen to keep the secret. He tells of one father and son, local residents, who come in every Monday night for dinner, and have missed only one week in the last six months.

The barn/restaurant also serves as a venue for the events and catering part of the business, providing a site for not only weddings and other celebrations but also for community events.

Lumbra has opened the barn to local organizations, schools, and churches in an effort to raise extra revenue and to create a community space that will be regarded as an asset to Waitsfield and Vermont. “I want people to look at it other than its being a restaurant — that it has other benefits to the state and to the citizens,” says Lumbra.

Donna Kenyon, owner of Kenyon’s Variety Store in Waitsfield, is one community member who seems impressed by Lumbra’s efforts. Besides extolling his skill as a chef and innkeeper, Kenyon describes how Lumbra’s presence has affected the town. “I think they have an exceptional place in the community, and he does a lot for the community,” says Kenyon. “He does a lot to help with gift certificates and that kind of thing. He’ll give the community discounted prices, and help hold events at his restaurant.”

Lumbra cites balancing the three aspects of the business as one of his greatest challenges. “We’ve learned — especially in the last year — that today might be an inn day, or it’s more of a restaurant day, or we’re having a wedding and that’s the focus,” he explains. With a smirk he adds, “If I could clone myself, it would be easier.”

Lumbra relies on a staff of 25 individuals, a combination of full-time, part-time, and seasonal employees. Besides Greene, who came into the business in 2007, other full-timers include hospitality specialist Gale Breslauer, housekeeper Sondra Farnham, and business manager Darryl Forrest.

In the last year, Lumbra has shifted more responsibility onto the staff, allowing them to make more decisions on their own and ease the growing demands on himself. He hopes to further cross-train to make that daily shift in emphasis a smoother transition.

This shift in management style has allowed Lumbra a little more free time, although he confesses he’s working on finding still more. He and Greene try to get away on small vacations two days a month, though during their busiest periods, such as the holiday season, free time disappears along with room vacancies and empty tables at the restaurant. Even with outstanding staffing, running the business makes for long days, and Lumbra is usually up at 6, sometimes putting in 18-hour days, whether typing reply e-mails, scrubbing floors, preparing meals for his guests, or, even if only for a few minutes, enjoying the occasional sunset beyond the fields.

“In past years, we would shut down for a period of time,” recalls Lumbra. “The business has grown so much, that’s not an option any more. Now, when we’re gone, the staff runs the inn.”

The only thing that ever closes these days, he adds, is the restaurant, which is unable to operate without its executive chef when he’s out of town. •