Since its inception in 1991, Gracie’s has gone to the dogs
by Keith Morrill
Paul “Archie” and Sue Archdeacon met during a blizzard in December of ’73, at the inn where Archie worked and Sue soon would. By 1980, they were married, and, in 1991, they launched their own, dog-themed restaurant, Gracie’s, which has become a Stowe institution in its own right.
Gracie’s in Stowe earned its name as part of a joke. Owners (and husband-and-wife team) Paul “Archie” and Sue Archdeacon had just acquired the property and were having a hard time finding the right name for their new restaurant.
“We were going around with idea after idea,” says Archie. Some people suggested they play on Archie’s nickname and call it Archie’s Bunker because, at the time, it was in the basement of what had been Happleton’s on Main Street in Stowe. “Finally, we said, ‘We can’t think of a good name. Let’s name it after the dog and see what happens.’”
Gracie was the Archdeacons’ rescue Airedale/yellow Lab mix, and although she has long since passed, her influence on the restaurant is apparent from the decor down to the menu, creating a dining experience that has had locals and tourists alike scratching at the door ever since.
It was July 1991 when they opened their doors to the public, and they’ve become a staple in the Stowe dining scene. “It’s been 18 years of puns, jokes and innuendos on the menu,” says Archie. There’s Buddy’s BLT Salad (named for a socially challenged black Lab) and the Norman, an open-faced hot pastrami sandwich with sautéed onions, Vermont cheddar, and horseradish mustard named for one of the Archdeacons’ current dogs, a rescue bluetick hound mutt with a voracious appetite.
According to Archie, there’s only one basic criterion for menu descriptions: “anything that makes us laugh and has to do with dogs.”
Behind the fun menu is a lot of hard work in the kitchen, because the restaurant boasts that just about everything going from kitchen to plate is made fresh. That includes breads, stocks, sauces, and dressings. The Archdeacons are proud that Gracie’s is a part of the Vermont Fresh Network. A popular item hailing from this association is beef from Boyden Farm in Cambridge.
Almost everything that comes from Gracie’s kitchen is made on-site. That includes breads, stocks, sauces, and dressings. Allen McEdward (left) is the head chef, and Dal Follensbee is the sous chef.
The dog decor doesn’t stop with the menu. “We say anyone who sends a framed picture of their dog, we’ll hang it on the wall somewhere,” says Archie, and true to his word, store-bought decorations gradually have moved to boxes in the basement to make room for pictures of diners’ pets. About half of the pictures in the restaurant are of customers’ dogs. Returning customers always ask for a table near their dogs’ photos, he says.
Gracie’s also gives customers — locals and vacationers alike — the option of bringing their pooches along to dine in person. This is limited strictly to the outside patio.
Outdoor dining has been available at each of Gracie’s locations, of which it has had several over the years. The Archdeacons moved from their original Main Street site after a fire in October of 2004 spooked them. Although, fortunately, nobody was injured, they were concerned about staff safety and started seeking a kitchen with double egress.
They found an ideal location — a building on Mountain Road that was formerly the home of Whiskers Restaurant. The venue offered a kitchen with a double egress and a larger dining space. Things quickly grew from there, and soon they were catering to large groups and busloads of tourists. While the Archdeacons enjoyed the boom in business, it seemed that something had been lost.
“After a few years we were looking at each other going, ‘This isn’t Gracie’s. It isn’t what we were thinking of,’” recalls Archie. This spurred them to once again search for a new location, one that would recapture the atmosphere of the original Gracie’s. They found it this year just up Mountain Road on the corner of Edson Hill Road in the building that formerly housed the Chelsea Grill. They closed their second location on March 28 and opened their new doors on May 1.
Even through all these changes, Gracie’s has managed to keep a relatively consistent staff, which they say is surprising for the restaurant industry. When Sue and Archie talk about their employees, it seems more like they’re discussing family than payroll. This makes sense when you consider a couple of them have been with Gracie’s since its first year in business.
In all, Gracie’s employees around 20 people. Among their ranks are head chef Allen McEdward, sous chef Dale Follensbee, and head baker Bonny Maynard.
Sue and Archie serve distinctive roles in Gracie’s daily operations. Preferring to be a strong force behind the scenes, Sue works in the kitchen with Allen McEdward, the head chef, helping with nearly all aspects of food preparation (everything except sautéing, she says). “I’m like the floater, filling in for people.”
Just before opening Gracie’s, she had been the manager of the Olde England Inn in Stowe for seven years, and had tried her hand at cooking and waitressing before that. Originally from Massachusetts, she came to Vermont to study history and art at Johnson State College, graduating in ’71.
“I fell in love with Vermont,” she says. “After graduation, I went home for the summer with the intention of moving back.”
Archie is the front man at Gracie’s. “I love standing out front and meeting people, talking about where they’re from, what they’re doing, what they’re going to do while they’re in Vermont,” says Archie.
He was a teacher-in-training when he came to Vermont in late ’72 to wash dishes for the Stowehof Inn. A native of Waltham, Mass., he had a student teaching gig lined up in Boston for the next fall, but after one winter in Stowe, he called his future employer and said there was no way he’d be coming back. From there he went on to bus and wait tables, tend bar, and, by ’77, he was managing the Matterhorn. From there he jumped in and out of the restaurant business until opening Gracie’s.
Working in restaurants in Stowe is how Sue and Archie met. Archie was working at the Partridge Inn, in December of ’73, when Sue came in one evening during a blizzard. Archie learned she was soon to start waiting tables at the inn, and he went to the bartender and asked, “Who’s that girl? That’s the girl for me.”
After he spent three years asking her out, Sue finally yes (much to Archie’s shock, he says), and they married July 19, 1980.
On May 1, Gracie’s moved into new quarters up Mountain Road at the corner of Edson Hill Road. Bonnie Maynard is the baker.
Sue and Archie describe their time in the industry and running Gracie’s like most people might talk about a day at a theme park, even though they have had their share of challenges along the way.
Although they feel confident they’ve finally found the ideal location for Gracie’s, they admit that the recent economy has forced them to cut back on staff and services. Starting in October 2008, they stopped serving lunch, because, Archie says, “There just wasn’t enough business to make it worthwhile.”
They’ve been continually adjusting hours since they opened, adds Sue. Back then they stayed open from around noon until 1 in the morning serving lunch, dinner, and a late-night menu. Additionally, they’ve had to lay off some long-time employees, an experience they say was very difficult for them. “When you have nice employees, you want to take care of them,” says Archie. “It got to the point where we couldn’t do it anymore.”
They’ve taken great pains to ensure that those who continue to work for them enjoy the experience, including their highly anticipated staff Christmas parties, which feature games designed by Sue.
Having a tight-knit staff has fringe benefits — like the ability to get away on occasion without having to worry about the state of affairs. “We feel comfortable not being here because we know that the place is in good hands,” says Archie. A bonus, he says, is that they always have somebody to watch the dogs.
It should come in handy when they celebrate their 29th wedding anniversary at the end of July, although the actual celebration will probably have to wait until September when business at Gracie’s slows down. Then they’re likely to head to one of their favorite vacation destinations: Captiva Island in Florida or Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos islands, both ideal places to relax, read a few books on the beach, and get in some golf.
Their games usually involve a friendly competition; the winner gets to pick the wine at dinner that night. “We have some great arguments over it,” says Archie, “and drink great wine on occasion.”
He admits that he doesn’t play like he used to, and, these days, Sue picks most of the wine. “My game has gone to …,” he says, pausing to search for the right words. Sue is quick to jump in with the perfect phrase: “To the dogs!”•