Room at the Inn

The Hubers apply good humor and years of travel experience to make their guests feel at home

sinclair_leadNimmie and Don Huber stand in the parlor of the Sinclair Inn in Jericho, which they bought nearly three years ago after a long and sometimes arduous search across the country. The six-bedroom bed and breakfast is housed in a 100-plus-year-old Victorian with dazzling gardens.

The moment one sets foot in the Sinclair Inn Bed and Breakfast in Jericho, the warm hospitality of innkeepers Nimmie and Don Huber is evident. In the living room, comfortable chairs surround a coffee table offering a wide assortment of magazines; the parlor provides the perfect place to read the morning paper; and the bright dining room invites conversation with other guests over the sumptuous breakfasts Nimmie prepares each morning.

The Hubers live in a separate house in back, connected by the laundry and kitchen — close enough to their guests to be available yet far enough away to allow for privacy.

Don and Nimmie bought the six-bedroom Sinclair Inn from Sally and Bruce Gilbert-Smith in July 2007 after searching many years for the right place. Having become familiar with the Burlington area when their son was studying at the University of Vermont, they decided to have a look at the inn on Vermont 15 when it came on the market. “We came to visit the inn the day after the Feb. 14 snowstorm,” recalls Nimmie.

Despite the snow, they liked what they saw. “It was cozy, it was warm, it was the right size, and we could tell it’s an incredibly well-built house that was well taken care of,” says Don. “It needed work, but it was cosmetic work.”

Approaching three years in the house, the Hubers are still impressed by the quality of the building. “The ceilings are level and the walls are straight. Even after a hundred years, it’s still solid — all the doors close by themselves and lock, and the original skeleton keys still work.”

The lovingly renovated painted lady has a long history, much of which includes time as an inn or boarding house. Built in 1895 by Edward Sinclair, a wood craftsman and building contractor, for his much younger wife, Ruth, it served as their private residence until a nearby inn burned down and they decided to open their home to guests. When Edward died in 1933, Ruth closed the inn, and it became a private residence again. After its sale in 1957, it served as a ladies’ home before becoming a bed and breakfast in the late 1980s.

The Hubers did not have a background in the hospitality business, although in his college years, Don had spent summers working at resorts and had experience waiting tables.

“I always liked the hospitality industry,” he says, “and I always thought I’d like to do it. We’d stay at B&Bs when we traveled and started looking about 10 years ago.”

Their three children — Addison, Andrew, and Lucy — were still teenagers at that time and thought their parents were crazy. “They never took us seriously,” says Nimmie with a laugh. Every now and then, she and Don would drop the children at her sister’s and spend a weekend looking at inns that were on the market. Nimmie tells of one such visit to a property in Bad Axe, Mich., on the “thumb of the mitten” — a property that the real estate ad neglected to note was in a bleak industrial town.

“We drove 16 hours and when we got there it was cold and snowy, and we literally did a drive-by. We didn’t get out of the car — barely slowed down — and kept right on going to Traverse City and had dinner. The next day we drove all the way home again,” she says.

Home in those days was Washington, D.C. Nimmie, a native of the D.C. area, has a bachelor of arts from Hollins University and a master of education from Tufts. She taught elementary school at Maret — “the school the Obama girls did not go to,” she says with chuckle — for 27 years. She still does work for the school — as an admissions consultant, occasionally testing kindergartners.

Don was born in Chicago and grew up in Kansas City. A sociology graduate from the University of Kansas with a master of public administration from George Washington University, he did five years’ active duty in the Air Force followed by 23 in the Reserve at the Pentagon, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the late ’90s. He also worked for the federal government in the International Trade Administration for 30 years, the last 10 of which he was in charge of the U.S. pavilion at international trade shows.

The two met at the Watergate building in Washington in December 1979. Nimmie was on a two-week management training course at the bank in the building and Don was finishing up a six-year tenure at a consulting firm several floors above.

“I was on the teller line at the bank,” recalls Nimmie. “Don would come two, three times a day and cash $5 and $10 checks. It wasn’t his branch, but I cashed these silly little checks and didn’t check his signature or his balance. After about a week of this, he slips me a note, and I think, ‘Oh, darn, he’s going to rob me now.’

“I put my hand on the secret buzzer and opened the note, thinking if it says, ‘Give me all your money’ I’m going to push this thing. It said, ‘Have dinner with me.’ Against my better judgment I went out with him, and we were best friends from that point on.” They were married in April 1981.

Don and Nimmie do most of the work at the inn themselves, but they do have a contract with Kelley Racine to do the housekeeping when they are “really, really swamped,” says Nimmie. Master gardener Cindy Listernik, their neighbor across the street, takes care of the gardens she designed and planted for the previous owners.

Don is in charge of the financial side of the business as well as the guests and calling in Racine as needed. Nimmie is in charge of the food, which she buys locally as much as possible, “and the flowers, and shopping, and the laundry,” she adds, “although oftentimes it does go out.

“I call this holiday food because you and I would never have what I make for breakfast every morning. This morning I made apple-cheddar quiche. We had bacon with it, and we started with butter rum apples with whipped cream. People love it — it makes them feel special,” she says. She’s careful to make sure that guests staying several days never have the same breakfast twice. Each afternoon, Nimmie offers fresh-baked cake or cookies for afternoon tea.

Despite the recent difficult economic times, the Hubers have fared well. “We closed on a Monday, moved in on Tuesday, and had our first guests on Friday,” says Nimmie. “And there was no psychiatrist anywhere close by.” The volume of guests has continued to increase since then.

“2008 was the best year the inn’s had in the last six years, based on net income,” says Don, pointing out that their rates have risen very little. 2009 was on track to be even better, but they decided to close over Thanksgiving to celebrate the holiday as a family without guests, so the final tally for the year was on a par with 2008.

“We were really lucky in 2009,” says Nimmie, “because in April, when the Captain Phillips story broke, we got a lot of business from reporters, and we got to find out what was going on as it happened.” She’s referring to Capt. Richard Phillips, the Jericho resident who was rescued from Somali pirates.

The Hubers’ guests come from across the country and around the world. The first Christmas, three generations of a family from Georgia took over the place for a week. “They wanted a snowy Christmas,” says Don. Tourists come in the summer, leaf peepers fill the inn in the fall, couples book romantic getaways, and out-of-town members of local families often stay at the inn.

Ninety-five percent of their business comes from the Internet, but most of the bookings are made by phone. “They want to talk to someone,” says Nimmie. “They want to ask questions. We’ve lost people because of the phone, but we’ve also gained a lot of people who are on the fence.”

Many of those who have stayed at the inn once, return. When the inn is completely booked, the Hubers refer callers to other local inns and B&Bs. “It’s not a sense of competition,” says Nimmie. It’s a sense of ‘We’re all in this community together and let’s help each other.’”

When they’re not busy with the inn, the Hubers like to go antiquing. They are both prolific readers, Nimmie opting for contemporary fiction and Don reading lots of magazines plus books by authors such as Tom Clancy and Dan Brown. They also love to travel. “Because of Don’s job, we got to go to some wonderful places,” Nimmie says. This year they might not get away, she adds, because of McDuff, a West Highland terrier puppy Don brought back from Kansas City a few weeks ago.

When asked about future travel, Nimmie says she hopes to travel to Scotland, and Don says he would like to go to Russia to explore Moscow and points east into Siberia. Checking out international B&Bs, no doubt. •