Table Talk

Burlington’s slice of Europe

by Will Lindner

leunigsBob Conlon started as a part-time bartender at Leunig’s Bistro in 1982. Last year, he and his chef-partner, Donnell Collins, contracted the final installment on the purchase of the business.

All work and no play, the saying goes, makes Jack a dull boy. Too bad for Jack that he’s not more like Bob Conlon, co-owner and general manager of Leunig’s Bistro on Church Street in Burlington.

“I don’t really have hobbies or do anything else,” says Conlon, not rueful, but smiling. “I work a lot. Nothing is more important to me than being at this restaurant, except for my family.”

Yet 32 years at Leunig’s, where he started in 1982 as a substitute bartender, and nearly 50 years overall in the restaurant business, has not made Bob a dull boy. One might argue that it’s had the opposite effect. Conlon’s charisma and social aptitude have proved to be one the restaurant’s greatest assets.

Attorney Mike Burak discovered this a number of years ago, when he stopped in one morning for a cup of coffee to go — but ended up staying, and coming back nearly every morning until Conlon had to shut down the breakfast operation because arising at 4 a.m. and staying until the bar closed at night (he was just a bartender in those days, without an ownership stake) was eventually too much, even for him.

But it was fun while it lasted.

“I wandered in for coffee and I enjoyed his conversation so much that I became one of the charter members of the breakfast club,” Burak recalls.

Jason LeDuc, who, as the fine wine manager at Farrell Distributing Corp. in South Burlington counts Leunig’s as one of his steadiest accounts, recalls those breakfast days, too. The most popular seats, he says, were not at the tables, but at the bar, because no matter whether people were having mimosas with their breakfasts or not, that was Conlon’s domain.

“It was kind of a backwards thing,” LeDuc explains. “People waited at the tables to get a seat at the bar so they could talk with him.” Burak adds, “Most of all, people came in because of Bob’s personality, his sense of humor, his spontaneity and openness, and good fellowship. And he really is a good fellow — remarkably generous and charitable. Bob inculcates with the staff, too, that they’re working in hospitality; they make you feel welcome when you walk in.”

While the breakfast days are over, fellowship is not, says LeDuc, whose 9-year-old daughter loves to go there with her dad for lunch.

“They care about family,” he says. “The food is excellent and very consistent, and Bob treats you the way he wants to be treated.”

Conlon, however, is self-effacing.

“I’m just an old busboy,” he says. And it’s true — not just because his first job was busing tables in the establishment in Waterbury, Conn., where his father worked, but because his career path has been anything but linear. In the mid-1970s he ditched a job as a manager at Carbur’s — a legendary sandwich-oriented restaurant in Burlington that closed in 2002 — to sell insurance, but scurried back (“I couldn’t handle rejection,” he explains) to work as a busboy.

Several years later his resume took another nosedive, as he went from part-owner of the Rib-It Room on College Street to taking substitute shifts at the bar at Leunig’s, the restaurant he and his now chef-partner, Donnell Collins, would purchase in installments from Robert Fuller, contracting the balance in May 2013.

“I’ve never been a career guy,” says Conlon, “and I never think of myself as a business person. I’m lucky, and I’m smart enough to surround myself with people like Donnell, who know what they’re doing.”

Conlon — the Burlington Business Association’s 2013 Business Person of the Year — is savvier than he lets on. Carbur’s, he says, taught him “to keep an eye on the numbers and don’t let them get out of line. For every dollar you ring up on food you’ve got 30 percent in costs; for beer and wine it’s 40 percent, although the more expensive the product the less the markup.”

While those numbers don’t include the myriad overhead costs of heat and utilities, insurance and taxes, obligations to a staff of some 75 men and women, and equipment commensurate with the production of fine French cuisine, prices at least are a manipulable element in the economic equation that keeps the doors open.

Leunig’s Bistro, founded in 1980 by Dennis Morrisseau and Laura Thompson, was named after Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig. Burak, of the defunct breakfast club, remembers when collections of the cartoonist’s works were available at the bar. In fact, he remembers, as a child, patronizing an A&W Root Beer stand at the same location. That was long before Church Street was converted to a pedestrian mall — a transformation that now enables Leunig’s to host, in warm weather, its popular sidewalk patio that seats 45 patrons. The first floor of the restaurant seats 79, and an upstairs, added two years ago, seats 36.

“Business goes way down in the winter,” Conlon says. “In the summer the lake is filled with tourists and boats. We’re very visible on this corner, and people find us.”

Still, the presence in Burlington of the University of Vermont Medical Center and other major businesses and institutions tempers the seasonality of the restaurant trade — that, and Conlon’s axiom, expressed not with self-importance but in simple understatement: “Be nice to people and make sure they’re happy.”

Conlon’s father, Ed “Flattop” Conlon (nicknamed after a Dick Tracy cartoon villain) was a bill collector for Connecticut Light & Power who moonlighted as a waiter. He landed his 15-year-old son a gig as a busboy, and there the youngster encountered a world peopled by savvy, septuagenarian waiters and colorful customers including bookies and ex-cons.

“I came to understand that there’s a spirit in restaurant: people working hard, telling jokes.” That levity and camaraderie is something he values about restaurant life to this day.

The Conlons being Catholic, his mother determined to send the boy to St. Michael’s College because the mayor of their home city of Waterbury, Conn., had sent his sons there, “so it’s good enough for you,” she told him. Conlon studied drama, and met his future wife, Betsy Villemaire, when St. Mike’s (a boys’ school at the time) imported female students from Trinity College to round out the cast in a play. They were married after Conlon graduated in 1978, but their time was split between Vermont and West Springfield, Mass., where Betsy secured a teaching job. They returned to Vermont when she was hired to teach in Essex, where she is now concluding a 45-year career, 42 of them in Essex.

Conlon, meanwhile, was casting about: writing radio ads, selling insurance, selling mops, but also waiting tables, where he felt like himself. His experiences at Carbur’s in the 1970s were formative, as was his 10-percent ownership stake in the Rib-It Room, which sold prime rib and frogs’ legs but went under after two-and-a-half years.

Down on his luck, he dropped into Leunig’s. Morrisseau knew he could mix drinks. “I had trained his wife to be a waitress,” says Conlon. He was brought on as a substitute bartender, and parlayed that position, over the years and through several ownership changes, to full-time bartender, then manager, and now co-owner.

Collins, his partner, earned her degree in culinary arts from Boston’s Newberry College in 1996. She was hired at Leunig’s in the early 2000s, and when Conlon began formulating plans to purchase the restaurant, she was part of his vision. “I said, ‘I want this person as a partner. This is a valuable person.’”

The community, apparently, agrees. Collins, who is 37 and the parent of two small children, has been much in demand as a celebrity chef in the March of Dimes fundraising auction. If Leunig’s is known for anything as much as its food and welcoming atmosphere, it’s the restaurant’s immersion in charitable causes. Conlon and Collins donate 10 percent of their sales, one day each month, to a local charity — COTS (the Committee on Temporary Shelter), Spectrum Youth, RU12, and the Turning Point Center are high on their list.

They carve out a portion of their September and October wine sales and sponsor a fashion show through which, Conlon says, they have raised more than $200,000 for the Vermont Cancer Network and the cancer treatment center at The University of Vermont Medical Center (formerly Fletcher Allen Health Care) to combat breast cancer. (Betsy is a breast cancer survivor, while Conlon has weathered prostate cancer.) These are just some of the health and social-service fundraisers going on at Leunig’s regularly.

The other focus of the Conlons’ life is their daughter, Nora Pemberton, a chip off the old block who sings and acts in local productions and has worked at Leunig’s for 14 years. She and her husband, Evan, are parents to Paige, who turns 2 in January, when they are expecting their second child, “a little boy they’re naming Conlon,” he says proudly.

Grandparenthood notwithstanding, Conlon is not contemplating retirement. He’s new to ownership, and enjoying it. Furthermore, he describes his restaurant as something akin to a utility in Burlington, contributing a service, and a space, that people need.

“We’re a hospitable, social gathering place, where people feel welcome,” he says. “We don’t have TV or Wi-Fi. We try to keep our prices low, and we provide a great place for people to get together. There’s a feeling here that you don’t get everywhere.” •