Charm, history, and fine dining make a superb combination
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Owners and innkeepers Michele and Dan Brown stand in one of the garden areas at the Swift House Inn and Jessica’s Restaurant in Middlebury, the property they bought in 2004.
“There are two types of innkeepers of smaller inns: those that are like Dan and Michele Brown, who understand that it’s necessary to work hard and participate 100 percent in their business, and those that think they can move to Vermont and live out their dream. Unfortunately, since the most recent recession, those folks have learned you can’t be successful at that.” The speaker, Sarah Cowan, ought to know. She’s senior vice president and loan department manager at the National Bank of Middlebury.
“The Dan and Michele Browns — they get that it’s not just about owning this quintessential inn in Vermont; it’s very hard work” Cowan continues. “They understand the business — are very knowledgeable and connected in the industry and to the community.”
The Browns are the innkeepers and owners of the Swift House Inn and Jessica’s Restaurant, a three-building, 20–guest room bed and breakfast in Middlebury with all the charm, elegance, and history one could want. It sits on four acres and overlooks a long, sloping, treed lawn facing U.S. 7 just north of the main business district, and many of its rooms are named for Addison County luminaries.
The roots of the Swift House are deeply entwined with the history of Middlebury and Vermont. It was built in 1814 by Samuel Swift, a Middlebury judge and state legislator who wrote histories of Addison County and the town of Middlebury. After his death, the house was bought by Gov. John W. Stewart, who, according to the inn’s history page, was instrumental in turning the Vermont delegation to the 1860 Republican National Convention from William H. Seward to Abraham Lincoln.
When Gov. Stewart died in 1915, the house passed on to his daughter Jessica, who eventually married Charles M. Swift, the grandson of the home’s original owner. Following her death in 1982, her home and its contents were auctioned off and the property was turned into an inn.
The Browns bought it in 2004. Contrary to Cowan’s second innkeeper type, the Browns were not neophytes, but brought a long history of applicable experience.
An Ithaca, N.Y., native, Dan graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served 27 years in the Navy, ending his career in Washington, D.C. In 1991, he met Michele, an acoustical engineer with a specialty in submarine detection.
A native of eastern Pennsylvania, Michele had done her undergraduate work in math at Penn State and earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering while working with the government.
In 1996, the year before they married (and the year Dan’s older son from his prior marriage graduated from the Naval Academy and his younger son graduated from high school), the couple bought the Georgian House, a bed and breakfast in Annapolis, Md., which they ran on weekends for two years. After Dan retired from the Navy in ’98, they opened seven days a week with Dan running things weekdays, while Michele commuted to work and ran the inn on weekends.
When they sold the Georgian House in 2001 and bought the 15-room Pilgrim’s Inn, a seasonal bed and breakfast on Deer Isle in Maine, Michele left her job and they moved north.
As sometimes happens in the industry, in 2004 the Browns had an unexpected buyer for the inn and found themselves on a frantic search throughout New England for a new place they could call home.
“We had a wonderful real estate agent, Wendy Beach of the Hearthside Group here in Vermont, who went to the people who owned the Swift House and asked if they would like to sell, and they did,” says Dan. “It was very short and very quick — six to eight weeks — and we were here.”
In 2009 the couple sold a second Maine property they had owned since 2003 in order to put all their energy into what would be their retirement property. “I don’t think we’re leaving Middlebury,” says Michele.
Asked what changes they have made to the Swift House, Dan exclaims, “Everything! I can’t even come close to listing them all. We’ve invested every nickel back into the inn and did some creative financing to do even more.”
“Everything” includes refinishing every hardwood floor and replacing furniture and almost every carpet, he says. “We’ve replaced mattresses twice, redesigned the exterior gardens with new lighting and sign, changed out all the boiler and heating systems, completely gutted bedrooms and bathrooms, replaced six bathrooms — and then there’s the constant upkeep and maintenance.”
The inn consists of three buildings: the main building, the Carriage House, and the Gate House, which sits across the street. In addition, there are two barns and a staff building with two apartments. Three of the 18 or so employees live on-site, and the Browns also live on the property.
The restaurant — called Jessica’s in tribute to Mrs. Swift — is housed in the main building and open to the public for dinner, as is the cozy bar just off the parlor. Three dining rooms — the main one, the porch, and the library — make up the restaurant’s indoors area, and a 16-by-20-foot canopied deck, built in 2010, overlooks the lawn.
“Breakfast is a huge production,” says Dan, who outlines a menu that includes a sumptuous cold buffet plus, from the kitchen, “an egg special dish to order, various pancakes and French toast, always a breakfast meat, and always a hot cereal.
“We have very busy guests, a lot of them having business with the college, a lot of bikers and travelers coming through, so we need to provide a breakfast of long enough time and sufficient choices.”
The deck was added the same year Rob Fenn was hired as chef. “We rebranded the restaurant so it was no longer the Swift House Inn Restaurant but Jessica’s,” says Michele. “We expanded the menu extensively from fine dining to add a whole lot more comfortable and reasonably priced food. And it more than doubled its business by doing that. Now it’s not just a special event place but an everyday place,” she adds, noting that, while the inn still hosts a lot of small events such as rehearsal dinners, small receptions, and large birthday parties, nowadays more locals than guests of the inn eat in the restaurant.
Michele is the active innkeeper and manages most of the staff. She manages the books, does the payroll, and oversees the work of operations manager Colleen Boutin who, in addition to her back-office duties handling social media, website updates, purchasing, and onsite catering, bakes all the cookies plus cakes for special occasions on request.
Dan is responsible for maintenance and most of the marketing. Says Michele, “Dan is responsible outside the walls, and I take care of everything that happens inside the walls. He’s a great thinker, forecaster, a big-picture guy; I’m a good detail person.”
“So I get to think, and she covers my butt,” Dan quips, adding that “outside the walls” includes business decisions and negotiations and keeping close contact with the community at large.
Indeed, the Browns have carved a solid place in the Middlebury community. Michele serves on the board of the Opera Company of Middlebury and sings in its chorus as well as the Browns’ church choir. Dan is a member of the board of the Town Hall Theater, and has served on boards for the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and the Middlebury Partnership among others.
“The thing about both Dan and Michele is they are extremely selfless people,” says Leslie Mulcahy, who, with her husband, Brian, is the owner and innkeeper of the Rabbit Hill Inn in Lower Waterford. They are close friends who have worked together as founding members of the Vermont Bed and Breakfast Association and, on the national level, on some organizations.
“They like to put up people who have gone through hard times,” says Mulcahy, recalling a situation where the Browns did just that, at their own expense, for someone whose house burned down.
Dan is a lover of adventure. “I haven’t told you I have a spectacular wife, have I?!” he exclaims. “Seven years ago she let me go for seven weeks and ride my bike across country. Two years ago, I got to ride my bike from Jacksonville, Fla., to Middlebury. Last year in the spring I canoed the entire length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, from Old Forge, N.Y., across Lake Champlain, into Canada, back to Vermont, up lakes and streams and rivers to Fort Kent, Maine.” At press time, Dan had left for Nome, Alaska, on a three-week kayaking adventure. Michele planned to join him for a week later on.
“Our industry has changed a lot,” says Dan, referring to the advent of the Internet, Wi-Fi, social media, and instant online reviews. “We’ve had to embrace social media and have to be on our toes to get the best reviews we can.” At press time, the inn and restaurant were scored Number 1 on TripAdvisor.
“We need a lot of employees, and staffing is always a challenge. Then this last legislative year, with all the Legislature was trying to do — increase the rooms and meals tax, discussions on minimum wages, then health care, and property taxes are a huge challenge.”
They took a hit in the economic downturn in 2008, he says, “but about a year ago we started to approach 2008 levels again.”
Ongoing challenges like the growth of Airbnb keep them on their toes, he says. “As an industry, we have to join them, do our business better, and convince our customers who and why we are.” •