Restaurants try community supported model

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(Host Intro) There are 55 farms in Vermont that work with a concept known as Community-Supported Agriculture.

Interested consumers pay the farmer up front and in return they get to share in the harvest. They also share in the risk.

Now some enterprising restaurateurs are making the concept work for them. VPR’s Jane Lindholm reports.

(Lindholm) The Bees Knees sits on a bend in the road in downtown Morrisville. It’s a cozy café and coffee bar, with a focus on local food and live music. On a recent Friday night, the wine was flowing and toes were tapping.

(Ellen Waldman) "The Bees Knees is like an answer to a prayer. You can feel the energy when you’re in here. People are just relaxing and they’re connecting with other people. It’s just a community."

(Lindholm) Ellen Waldman is not just a fan of the restaurant, she’s also an investor. Her family is one of many in the community who have slapped down $1,000 to help the restaurant expand. Sharon Deitz owns and manages the Bees Knees.

(Deitz) "It’s pretty special to have a business that’s only been around for four and a half years become such a fixture in the community, and you have to honor that a little bit."

(Lindholm) So when it came time for Deitz to expand the business, she asked her community for help. She wrote a letter to her patrons asking them for loans of $1,000 dollars. In exchange, investors get coupons that they can redeem for meals at the rate of $90 a quarter, over three years.

(Deitz) "I was a little wary because common wisdom is don’t mix friendship with money. And there’s something very appealing about borrowing sums of money from the bank that you have this more anonymous relationship with."

(Lindholm) But the Bees Knees is all about community. And in the month and a half since Deitz began soliciting loans, she’s raised more than 20,000 dollars in capital.

And she isn’t the only one using the Community Supported Restaurant investment model. Claire’s Restaurant, in Hardwick, hasn’t even opened yet, but co-owner Kristina Michelsen says she and her partners have already raised more than $40,000 in community loans. The payback system is similar to that of the Bees Knees.

(Michelsen) "The CSRs we’re selling for a thousand dollars a piece. And what they give you in exchange is $25 off of a meal, once a month, for 10 months out of a year, for four years. So really it’s a significant investment. and faith in us that we will be operating in four years."

Claire’s came up with the concept first, but both restaurants are borrowing from a model that’s had striking success in Vermont: Community Supported Agriculture. Kristina Michelsen:

(Michelsen) "When you buy your CSA, you give your money to the farmer and you’re sharing their risk of a good season. If the farmer has a bad season, rains too much or doesn’t rain, you’ll have less food from the amount of money you gave in."

(Lindholm) Jane Knodell teaches economics at the University of Vermont. She says applying this model to restaurants is a novel idea. But it’s an unsecured type of business deal, and she warns that lenders need to make sure they’re investing in a stable operation.

(Knodell) "It’s a leap of faith because you don’t really know if this restaurant will be around long enough to get my thousand dollars worth of food."

(Lindholm) Kristina Michelsen says Claire’s owners are up-front with investors that there’s no guarantee of a payback if the restaurant fails. At the Bees Knees in Morrisville, Sharon Deitz is confident she’ll succeed.

(Deitz) "I feel like as long as I’m alive there’s no risk involved for people because, you know you see people in the post office and the grocery store and you just can’t not pay people back. That’s just not who I am. And I have this building to sell. So the bottom line is if the business can’t make it, there’s ways to pay back the money."

(Lindholm) It’s in the spirit of community that these restaurants are being created in the first place. People living in small rural towns, with a desire for a good local place to hang out and get to know one another are speaking up. And they’re willing to put their money where their mouths are. Many say they’d spend a thousand dollars at these restaurants anyway, so paying up-front-despite the risk-isn’t that big a deal.

And in Morrisville, local patron Ellen Waldman says loaning the money has an added bonus at the Bees Knees:

(Waldman) "The idea that the community is getting involved at so many different levels, you feel like you’ve helped build it and make it a vital part of the community. You belong to it, it belongs to you."

For VPR news, I’m Jane Lindholm.

Top Photo: The Bee’s Knees exterior

Middle Photo:  Owner Sharon Deitz watches over the hubbub at the Bee’s Knees

Photos: Jane Lindholm 

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