14 December 2103 – New York Times

14 Dec
Wilmington Journal

In Vermont, a Town That Would Not Let Its Diner Go

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times:  John Reagan eying orders in the kitchen during the lunch rush.

WILMINGTON, Vt. — In the months after the Deerfield River overtook their diner, Patty and John Reagan began to imagine letting it go after more than 30 years of greeting people for breakfast, saying good night after the dinner shift and hearing their stories during the many hours in between.

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times: A waitress (Annabel Tobey) greeting a customer at Dot’s Restaurant.

“We once entertained the idea of not opening till 6:30 a.m. but knew our regulars would be here at 5:30 anyway,” Mrs. Reagan said recently, seated at a gleaming oak table in an empty Dot’s Restaurant. “They’d break in. It happened once, when we were late during an ice storm.”

Perched over the river at Wilmington’s only intersection, the building housing the diner has stood since 1832. It has often been the only place on this stretch of Main Street to buy a cup of coffee, and, in fact, is one of the few year-round stops along the quiet Green Mountains roadway that winds from Bennington to Brattleboro.

The Reagans are Dot’s owners, but everyone, it seems, has a claim. Patrons dissect local issues here; travelers count on it. Not long ago, a couple passing through on their second honeymoon were able to order the same Dot’s breakfast they had enjoyed on their first, 50 years earlier. Every Vermont governor since at least 1980 has appeared for a photo op at Dot’s, and Gourmet magazine once called the berry-berry pancakes a “national treasure.”

But Tropical Storm Irene taught the Reagans something new about Dot’s: that the joy of ownership carried the burden of keeping it going — no matter what. Patrons who would not put up with a later opening time certainly were not prepared to let it disappear, even if an insurance adjuster declared the building “finished.”

“We’d have other shop owners say, ‘We knew you were a draw for the town but didn’t realize how much of a draw. Is there any way you can rebuild?’ ” recalled Mr. Reagan, 60, who like many residents first came to the area to ski. “We had to say that basically there was nothing we could do. ‘Look at it, what would you do?’ It was really hard.”

Irene pummeled southern Vermont on Aug. 28, 2011. That Sunday morning, water rose eight feet in 15 minutes. The Reagans grabbed what they could, cut the power to the small gray saltbox and joined onlookers watching their buildings succumb. Dot’s was shoved off its foundation and walls toppled. Water even lifted all nine oak tables and deposited them at the front door. “They were still set, too, with all the silverware,” Mrs. Reagan said.

Dot’s was among 48 businesses along this classic New England streetscape that were flooded out. Two floated away; 32 have since reopened.

First, the Reagans adjusted to losing contact with customers they had seen every day for decades. Then, months of decisions began. With the flood insurance settlement they could afford to pay the mortgage and walk away, but not to rebuild. The diner was not only battered and saturated, but also out of compliance with every modern building code.

“We could have gotten other jobs,” said Mr. Reagan, who has worked in restaurants since age 14. “I wanted to bring a food truck here. We could use the property and earn an income and still be off all winter.”

But it was too costly for the Reagans to demolish Dot’s themselves. Then they were rejected for a buyout that would have paid them to demolish and leave. With no way to rebuild and no building to sell, Dot’s was done.

The couple stood outside the restaurant and sold off their supply of Dot’s T-shirts, hats and sweatshirts. They expected people would not ask too many questions. “People figured we were out of business and stopped by out of the goodness of their hearts,” Mr. Reagan said. “After all, how many T-shirts do you need?”

In fact, the town was just getting organized. Gretchen Havreluk, an economic development consultant, got the Preservation Trust of Vermont interested. The organization brought in engineers, pledged money and established a recovery fund.

Dan and Tamara Kilmurray, who own a second home here, started the Wilmington Fund Vermont to provide financing to bring businesses back. That organization was among many that sponsored fund drives for Dot’s. With generosity came hope.

“We wondered, ‘Why should someone donate to open a business? ” Mr. Reagan said. “We have certainly donated a lot to people in need. We never thought of ourselves as the people who need help.”

Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times:  Patty Reagan with customers.
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times:  A photo the Reagans took while the flooding raged in August 2011 shows how high the waters reached. Dot’s was left a ruin.
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times:  John Reagan, the owner, came out of the kitchen to see customers on the day Dot’s reopened.
The New York Times:  On a road that meanders from Bennington to Brattleboro.

Gov. Peter Shumlin was on hand in March to announce that Dot’s would be back. But the work had just begun. Estimates seemed to rise $100,000 every time an engineer looked at the project.

To qualify for historic grants, the original walls, twisted in the storm, needed to be straightened so they could be contained within new walls. To meet flood-resistant standards, the restaurant had to become what Mrs. Reagan called a “diner on Botox,” with a concrete basement and retaining walls befitting a bunker.

“They once wrote me a thank-you note for the help and it made me sick because I wondered ‘Did I put them in this situation?’ Ms. Havreluk said. “I worked with them to rebuild, but I was earning a paycheck. I’m not the one who has to pay their debt back.”

Rebuilding meant having a crane hoist Dot’s skyward and set it down after a foundation was built. It meant hearing people grumble that Dot’s did not warrant the fanfare and expense.

Even as the next chapter of Dot’s was being written, Mr. Reagan was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. His condition required radiation five days a week 40 miles away. But once again Dot’s prevailed. It was too late to stop. The diner helped the couple, who met there when Patty was a waitress. “It kept us busy and focused on what we had to do,” said Mrs. Reagan, 52.

Dot’s reopened on Thursday, a $1 million diner. Fund-raising generated $200,000, with the project receiving $90,000 in tax credits. There was also free tile work and carpentry, the contractor who simply came by one evening and stripped the damaged siding and the stores that gave discounts without being asked. Donated materials and labor saved $300,000.

Even so, they reopened $400,000 in debt, more than berry-berry pancakes will ever generate.

“It will never be worth the money. But in a way this place is not really ours,” said Mrs. Reagan, whose family has been in the region for generations. “It’s a gift to the community. If we didn’t rebuild it would never be again.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 14, 2013, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: The Town That Would Not Let Its Diner Go.

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