The story of Colchester's Guilty Plate Diner sheds light on Vermont's restaurant worker shortage
"What happened to all the restaurant workers?" That's the question Vermont Public’s Josh Crane recently answered for Brave Little State.
Vermont’s restaurant workforce has shrunk by more than 12% — or 2,600 people — since just before COVID, according to the Vermont Department of Labor. Meanwhile, the number of total restaurants operating around the state has remained relatively flat. These conditions have led to many restaurants finding themselves short-staffed.
So Khrista Trerotola of Waitsfield asked Brave Little State this: “What happened to all the restaurant workers? Where have they gone? And what are they doing now?"
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s show that answers questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, the audience. To answer Trerotola's question, reporter Josh Crane focused on the story of the Guilty Plate Diner in Colchester.
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The Guilty Plate Diner opened its doors in 2013 at the site of a former Video World.
"It was good food, fast!" says Michael Alvanos, a former co-owner. "You're not going in for, you know, white table service."
You know the drill: eggs and pancakes in the morning, soups and sandwiches at lunch, red booths, counter seating, black and white checkered floor, soda fountain.
Alvanos said he wanted The Guilty Plate to serve as a contrast to the trendy farm-to-table restaurants that had been popping up all over the area. Hence the name “Guilty Plate,” and also the welcoming family vibe.
"You know, you come in. 'Hi, how you doing? Coffee?' 'Yes,' you know, and they would know your order," he says.
The emphasis on family wasn’t just for customers. Alvanos’ fellow co-owner was his older brother, Evan. Their parents, George and Christine, were both involved too. And the other staff who worked there often felt like extended members of the Alvanos family.
“It was definitely that family feeling,” says Angie Pierce, a former server at the diner. “You know, it's just that, like, this is my family.”
The story of The Guilty Plate is an example of the absolute transformation that a lot of places — and people — went through because of COVID. It was a transformation that took place in spite of how much former staffers genuinely loved working together. Prior to COVID, for instance, few of them had seriously considered leaving, even though the work was hard.
"At the end of a Sunday breakfast rush, definitely, it was like, 'I can't do this anymore,' says Taylor Courville, a former cook at The Guilty Plate. "But, you know, you'd go to work the next day. And, you know, you'd be around the people that you loved, and you just kind of kept pushing along."
Then, all of a sudden, they just couldn’t.
The diner shut down for the first time in March 2020, after Gov. Scott's moratorium on eating inside.
“[I] couldn’t believe it. It was like a bad dream,” Courville says.
What started as a bad dream quickly turned into a nightmare.
Evan Alvanos, Michael’s older brother and fellow co-owner of the diner, died on April 10, 2020. He was one of the early Vermonters to die from COVID.
“Evan simply had an unfailing work ethic, and would not give up,” his obituary said. It also included Evan’s own description of the The Guilty Plate Diner staff: “a true dysfunctional family who I respect and love.”
Michael Alvanos told me that, due to COVID restrictions, their family was not able to hold a formal funeral. He also said his brother’s death served as motivation for the diner staff to reopen.
“After [Evan] passed away, I did ask these guys. I said, ‘Hey, listen, let's let's try to do this again,’” Alvanos said.
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"Motivation was there to reopen it for [Evan]," Taylor Courville says. "Yeah. To bring us all back together.”
The diner reopened at reduced capacity in June 2020. But normalcy was hard to come by.
“[He] was Mike's actual big brother, and he was like a brother to us,” Courville says. “And it was hard to be there. It was very difficult to be there. And, you know, like it got to a point where you just didn't see yourself wanting to be there."
“Beyond just losing a boss, it was losing the heart of the diner,” Angie Pierce says. “I mean, Evan brought so much to the diner besides just food.”
“My brother is a direct loss from COVID, I think that that was hard for us to deal with, in a lot of ways," Michael Alvanos says. "I don't want to get crazy on the political side, but there were people at the time that didn't know what had happened to our family. And they didn't want to deal with the COVID restrictions. There were times where I was out front and I literally had people say, ‘You believe that this is real?’ And what am I supposed to say when my brother had just passed away from the results of COVID? You know, I couldn't even speak.”
The Guilty Plate closed for the second time in February of 2021. In June of 2022, the Alvanos family sold it. And in September of 2022, it reopened under new ownership.
The current owner, Darrell Langworthy, says he faced staffing challenges at first, but he’s currently doing OK.
“As far as the Alvanos-run Guilty Plate Diner, there's never ever going to be one like it, that's for sure. It is absolutely for sure,” Angie Pierce says.
Pierce moved to the West Coast in 2021. She still picks up a few bartending shifts every once in a while, but she’s mostly focused on a totally new line of work: nature restoration.
Michael Alvanos, former co-owner of The Guilty Plate, is now a full-time architect. He runs his own firm in Shelburne. He adds that his parents, George and Christine Alvanos, are now retired.
Taylor Courville, who spent nearly half his life working in restaurants with the Alvanos family, now works in sales for a company called Cintas.
Another former Guilty Plate staffer works for a communications company splicing fiber optic cables for internet. Another one got his physics degree from UVM and is now a process engineer for Global Foundries. The list goes on.
Of course, the pandemic didn’t change everything. Much of the former diner staff is still in close contact.
“I don't even stay in contact with, you know, people from my hometown," Angie Pierce pierce. "So, it's like, to find this group that just meshed so incredibly well together, regardless, like is insane.”
For a longer version of this story, check out the full episode of Brave Little State here, or find it wherever you listen to podcasts.