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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Rutland Restaurant Teams Up With Vermont Artists To Entice Diners

Nina Keck
Roots restaurant owner Donald Billings stands in a new 3,000 square foot space next to his current dining room that he's planning to open September 22nd. This space will seat up to 50 people and will feature artists at work.

The pandemic and resulting social distancing requirements have turned the restaurant industry in Vermont and elsewhere upside-down. Across the state, businesses have been exploring new ways of enticing people to dine out.

Back in May, the Vermont Hospitality coalition said that aroundone-third of Vermont’s restaurants were not sure they’d be able to make it.

In Rutland, the owners of Kelvans announced that after a decade of building up their restaurant, they will permanently close September 25.

Not far away, Roots, another popular restaurant in downtown Rutland, was planning to take down a tent it had used to facilitate outdoor dining during the summer.

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Roots owner Donald Billings said the extra outdoor seating, plus ramped up take out service has helped him survive the last few months.

But Billings said he lost 90% of his catering jobs this year. And he said staffing issues made his once profitable lunch business unsustainable. 

"Thirty-four seats won't sustain 15 employees year round." - Donald Billings, owner of Roots

With colder weather coming and indoor seating limited, Billings faces the same challenge many restaurant owners are now grappling with:

“Thirty-four seats won't sustain 15 employees year-round,” said Billings. “And those 15 employees have been with me since the beginning of all of this.”

To preserve and grow his dinner business, Billings realized he needed to find a way to entice people to eat indoors during a pandemic.

So in addition to serving dinner to fewer clientelle in his main dining room, he'll also begin serving meals in 3,000 square-feet of unused space next door.

Roots restaurant sign in Rutland, with white tent
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Like many restaurants in Vermont, Roots in Rutland used a tent this summer to provide additional outdoor seating.

“Everything's gonna be rough,” Billings explained as he walked across the concrete floor. “The whole space is… this is it,” he said gesturing to the large, empty room.

The I-beams and air ducts will not be covered up. This new space will look industrial, spacious and spartan on purpose.

"When we open later this month, it’ll all be clean and there will be tables and new lighting... But that’s it," he said. "It’s going to feel very much like an art gallery."

Which is the whole idea.

Billings plans to hire artists to create the energy and excitement that’s usually generated by a crowded bar and bouquets of chatting diners.

"So, once you walk in, there are going to be six different murals going at once,” Billings said, pointing to different parts of the room.

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“And what that’s going to do is help create some energy," he said. "Because you’ll be able to watch them inside the space, and it’ll constantly be changing and constantly be evolving."

"We're trying to give people something different to check out... something else to look forward to." - Donald Billings, owner of Roots

Billings plans to set up tables in the middle of the room, which he said is large enough to safely accommodate up to 50 people.

Meanwhile two artists at a time will be at work on different sections of the walls in three-hour shifts, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

“They’ll paint or sculpt… whatever they want to do really,” Billings added, excitedly. "And they can keep what they create, if they use a canvas or something... or after a certain amount of time, we'll white-wash over it for the next artist."

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Operating a restaurant during a pandemic has been stressful and exhausting he admits. “But everyone is feeling exhausted and stressed. There’s a lot of things that people can’t do right now. You can’t go to movies; you can’t go to the Paramount. So we’re trying to give people something different to check out, something else to look forward to,” Billings said.

John Brodowski is Director of Education and Outreach for 77Art, a Rutland based organization that has been working with Billings to find Vermont artists. 

"Part of my motivation was that it sounded like something I would like to do myself,” Brodowski said.

Brodowski, who also teaches art at Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon, said for artists used to painting on an easel or in a small home studio, having a 10-by-15-foot wall to work on is exciting.

Also crucial? Getting paid.

Roots is offering artists $20 an hour, providing the paint and helping artists line up free overnight accommodations if needed.

"One of the great things about the project is - and this is something that Donald brought to it - his emphasis on the process,” he said.

A man stands in front of school art supplies.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
John Brodowski, Director of Education and Outread of 77Art, a Rutland arts organization that teamed up with Donald Billings to find Vermont artists. Brodowski, who also teaches art at Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon, will be one of several artists working in front of diners at Roots.

The finished product is not so important, Brodowski said, and that takes the pressure off. And he thinks it will give diners a unique behind-the-curtain glimpse of what it takes to make art.

"The work can be really dramatic because at the beginning, they're standing there in front of a giant blank wall, which can be really intimidating," he said. "And as they work, they’re going to run into unexpected challenges. They're going to make mistakes.”

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And in the restaurant, he says the artists and diners will experience that creative process together.

So far, Brodowski said artists from Burlington, Brandon, Castleton and Middlebury have signed up for the first four weeks.

Burlington painter Corrine Yonce said the opportunity really intrigued her.

"Usually when an artist is asked to come into a business, there's, like, a really strong sense of vision that kind of limits what the artist can do and... pressure to have a certain thing at the end,” Yonce said.

She said, as an artist, to be invited to experiment and create whatever you want is exciting.

“Everything feels so heavy right now,” Yonce added.

Just like restaurant owners, many artists are feeling financially vulnerable right now. So having a local business owner reach across the state with an idea that can help them both really touched her.

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"I'm not saying that we're all gonna go and be like 'COVID times!' But definitely, there's not often that crossover dialog between the business owners and artists, even though both are businesses," she said.

Roots' new dining space with artists launches September 22, and there are still artist slots available. 

Donald Billings admits it’s an experiment and it may not work, but he says if it keeps his restaurant afloat and his staff employed, he’s all in. 

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Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Nina Keck @NinaPKeck.

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