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This Morrisville restaurant owner weathered the pandemic, then she sold her business

El Toro restaurant in Morrisville
Jennifer Isabell
After six years of business, Jennifer Isabell sold her restaurant El Toro in Morrisville on Sept. 1, 2021.

In the early days of the pandemic, restaurants took a major hit when they were forced to shut down. Those who stayed open were limited to takeout and no-contact curbside pickup. To get a sense of how restaurant owners were faring, VPR reached out to Jennifer Isabell, the owner of El Toro, a Mexican restaurant in Morrisville.

And at that time, she said her sales had plummeted by 75%.

Like so many other businesses at the time, Isabel let most of her employees go and shifted to doing only takeout.

A few months later, in October 2020, Isabell said business had rebounded to about 80% of normal. A combination of outdoor seating, some indoor seating and takeout helped make the summer a success. But as the weather got colder, sales started to slide again, and Isabel was looking ahead to a tough winter.

“You know, no one has a crystal ball,” she said. “So, we don't know what's going to happen, but based on past trends of this month, it's not looking very good.”

More from VPR News: Community Hub To Curbside: An Overnight Adjustment For Morrisville's El Toro

Those worries proved to be unfounded. Isabell says she cut back on hours and staff, but the business actually became more profitable. Then after six years in the business, Isabel got an offer on her restaurant, and she sold the company on Sept. 1.

VPR's Henry Epp recently spoke with Jennifer Isabell about selling El Toro and her next steps. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jennifer Isabell: I enjoyed having a restaurant, but it is a challenging business for sure. And I thought that the timing was right to cash out and move on to my next adventure.

Henry Epp: Were you surprised that you got that offer?

Yes, I was.

I'm just curious what that decision process was like. Did it take a while to think through like, “OK, is this the right moment, the right person” all of that?

It did, it took a little while. Not too long, though, because when I started the restaurant, I never planned on it being a lifelong business that I was going to hold on to until I retire. I have a background in finance and accounting. So, I still have that in my pocket, and it's probably more profitable than owning a restaurant. And it just seemed to make sense to sell.

Do you feel like the restaurants are in good hands?

I do, yeah. The new owner has changed it around, made it more of a bar, cut the menu back and just has a different vision for it. But I think he's so far been successful, and I think his business will continue to grow and be a good investment for him.

What's next for you? Do you have a desire to get back into the restaurant business or other business ventures?

I don't have a desire to get back into the restaurant business. Like I said, my background [is] in finance and accounting, and I've been working at the Lamoille Restorative Center as their business manager for the last 11 years. And that's a part time job, 20 hours a week. So, I'm just doing that for now, and having a lot more free time.

And, you know, my whole life, I've always worked two or three jobs at a time and a lot of hours a week. So, I'm trying to reinvent myself and be the new person that only works part-time and has free time and free weekends.

Now that you're sort of on the other side of that arc of starting a restaurant, owning it, and then selling it, are there some lessons you learned from that process that you think other people that are getting into this field should think about?

One thing: like I've always loved cooking, and owning a restaurant is way different than, you know, playing around in your kitchen, trying new recipes.

More from VPR News: After A Summer Reprieve, One Morrisville Restaurant Looks Ahead To A Challenging Winter

If you have something that's a hobby that you love to do, I would recommend not turning it into a business because then you lose your ability to enjoy that hobby a little bit.

"I really just want to throw a shout out to all the restaurants out there that have made it through COVID, and when I go out to eat, I always tip really well."
Jennifer Isabell, former owner of El Toro

And then also just, you know, pleasing the customer was a really big thing, that I adapted to a lot of customers’ requests and suggestions. And I think that's helped my business grow and be profitable.

Are there things with the benefit of hindsight that you would do differently if you were to do this process over again?

Yeah, the hindsight, and I think the lesson that I learned through COVID, is: you don't have to be available 24-7. I was doing just the same amount of business with less hours and less staff. And if I had known that in the beginning, I probably wouldn't have kept my hours open as many as I did.

Because, you know, it's a lot of extra work, a lot of extra overhead. And if you're going to make the same amount of profit without being open all the time and, you know, you might as well.

Well, Jennifer, anything else that you'd want to add?

I really just want to throw a shout out to all the restaurants out there that have made it through COVID, and when I go out to eat, I always tip really well. And, you know, I try to support local businesses and just encourage everyone to do that as well.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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