Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Ingrid Mahler, owner of Designs by Ingrid in St. Johnsbury, creates an elaborate chalk menu board at the Morse Block Deli in Barre on Thursday. The new deli and grocery across from the courthouse on North Main Street is scheduled to open in a week.
BARRE — He still has a 116-year-old checkout counter to install, food to order, shelves to stock, coolers to fill and one more employee to hire, but Dustin Smith says Barre’s newest business — the Morse Block Deli — is coming very soon.
Smith, a classically trained chef with a healthy appreciation for history and a desire to open a business with more than an email address, is a week away from achieving his goal.
“We’re almost there,” he said Thursday even as St. Johnsbury chalk artist Ingrid Mahler was preparing to transform a blank slate wall into a colorful oversized menu for Smith’s Granite City-influenced New York-style deli on North Main Street.
Smith, 27, got his start in school nutrition, served as sous-chef at Norwich University in Northfield, and most recently was the chef at the Center for Whole Communities at the Knoll Farm in Fayston. Along the way he opened his own catering company and has the business cards to prove it. However, the man who was raised in Derby and lives in Montpelier said he is pretty pumped about having an actual door he can throw open.
“It’s exciting,” he said, gazing around site.
Smith’s permits are all in place, and he has hired one employee with a culinary background and has all but offered a job to another. His menu is set — both on the wall and on his laptop — and he is almost ready to start ordering food for what sounds like it will be a multifaceted business.
“It’s going to be a deli first and foremost,” Smith said, noting there will be a “small market” component and some restaurant seating — most of it courtesy of an old-growth oak tree that he has turned into a communal table and benches that will be in the front of the store.
Smith plans to sell steaks, some grocery items including canned goods, and things you haven’t been able to buy in downtown Barre since Grand Union went out of business in 2001.
“Like an apple, like a head of broccoli,” he said. “It’s so hard to find locally grown, or even regular old produce downtown since Grand Union went out of business.”
According to Smith, two of his friends, Jon Wagner and his fiancée, Karin Bellemare, recently purchased Bear Roots Farm in South Barre and he’ll be getting most of his produce from their certified organic operation.
Smith is all about fresh and local, and his business will be mostly about sandwiches. Think pastrami on rye, but don’t stop there, because he sure didn’t.
Smith, who brushed up on the history of Barre in general and the Morse Block in particular, said his deli will sell several signature sandwiches, many inspired by local history and all made with local produce, breads from Manghis’ Bread in Montpelier, and Boar’s Head meats.
“It’s going to be completely good-in, good-out,” he said.
Take the “Anarchist’s Special.” The sandwich is a nod to the Old Labor Hall and the fact that Barre was once a hotbed of radical political activity.
“It’s hot,” Smith said, ticking down a list of ingredients that include Cajun roast beef, pepper Jack cheese, jalapeńo peppers, onions and siracha mayo.
Looking for something a little more tame? You might try “The Granite City” — that’s black pepper turkey and provolone cheese with cranberry mayo, lettuce and tomato.
Then there’s “Azro’s Club” — roasted turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato with mayo stacked three slices of bread high.
If you’re wondering about the name, it’s a tip of the cap to Azro D. Morse, the man who built the Morse Block in 1898.
“There was a club in the basement,” Smith said, noting the four-lane bowling alley is still intact.
Make that mostly intact. Smith pried up and refinished a hunk of maple from the end of one of the four bowling lanes that he’ll be using as his checkout counter as soon as he lugs it upstairs and sets it in place.
“The cash register will be right next to where they used to set the candlepins 115 years ago,” he said.
Smith plans to cater primarily to the breakfast and lunch crowd. He’ll be open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Smith said he was inspired by the addition of Barre City Place downtown to take a closer look at opening a business in the city.
“I saw an opportunity here,” he said, suggesting that in addition to City Place, downtown Barre has a concentration of banks and the recently expanded Central Vermont Community Action Council campus.
“When I really looked at it, it all kind of made sense,” he said. “The location is prime, and there are plenty of people working nearby who need lunch.”
Smith plans to provide it starting a week from today.
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