Down Home Kitchen

Mary Alice Proffitt is seen in front of her Montpelier restaurant Down Home Kitchen on Monday. After four years of business, the eatery will be closing on New Year’s Eve, with one last meal on New Year’s Day at noon, which will be served to the homeless.

MONTPELIER – After five years as one of the Capital City’s premier breakfast and lunch spots, Down Home Kitchen will close at the end of the year.

Mary Alice Proffitt opened the Southern-style comfort food favorite in September 2015 in the former Rivendell Books (and former former Bear Pond Books) store at the historic corner of Main and Langdon streets, one of the oldest commercial timber-framed buildings in Vermont.

The restaurant was a nod to her mother, Sally, and grandmother, Miriam, and their influence on her with their cooking when Proffitt was growing up in Atlanta.

Proffitt revealed that beginning the business was a challenge at the time because both her mother and grandmother were battling cancer and her grandfather was dying. Her mother, 71, is still alive but frail, she added.

Proffitt said it also was a difficult time for her going through a divorce and raising three children — Tennessee, Sylvia and Ursula, now aged 13, 10 and 8, respectively. She said living in Vermont helped, adding: “It’s a wonderful place to live. I was experiencing an incredible amount of loss in my life and this community really picked me up.”

Proffitt said the coming closure was a moment of mixed blessings, with feelings of accomplishment at branding and building a successful business with a supporting staff.

But Proffitt said she also wanted to seek new, creative opportunities.

“I’m not a restaurant manager; I’ve never been a restaurant manager,” Proffitt said. “I’m a creative person and I love creating things.”

“I love placemaking. I love creating spaces that people can enjoy. I’ve very interested in the relationship between people and place and the physical build-out of places,” she added.

Proffitt said she spent two years trying to find a business partner or business manager that could take on the responsibility of the day-to-day running of the business. After a discussion with her accountant last week, Proffitt said she realized she could not continue without having to run the business herself.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m going to close this place down while things are good, and if somebody wants to come along and say, ‘We want to keep it going,’ or someone wants to use the space for something else. I think that was the right choice while we don’t have any debt,” she said.

Proffitt said she still holds a lease on the space for three years, with an option to renew for five more years and hopes to attract a similar business to the site.

The restaurant quickly became a hit with locals and visitors alike as a destination with big picture windows that let the sunshine in, a long, communal center table and an amiable ambiance. The big draw was the breakfast basics, such as pancakes, French toast and omelets, and Southern favorites, such as buttermilk biscuits, cheese grits, fried Mississippi catfish, chicken and waffles, and shrimp and grits.

Proffitt said the business was a labor of love in honor of her matriarchal line, an appreciation of her supportive staff, and the loyalty customers who would travel from as far away as Burlington and Montreal to dine there.

On Monday, the restaurant was packed with customers, jazz music playing, and there was a festive mood during the holiday season, reflected in two signs that read, “Happy and Bright” and “Peace on Earth and Welcome Y’All.”

Mother and daughter Heidi and “Sam” Ringer, were both happy to be at the front of the line for a table and the chance to enjoy one of their final meals in the restaurant.

“I like the atmosphere and the design of it and the way you feel when you come in, and the food is good, too,” said Heidi Ringer. “The way the light comes in the windows; I love that. When it rains, when you’re in here, it still feels cozy. I’m sad and surprised (it’s closing). We have some great places but not like this.”

Sam Ringer added, “It’s definitely a great environment and we don’t really have anything else like this here. It’s a really beautiful space and we really don’t have food like this here – this comfort, cozy, great food that’s always a little different. It’s going to be sad not to be able to come here.”

Proffitt said she had been working with the state Department of Labor and other restaurant owners to help staff find other jobs. Staff were notified earlier this month about the closure, and met last week to discuss it.

Staff also had mixed feeling about the restaurant closing.

They included Dominican Chucho Paulino, who started with the restaurant as an electrician during the refit of the space, went on to be the dishwasher and is the head chef. Proffitt said Paulino would stay on through January to help close the restaurant, and may also continue to help producing a line of Southern biscuits to sell to local outlets.

“She is a very strong woman, working really hard, and I feel we have a lot in common working hard but running a business is really hard,” he said.

Sous chef Joe Pekol, who has worked part-time in the restaurant for two years and full-time since May, said he had several prospects for work elsewhere, adding: “Mary Alice has been really nice; she’s been a great boss to me. This has been one of my favorite crews to work with, back here and front-of-house, too.”

Open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, the restaurant will close on New Year’s Eve.

In a fitting tribute to her support of community, Proffitt plans to open again on New Year’s Day to feed the homeless because normal church meal services will not be open, and staff and volunteers will pitch in to help.

To contact Proffitt, call 225-6665 or email maryalice@downhomekitchenvt.com

stephen.mills @timesargus.com

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