The Chelsea Royal serves Vermont food worthy of a diner
Written onAugust 25 , 2015
The Chelsea Royal Diner’s 1939 dining car has been in its present location on Route 9 just outside Brattleboro since 1987, but today it’s home to a successful demonstration of the modern resurgence in serving locally grown food. Todd Darrah, enjoying his 25th year owning and operating the diner, has found a way to combine low diner prices with the high principles of the local food movement.
With his wife, Janet Picard, who runs their ice cream stand and shares his passion for food, Todd and his staff serve an average of 300 meals a day, with as much as 40 percent of the food local. In season, a lot of the produce comes from gardens that surround the diner, and a small share of the eggs and meat come from animals raised out back.
While many of Vermont’s finest (and highest-priced) restaurants are in the Vermont Fresh Network, a nonprofit that fosters partnerships between farmers and chefs, Todd’s is the only diner in the network. The Chelsea Royal has cultivated strong relationships with local suppliers of meat and produce, buying directly from farmers when possible. An example even popped up as we sat outside by the ice cream stand for this interview and Todd happily waved to a man on a tractor going past on Route 9. “That’s our corn guy!” he announced.
Local food seems especially well suited to diner fare. In 2007, Tod Murphy opened the Farmer’s Diner in Barre, aiming to cultivate local sources. His diner had a mission statement and high expectations: to compete on price against the restaurants that served cheap food from Midwestern agribusinesses, and to bolster the Vermont food economy. But Murphy’s goal of assembling a menu from nearly entirely local ingredients proved challenging at the prices he charged in Barre. He tried pursuing a more upscale clientele and opened diners in Quechee and Woodstock, but those, too, failed.
For Todd Darrah, the Farmer’s Diner is not a cautionary tale. Todd doesn’t pretend to know the details of what went wrong for Murphy; he only knows that making a restaurant profitable requires understanding costs, negotiating wisely with suppliers, and satisfying customers. And, of course, pricing everything right, which means that if Todd buys locally he still has to buy competitively, or grow it himself.
From basil for pesto to cucumbers for homemade pickles to a full slate of vegetables for salads and side dishes, the diner’s own garden supplies seasonal ingredients that influence the menu. But Todd doesn’t tie the Chelsea Royal’s offerings rigidly to his growing season or to the three acres out back. He freezes bounty crops and makes constant use of other local suppliers for meat and produce. When items are out of season but must stay on the menu, he relies on regional and national food distributors, including the giant Sysco.
The parking lot borders one of two large vegetable gardens, making this farm-to-plate journey a genuine stone’s throw. Todd started the gardens 12 years ago, and Janet’s daughter, Jacqueline Perry, recently steered a major expansion. Jacqueline worked for five years at nearby Lilac Ridge Farm, an organic dairy with a 10-acre market garden. “We’re not organic,” Todd notes, “but we use organic principles, like composting our animal manure.”
“It’s neat that the first thing people see is the garden,” he continues. “And if anyone’s working there, sometimes customers will chat. Maybe it’s not good for getting work done, but it’s part of the information process we’re involved in here.” The one acre of gardens only supplies part of the produce the diner requires, but they give customers the ultimate backstage view.
Between the two garden plots is a pen now occupied by two hogs, and an enclosure for chickens, kept for meat and eggs. Todd raises a little fewer than 100 chickens a year, far too few to fill the diner’s full demand but enough to make a backyard egg omelet a menu option, priced at a small premium. If he ever adds more diner-raised animals, it will be chickens, not pigs. “You can raise a chicken in 8 weeks. Pigs take sometimes 6 months. But no matter what I add, it will always be a combination of our own pasture raised and a local farmer’s.”
The diner’s clientele run the gamut, from lawyers to truck drivers, kids to retired folks, tourists to tried-and-true Vermonters. The menu has to satisfy them all. “Some of our customers don’t care if it’s a local grass-fed burger or processed Midwestern commercial beef,” Todd says. “It’s food to them and they shop by price.” The menu lets people choose—there’s a 6-ounce burger for $5.99 and a steak sandwich for $9.99, both of which use grass-fed local beef—and a bevy of specials every day.
Todd and Janet have a long-running squabble about setting prices, and their different perspectives appear to have led to the best kind of give-and-take. Todd believes his menu prices must be kept relatively low to result in orders and fill his seats. Janet looks at what other restaurants in the area charge and thinks the Chelsea Royal is sometimes woefully underpriced. “Other places charge $8.99 for frozen onion rings,” she complains. “Here they’re homemade and what are they, $4.99? It’s ridiculous!” Todd shrugs—the onion ring truce holds—but it’s clear that Todd won’t give customers an excuse not to order something.
Todd is as concerned about smart purchasing practices as any MBA. He starts with a simple premise: use everything. He doesn’t buy ground beef for that grass-fed burger, he buys the steer. “I think I’m an anomaly because I’m able to sell all the different products. I can look at my whole steer price and justify it by selling T-bones and porterhouses. I make a profit on those. And liver is on the menu.” That makes a $6 local burger possible.
He also makes his own stocks and creates nearly everything from scratch, the way a great French chef would. And he runs the diner the way a frugal family might: with the least waste, the least reliance on convenience food, and a focus on homemade dishes, from pickles to cole slaw to baked beans, not to mention jams and jellies. The food is fresh—that’s real cranberry sauce and roasted turkey on the hot turkey platter, not stuff from a can or a freezer.
And while Todd doesn’t originate all the recipes, he refines them and they reflect his taste. “I like to serve what I like to eat. These aren’t my creations but my adaptations.” Janet contributed the pie recipes—some of them local award-winners—and she is responsible for the ice cream flavors and a sorbet line. This October 3rd, the diner will serve a localvore dinner in the apple orchard behind the gardens. It’s a Vermont Fresh Network event, and it will also commemorate Todd’s 25th year at the Chelsea Royal.
Todd’s long days include negotiating with suppliers and managing the staff. He keeps his hand in food prep but only works on the line when demand requires. When he emerges from the kitchen for this interview, he keeps his apron on but gives the impression he has all the time in the world if the subject is food. His face opens in a warm grin.
“A diner is different from any other restaurant,” he says. “We serve three meals a day and we’re open 15 hours.” To succeed, he looks at food from every perspective: taste, cost, source, quality, customer satisfaction. But there’s one other ingredient. “I have a work ethic that is second to none. I will do what it takes.” He laughs. “And I have an understanding family and wife. I’m never home but they come and visit me here.”
Todd started out at an upscale French restaurant in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He then worked seven years at the high-end restaurant located at the Hermitage Club in Wilmington, and later started his own eatery in Wilmington with two partners. He came to Brattleboro in 1990 and bought Chelsea Royal Diner. His experience with fine cuisine informs the way he sources food and inspires a menu filled with homemade dishes.
Todd’s résumé embodies the breadth of knowledge a restaurant owner requires. He’s a businessman who bases decisions on profitability. He’s a chef who knows how to make use of every cut of meat. He’s a homesteader-type who plainly delights in putting up his own jams. He’s a gardener who marvels at a sun-soaked strawberry grown in the field behind the diner before popping it in his mouth. And he’s an advocate of the local food movement because “we’re practicing what we think is right.”
Todd’s wiry frame is charged with energy, but he’ll admit that working this hard can take its toll. Janet says, “We try to think of how to retire, but it’s always, well, we’ll just have a smaller restaurant.”
The man in the apron isn’t hanging it up any time soon. Todd has little trouble letting enthusiasm banish his exhaustion. “I incorporated all my passions here: my animals, my birds, the garden, my canning.” He almost sounds surprised that all it took was hard work.