On Canada's doorstep, Vermont restaurant holds out for border reopening

Brent Hallenbeck
Burlington Free Press

MONTGOMERY CENTER – The Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub is a family restaurant by day. Around 9 p.m. the place becomes a night club, with live music four days a week. The apres-ski crowd — much of it speaking with a French-Canadian cadence — descends upon the tiny town of Montgomery for a long night and early morning of fun.

That scene describes another world, another time. When the pandemic arrived, the state of Vermont ordered all restaurants to shut down for dine-in customers on St. Patrick’s Day 2020 — “our biggest day of the year,” according to John Zartarian, who with Peter Fix owns the Snow Shoe Lodge. The Canadian border closed days after to all but essential travel.

“I was like, ‘We’re going down; this is horrible,’” said Fix, whose in-laws owned the Snow Shoe Lodge for 13 years before he and Zartarian bought it almost four years ago. The business that sits about a dozen miles from the border crossings at Richford and Berkshire relies heavily on Canadian visitors, many of whom ski at nearby Jay Peak Resort.

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Fourteen months later, the owners of the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub are still trying to salvage what they can from their once-thriving business.

“We kind of felt we just got started,” Zartarian said as a handful of patrons — none with Quebecois accents — talked and drank at the lodge’s bar on a Thursday afternoon in mid-May. “We were just hitting our swag, and then we got crushed.”

Peter Fix, left, and John Zartarian, owners of the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub, stand inside the Montgomery Center restaurant and night spot May 13, 2021.

Jay Peak relies on Canadian visitors

Zartarian and Fix don’t keep track of how many of their customers are Canadian. They said Jay Peak does keep track, though, and the numbers at Snow Shoe Lodge would closely match those at the resort.

Half of Jay Peak’s winter visits come from north of the border, according to J.J. Toland, director of communications and events at Vermont’s northernmost ski resort. “That number starts to creep toward 75% for summer visitation,” he told the Burlington Free Press in an email.

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Zartarian lives in the Alpine Haven neighborhood of Montgomery, where he said about half of the 85 homes are Canadian-owned. Those homes sat empty all winter, he said; many are for sale. 

The U.S.-Canadian border will stay closed to nonessential traffic through at least June 21. Zartarian suspects a September opening is more likely. He’s bracing for border traffic to stay shy of normal until around Christmas.

Nikki Woods pours a drink May 13, 2021 at the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub in Montgomery Center.

“It doesn’t look good for a while,” said Zartarian. “That’ll be the same as last summer.”

The business lost traffic it would have received during winter school breaks in Ontario and Quebec. “All of Jay Peak is booked” those weeks, Zartarian said, “and we didn’t get any of that.”

COVID cuts into profits

Comparing the first pre-pandemic months of 2020 and the comparable period of 2021, business at the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub is down 43 percent, according to Zartarian. He said the lodge lost about half its year-to-year business from 2019 to 2020.

Before the pandemic, Zartarian said, the business had about 65% of its sales from alcohol and 35% from food. “We are now almost the opposite,” he said, adding that profit margins are smaller for food than alcohol.

A Brent burger and a 14th Star Brewing maple breakfast stout at the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub in Montgomery Center, shown May 13, 2021.

Zartarian said the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) “saved them.” He and Fix were able to keep staff on board. Employees made more money on unemployment during the shutdown, but Zartarian said they came back to work once things began opening up again.

The loosening of COVID crowd restrictions late last spring and summer helped, Zartarian said. He remembers that three out of four license plates at Sylvester’s Market across Vermont 118 were from other states.

“That padded and helped to balance out some of the Canadians, but it wasn’t the same,” Zartarian said.

With vaccines rolling out and case numbers subsiding, Americans may feel free to travel farther afield this summer than in 2020, meaning the dense population of the Northeast could find other places to go. Now that other states are seeing COVID cases dropping, Zartarian wonders, will tourists flock to Vermont as they did last summer when the Green Mountain State was one of the safest in the nation?

Angela Wendt pours a 14th Star maple breakfast stout May 13, 2021 at the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub in Montgomery Center.

Rediscovering nightlife

Friends for 25 years, Fix and Zartarian said the Snow Shoe Lodge is more than just a business in Montgomery, population 1,200. (That number, Zartarian said, doubles in summer with Canadian and out-of-state second homeowners.) The two are members of the Montgomery Fire Department. Their children go to local schools. The business donates cans and bottles to school causes.

Zartarian said he was “dumbfounded” when the border closed. He wonders if restaurants needed to be as tightly restricted as they were, as the state has attributed many COVID outbreaks to private gatherings rather than bars and restaurants. “It seemed like a bit much,” Zartarian said.

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Zartarian hopes the Snow Shoe Lodge, which expanded its outdoor seating last summer, retains some of the customers who discovered their food menu when to-go dining became popular in the pandemic. “If we can keep that and get back the late-night crowd we’ve lost,” he said, “that would be amazing.”

A maple breakfast stout from 14th Star Brewing rests on a railing above the Trout River at the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub in Montgomery Center on May 13, 2021.

The Snow Shoe Lodge reinstated bar seating in early May and expanded its hours from 4-10 p.m. to 4 p.m. until closing, a time Zartarian said depends each night on when crowds begin dissipating. The hours are still well shy of the 2 p.m.-2 a.m. stretch the business was open pre-pandemic, and the lodge is closed Mondays and not open every day as it had been. The business is shutting down in late May and early June to expand from six to 14 beer taps.

“People are rediscovering that they can come out,” Zartarian said. “Coming out of this we’re hoping for a boom. People are pent up.”

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at bhallenbeck@freepressmedia.com. Follow Brent on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BrentHallenbeck.