NECI eyes market cafe, education in Manchester

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MANCHESTER — A group of local investors is working with Montpelier based New England Culinary Institute to bring an open market cafe and educational space to the vacant retail building at 96 Depot St., proponents announced Friday.

In a news release, Carolyn Blitz, the president of Mountain Media LLC, and Paul W. Carroccio, CEO of TPW Real Estate Inc. and president of the Manchester Business Association, said the two-story building will be converted into a market cafe on the lower level and a multi-purpose restaurant and education space upstairs. Local investors hope it will serve as a destination, as well as an educational resource for the local hospitality industry.

"A number of community investors are excited about turning this vision into reality," the release said. Carroccio said the investors, and the amount they are putting up, is not being disclosed at this time.

The lower-level market cafe will offer organic coffees and teas, fresh baked goods, specialty retail products and a tasting bar for good such as artisan chocolates, cheeses, jams, and smoked meats. It will feature an open kitchen where guests can watch breads and pastries being made.

The upper level will feature a space for "culinary entertainment and education," with an open kitchen concept allowing guests or students to watch food being prepared, according to a news release announcing the move.

"Here will be a place for dinner, but not your typical restaurant," the release said. "NECI's motives are to teach all people the importance of making healthy choices when cooking for yourself and when eating out. Nutrition and sustainability will be at the core of their curriculum of classes available to the public in individual classes and instructional cooking series."

A message left with NECI president Milan Milasinovic was not immediately returned on Friday afternoon.

A team of professional designers and chefs, including local NECI alumna Amy Chamberlain, will "design a beautiful and organic space, create healthy menus and exciting classes and nurture relationships with local business owners to promote our area," the release said.

Chamberlain announced earlier this week that she was closing The Perfect Wife Restaurant and Tavern this weekend after 23 years in business, explaining that financial, business and personal reasons drove that decision.

One of the factors Chamberlain cited in scaling back business at The Perfect Wife months ago, and in deciding to close, was a continual shortage of employees. The arrival of NECI and its educational programs could help address that. Carroccio said.

"I'm just a real estate guy and I'm Italian, so I like to eat," he said. "But I do think [NECI] can help the hospitality sector in our community by helping create a more stable workforce and creating a destination for foodies."

Carroccio, whose firm has been listing the vacant property, said its owner, LFP Manchester LLC and principal, Laurence R. Levy are working towards a long-term lease for the proposal, but emphasized that it's still early in the process. "We don't have formal lease until put all the cards in the deck together," Carroccio said.

Levy confirmed that a deal has yet to be reached. But he said he was happy to have someone interested in using the now-vacant building, which previously was home to Famous Footwear.

"I'm happy to have somebody with an idea of what to do," he told the Journal. "I think it's a good concept. Hopefully if we make a lease I'll be very happy, and I hope they'll be happy."

Levy has owned the property since 2000, when he purchased it from the late Anthony Perry in 2000 for $450,000, according to town records. The building built on the 1.12-acre parcel by LFP Manchester LLC holds more than 5,000 square feet of space.

Carroccio said he and Blitz reached out to Milasinovic last year after learning that NECI was unhappy with its current landlord in Montpelier.

"I saw an article that [Milasinovic] was not happy with his landlord in Montpelier. Being the bulldog real estate guy I am I showed it to Carolyn [Blitz] and said what do you think of bringing this guy to down? And being the bulldog marketer she is, we got in our cars and drove up there to see him," he said.

The school operates three restaurants in Montpelier — NECI on Main, La Brioche Bakery & Cafe, and Dewey Cafe at Vermont College of Fine Arts — and also operates the food service cafeteria at National Life.

Founded in 1980 by Fran Voigt and John Dranow, NECI expanded from a kitchen at the Vermont Department of Employment and Training to campuses in downtown Montpelier and Essex. The Essex location was sold off in 2009 as the school consolidated in Montpelier.

The school ran into financial difficulty earlier this decade before it merged with the Virginia Marti College of Art and Design in Lakewood, Ohio, of which Milasinovic is president and owner. Private career schools such as NECI were hit hard by a change in federal student aid during Obama administration, as regulations were enacted requiring for-profit trade schools to prove they prepare students for "gainful employment in a recognized occupation" to take part in federal student aid programs.

Last year, the school purchased the assets of Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge, Mass., when it closed.

The school offers degree programs in culinary arts, baking and pastry arts, food and beverage business management, and an online program. Its alumni include "Good Eats" creator and host Alton Brown, 2008 James Beard Foundation rising star Gavin Kaysen, and Trip Advisor senior executive Matthew Gabree, among others.

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-490-6000.


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