New generation of Brattleboro bar, restaurant owners unite

Bryan Gelke, co-owner of Kipling's on Elliot Street in Brattleboro, makes a Bee's Knees. Kristopher Radder - Vermont Country Magazine.

By Chris Mays, Vermont Country Magazine.

BRATTLEBORO — A new generation of restaurant and bar owners has emerged in Brattleboro, with longtime industry pros taking the helm after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was kind of cool how it all happened in the time frame,” said Nikki Peruzzi, co-owner of Vegan A.F. 

Nikki Peruzzi and Eva Gwinn are the owners of Vegan A.F. on Canal Street in Brattleboro. Kristopher Radder – Vermont Country Magazine.

Vegan A.F. will celebrate its two-year anniversary in July. Peruzzi said the restaurant experienced “a hurdle in the beginning, trying to get people to realize it’s not just a carrots and bean sprouts kind of thing.”

Although she doesn’t regret the edgy name for marketing, some people might have been put off if they thought they had to be vegan or what she calls “super plant forward” to even step through the door. Now, the spot has “racked up some really great reviews,” she said. 

Vegan A.F. has become a favorite for foodies regardless if they’re vegan or not. It makes sense: The two owners are chefs with a ton of experience in local restaurants. They won the Winter Carnival chili cook-off with a vegan chili in a blind taste taste among seven competitors.

Their chili was sold at The Tower Bar & Lounge owned by Kate Barry, who recently purchased Mocha Joe’s Cafe with her husband Bruce Hunt. Barry tended bar at Metropolis, which was in the space now occupied by The Tower and had been a favorite among the new restaurant and bar owners in Brattleboro.

Formerly, The Tower had been known as The Collective Bar & Lounge, when Barry owned it with other partners. She changed the name in the spring and conducted a makeover. 

Barry is enthused about the new generation of business owners downtown. 

“There’s a lot going on,” she said. “You can just go downtown and experience something new.” 

If businesses start working together, Barry said, they become more efficient and there isn’t as much waste or loss. 

“If you have that network of positive collaboration and everyone working together toward that common cause, there’s no stopping us,” she said. “There’s so much momentum.”

Maggie Bernhard and Brian Gelke bought Kipling’s Tavern in August 2022 and opened the next month. The business is a few addresses away from Peter Havens Restaurant, where the couple worked together for nearly a decade. 

Bryan Gelke and Maggie Bernhard, owners of Kipling’s on Elliot Street in Brattleboro. Kristopher Radder – Vermont Country Magazine.

“We all grew up and worked together for different business owners,” Peruzzi said. “It’s kind of crazy how we all jumped out and did it in the same time frame.” 

Peruzzi and Vegan A.F. co-owner Eva Gwinn will go out to Kipling’s, Peter Havens or The Tower after work. All the owners of these businesses used to hang out at Arkham or Metropolis. 

Peruzzi recounted when Barry asked her for to-go containers after running out. Business owners also will call each other to check in after a rash of break-ins or a bad group of customers in town. 

“It’s not as competitive as you would think,” Peruzzi said. “It’s actually the opposite.” 

Peruzzi and Gelke will recommend checking out brunch at Echo Restaurant & Lounge and the Oyster Bar at Peter Havens. If Kipling’s is busy, Gelke will send people to Martocci’s Restaurant next door.

Martocci’s owners Shelby Brimmer and Paul Martocci, business and romantic partners who grew up in the local area, bought Hazel on Elliot Street and retained the staff, then they made the place their own. Brimmer is familiar with the lay of the land, having worked at Peter Havens and managed Four Columns Inn in Newfane. 

Peruzzi said she’s noticed that “either we’re all busy or we’re all not busy.” 

“I think timing and everything else just worked weirdly perfectly for everybody,” she said of the new generation of restaurant and bar owners. “I think we were all ready.” 

Turnout at Kipling’s is bigger than the owners expected, Bernhard said. More staffing than originally implemented was needed. 

“We’ve been busy since day one,” Gelke said. “It’s been rocking and rolling, line out the door most nights.” 

Gelke believes in the old adage, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” He said having Martocci’s, Vegan A.F. and High Thai open post-COVID has “elevated Brattleboro and brought in more people from the surrounding area.” 

“We all do different things, is part of it,” he said. “We all fill different niches. That takes away that competitive edge to it.” 

Bernhard will ask customers what kinds of experiences they’re looking for in Brattleboro, then advise on potential stops. 

“We all need visits,” she said. 

She anticipates this summer will be busy and feels like restaurants have more momentum now. 

The owners of Kipling’s and Vegan A.F. all expressed excitement about the opening of Midnight’s in the former Mole’s Eye Cafe location in the Brooks House.  

Peter Ginter, a barkeep at Midnight’s in Brattleboro, pours a beer on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Kristopher Radder – Vermont Country Magazine.

Midnight’s was visited by owners of other local businesses such as Bar 580, River Garden Marketplace and Vegan AF in its very first week of opening in late March. Owner Evangeline Rera described the response being very welcoming.

“It’s just been very much a rising tide, lifts all boats,” she said. “There hasn’t been any sense of competition from what I gather.”

Rera said the community has “more than enough space for everyone. Everyone is offering something different. We don’t want to get rowdy at Kip’s. I will go get great food and company, then I’ll come back here for those two extra beers so we don’t bother Maggie and Brian too much.”

“It’s not necessarily a place for people to get drunk,” Rera said of Midnight’s. “It’s a home. … I think everyone’s happy to have a place to sit around.”

Evangeline Rera, owner of Midnight’s in Brattleboro, shoots some pool at the new bar on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. Kristopher Radder – Vermont Country Magazine.

At the time of the interview with Barry, Midnight’s had just opened, and she said business at The Tower had increased because people wanted to bar hop around Brattleboro. 

“It’s an action now,” she said. “It literally works.”

Barry moved to Brattleboro to attend SIT, where she obtained her master’s degree in sustainable community development. 

“My passion has always been community development, small businesses, and when I’m thinking about having a small business downtown like the bar or Mocha Joe’s, I think that we really need to lean on each other and give each other support, because no one is going to come to a downtown anywhere for one place.” 

When Barry reopened the bar during the pandemic, she said, “everything else was closed. We were the only one open. We did well for a while but we can’t be sustained that way.” 

New customers need to account for at least 20 to 30 percent of business every year to be sustainable, Barry said. She stressed the need to collaborate and co-market with other businesses, calling Martocci’s “a great example.” 

The Tower started selling “late night slices” from Martocci’s, which helps food not go to waste and makes it affordable through wholesale buying. Such collaboration also allows for the two businesses to tout each other in the meantime. 

Having a network of support for downtown businesses is “so vital to success,” Barry said. She noted 80 to 90 percent of bars and restaurants fail within their first two years. 

“That’s because people don’t know what they don’t know and they can easily get in over their heads with this businesses,” she said. “So we want everyone to succeed. It’s a new way of thinking. When you start thinking about it, you’re like, ‘Of course it makes sense.'” 


Chris Mays is a reporter for the Brattleboro Reformer. He plays guitar in three groups and has a Yorkie named Lemon, who can be followed on Instagram at @lemon_the_yorkie. He enjoys spending time in the mountains.

Vermont Country magazine

Vermont Country has a hyperlocal focus on the Green Mountain lifestyle, its personalities, events, attractions and culture. The magazine appears six times a year, designed to complement the state and four-season living. VtCo magazine is a Southern Vermont publication of Vermont News & Media.

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