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VIRTUAL VEGGIES

It’s all the rage in New York and Boston, and now Burlington has it too. No, not road rage, though goodness knows that’s creeping up on shopping rage, brought to Vermont just three weeks ago by Healthy Living. The South Burlington health-food store went dot-com almost three years ago, but the website was “bad,” says the store technology consultant Eli Goldsmith, until he made some 6000 items visible in pixels. Customers can now select any quantity of groceries — except for alcohol — from home or work and have them delivered the same day (Monday-Friday). Spend $125 and the delivery is free; otherwise it’s $9.95, and drivers will go as far as, say, Charlotte or Milton, Goldsmith says.

The online orders have increased slowly but steadily — from one the first week to about 10 last week — and Goldsmith expects that will pick up with time. He concedes some customers are still nervous about using a credit card on the internet, but insists it’s no different — or more risky — than ordering from catalogues. He also notes that “shopping for other people is tough — people have higher expectations when they’re not doing it themselves. They expect the groceries will be perfect, nothing melted” when delivered — as if the Rice Dream is never soft when they get home with it. But these are minor quibbles. No question thousands of homebodies, and probably late workers at the office, in urban areas have become addicted to the convenience of ordering up their meals with a mouse. And some Vermonters inevitably will, too.

“The obvious goal is to attract new customers,” acknowledges Goldsmith — including customers at other stores “who may be attracted to us by default because we’re the only one online,” he predicts. “And a lot of our regular customers will use it, too.”

Healthy Living owner Katie Lesser has taken bold steps before — like opening a health-food store on Dorset Street, and moving the entire store from its “Blue Mall” location to brand new quarters on Market Street behind Barnes & Noble two years ago. Shortly after, Moon Meadow, another health-food market, opened up in practically the same spot vacated by Healthy Living.

Whether Healthy Living’s online ordering will translate to a bigger byte of the local food biz remains to be seen — after all, the constellation of food providers in the greater Burlington area is continually changing, and it may not be long before everyone else jumps on the cyberwagon, too. What next? Double-click coupons?

TWINKLE, TWINKLE

It’s beginning to look like the dark cloud over Starry Night Cafe may finally float away, allowing the beleaguered wannabe eatery to shine at last. On the grounds of the Ferrisburgh Artisans Guild on Route 7, Starry Night is celestially beautiful — designed by and outfitted by artisans — and intimately cozy. The 25-seat restaurant, with its handmade dishes and wine glasses, a mouthwatering gourmet menu and backyard patio overlooking a pond, is inviting and seems ready to please. In fact, it’s looked that way for nine months, but hasn’t seated a single customer. Why? The problem is as homely as the artist-designed site is lovely: a wastewater permit.

“We originally thought we could use the old wastewater permit, but because we’d put in a new well, we had to get a new one,” explains co-owner Floery Mahoney. “Then the septic system failed. That opened the door for us to build one of the largest septic systems in the state” — to the tune of about a hundred grand, she says. Compounding these delays, the state’s permit-issuing wastewater management division is “terribly understaffed,” according to Mahoney. She and business partner — chef Michel Mahe thought they would finally be opening two weeks ago, but instead faced another wait, and employees to pay. “It’s been hard for everyone, costing a lot of time and money,” Mahoney laments.

Now, however, she’s optimistic the end — or the beginning — is near; officials have assured her a permit in two weeks or sooner. Mahe is more than ready to serve up his already advertised French bistro fare — “with Asian and California influences, presented in a very creative way,” Mahoney clarifies. She’s fantasizing about nights with live music and, during the day, croquet — to keep the kids occupied, she suggests, while the ‘rents stroll the grounds and the nearby gallery with that hand-blown goblet of chardonnay. “The whole experience is so beautiful,” Mahoney promises. Maybe she should invite the wastewater permit staff...

IN GOOD TASTE

The problem with the Burlington Dining Club is the “Burlington” part. That is, it’s a problem when proprietor Jason Bean is bent on world domination. Well, not quite, but New England is starting to look doable. Bean launched the dining club seven years ago, and has already grown it well beyond its hometown — participating restaurants span the length of the state and serve some 5000 active members. He recently added the Warren House and Pitcher Inn, and Michael’s in Waitsfield, with more coming on board almost weekly, Bean attests. The basic idea is a card that gives users 20 percent off entrées at any restaurant on the list, which now number about 50. In the beginning it was a buy-one-get-one-free deal, and good only once per restaurant. Over time, Bean has refined the concept to better fit the needs of restaurants and the habits of diners.

As with any business, the Burlington Dining Club’s success has led to its expansion, and in this case to a change in name — to “Taste of the Town.” That’s because an increasing number of businesses are using the dining card as thank yous, fundraising gifts and incentives, and an increasing number of those corporations have offices out of state. “One of my largest clients, Berlin City, opened an office in Bangor, Maine,” Bean explains. “When you buy a car from Berlin City, you get flowers, an annual dining club membership, etc. So one of the first car buyers in Bangor asked if they were going to get [a card].” That prompted Bean to sign on two restaurants in the city, and he’s soliciting others in Portland and Augusta and down the Maine coast.

“The ‘Burlington Dining Club’ just wouldn’t make much sense elsewhere,” sums up Bean, who plans to spread Taste of the Town throughout New England over the next five years.

“To kick off the name change, we donated $10,000 worth of memberships to the

Vermont School Board Insurance Trust,” he notes. “They just completed a statewide wellness contest, trying to promote wellness to teachers, who in turn will promote it to students.” VSBIT gave the dining club memberships to teachers around the state.

As he travels out of Vermont, Bean will be motivated to sign on more and more restaurants — after all, he’s a card-carrying member, too, and an entrepreneur with a growing appetite has gotta eat. Preferably with a discount.

GO FISH

In running shoes or Rollerblades, off the boat or the bike, denizens of the waterfront won’t have to worry about changing for dinner when the Burlington Bay Market & Cafe opens next week. On Battery Street next to Waterfront Video, the new venue will be part take-out deli, part sit-down restaurant and part convenience store — with fresh fish one of the conveniences, along with aspirin, diapers and other sundries an incoming yachter might require. “Casual service was needed on the waterfront,” says owner Al Gobeille, “but not a hot-dog stand.” Gobeille knows about service, and fish: With his wife Kim, he’s run Shanty on the Shore, just two blocks away, for four years. “I can get fish delivered six days a week,” he notes. “Since we buy a lot, I can get good quality and good prices.”

Chances are residents at the upscale Battery & College condos across the street will be pleased, as will local employees grabbing dinner on their way home — there’s parking for eight in the front and 25 in the back. But never mind the heartier fare; passersby on a hot summer day — about 2000 of ‘em, Gobeille says — will surely appreciate the two creemee windows.

All the prepared food will be made fresh on the premises, Gobeille informs — except bread, which will come from local bakeries. And anyone who chooses to eat in the 60-seat dining area can also salivate over one of the best views in town. That view was just improved, in fact, by the Burlington Bay Market & Cafe itself — for years, the 6000-square-foot former filling station has competed for eyesore status with the nearby Pease Grain Tower. Still owned by Terry Spillane, Gobeille’s father-in-law, the property now hides its identity as a federal cleanup site behind a cheerful nautical decor. “The gasoline tanks were removed in 1994 or ’96,” says Gobeille. “All the dirt had to be taken out of here to an approved landfill. The state is happy with the site now — it’s all contained.” Though the City of Burlington had wanted to do something with the property, Gobeille says it’s his “at least for now, maybe 10 years.”

MAJOR FOOD GROUPS

In the mood for marinated shrimp and swing dancing? Afternoon tea at an apple orchard? Or maybe some Galactic Deviled Eggs and Spacey Spicy Meatballs at a home inspired by NASA debris? Eating well in unusual places is also altruistic if you sign up for any of the 15 culinary experiences in Dine Around 2000. It’s a fundraiser Lane Series board member Janet Rood heard about at a conference and launched in Burlington 16 years ago. The idea is to come up with a theme and find a host to match, or vice versa. “It was always done by committee, for years the same women,” explains Lane Manager Natalie Neuert, also a 2000 committee member. “Over the years we’ve discovered what are popular.” And what would those be? Anything involving boats, gardens, bridge games and what Neuert dubs “the fancy dinner in the amazing, beautiful house you’d never see otherwise.”

If it sounds upper-crust, it was — until recently. After all, the purpose has always been to raise money for the nonprofit Lane Series, the mostly classical performing arts program at the University of Vermont. Each party brings in around $1000, Neuert reports, and they’d been attended by pretty much the same group of well-heeled patrons. But three years ago, when responsibility for Dine Around passed from the original committee to the office staff, Neuert made the first move toward greater accessibility. “I made it year-round — it had been just summer,” she says. “I felt that limited the kinds of parties we could have. Now it’s not all about dressing up; there are some casual ones, too, that are very reasonably priced. Some welcome children. There’s sort of something for everyone.” The events now run $25 to $85 per person. Neuert herself is co-hosting a kids-and-parents event with a Harry Potter theme this September.

The Dine Around invitation list has expanded since the old days, too — especially since Therese Taylor was hired last fall to coordinate the series. “We’ve found there are so many changes in the demographics of the community, more people who have some money and want to support the arts, so we opened it up,” says Neuert. “It’s more democratic now. We want to dispel the notion that this is only for an elite bunch.”

Dine Around is still about “great food and a fun theme,” says Taylor, whose own brainstorm — a harvest feast in an orchard — was inspired by the film Antonia’s Line. But more diversity is on the menu: “I’m trying to create a range,” Taylor says, “from the fancy schmancy to just really fun.” Some things never change, though: The parties — for only 10 to 50 people — fill up fast. Want a reservation? Think 2001.

BITE-SIZE

Some schools invite politicians or other outstanding public types to speak to their graduating seniors. But at the New England Culinary Institute, it’s only reasonable to haul a chef out of the kitchen and onto the podium. This year it’s Gordon Hamersley, co-owner of Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston and longtime “friend” of the school and occasional teacher of master classes there. The French-trained Hamersley has certainly racked up enough awards to make a new generation of chefs drool — including a spot on Food and Wine magazine’s “Ten Best New Chefs” list in 1988 and a James Beard Award for “Best New Chef Northeast” in ‘95. His bistro, too, consistently wins rave reviews, notably four stars from The Boston Globe. Hamersley serves up inspiring words to toque-wearing grads this Friday.

In other NECI news, the school’s Executive Chef Robert Barral was inducted last month into the prestigious Academie Culinaire de France. Ironically, the Montpelier-based chef, in charge of the Inn at Essex Campus and NECI Commons in Burlington, is from Montpellier...France.

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle will speak about fair trade this Saturday at the Peace & Justice Store on Church Street. But it’s not just another Progressive speech; International Fair Trade Day is about “educating the public about providing equal opportunity for all people, and environmentally sustainable practices,” says P&J’s Kathy Bouton. Though the store carries “fair trade” merchandise — meaning products certifiably made in safe labor conditions and bought for fair prices from artisans and farmers in developing countries — the better-known food products can be found elsewhere. The Onion River Co-op and Healthy Living both carry, for example, Fair Trade Federation-approved Equal Exchange coffees. Nationally, Safeway supermarkets and Starbucks coffee shops recently agreed to buy caffeine with consciousness as well. Look for the Fair Trade label to ease your own mind.

Speaking of the Co-op — soon to be managers of Burlington’s long-awaited downtown grocery — its board of directors has hit upon a, well, cooperative way of raising money for the new food store: a Member Loan Program. The co-op is banking, literally, on some of its more monied members to provide lowish-interest, unsecured loans in order to quadruple its store size at the South Winooski Avenue site, and to reduce reliance on outside lenders. It’s too early to tell how palatable the program is — the appeal just went out late last month.

University of Vermont professor Rachel Johnson served on the national committee to develop “Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2000.” The associate dean of research in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Johnson worked with just 10 other scientists to give the latest word on what we should eat to be healthy. While the report offers updated guidelines on weight and physical activity, portion sizes and the newest info on baddies like sugar, fat and booze, the conclusions are still what couch potatoes hate to hear: Eat less, exercise more and, for heaven’s sake, cut down on the junk food.

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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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