BERKSHIRE — When the state said the LeVells couldn’t open the Barn Owl Bistro as a partial cafe and general store, the family didn’t give up.
“We thought, at least if we could get one-third of the business open, we can get the energy flowing and we can show people what we’ve been doing in here,” said owner Heidi LeVell. “The reception has been really positive.”
The LeVells bought the now-Barn Owl in 2017 and moved across the country to Berkshire to reopen the old Pigeon Hill Farm as the Barn Owl Bistro and Goods.
Getting the old general and feed store revitalized was a challenge, but with the help of local contractors and some family elbow grease, the buildings now have a style that is cozy, vintage-inspired and filled with local crafts, candies and fudge.
Though they can’t serve homemade food yet because of infrastructure complications, the LeVells said the community welcomed the goods and general store with open arms.
“This is actually, for us, a great practice run,” said Plant Attic business owner Zoe LeVell, who works at the Barn Owl Bistro and Goods at 278 Montgomery Road and sells house plants in unique holders there. “What works, what does not work, how we can package and market things … it’s basically a functional trial run.”
Business is booming despite not yet being licensed to serve the sandwiches and brunch items they dreamed of. On opening day, Heidi and her daughter Zoe instead stocked an antique case with local fudge, topped off their candy jars and hoped for the best.
“We sold out on the first day,” Heidi said. “We had to drive down to Shoreham to get more for the next day.”
The antique fudge case sitting on the glass countertop was, luckily, still partially full in the Barn Owl on Thursday, and the shop was quiet. But it wasn’t quiet for long: customers began trickling in two and three at a time, some to browse and some with an agenda.
Kelly Garrow and her two children, Freya and Kyah, planted themselves at the front of the glass case, with eyes on the multicolored gem-like candy jars lining the back wall.
It was Kyah’s 10th birthday, and candy was the order of the day.
“It’s really nice to have something great in this place, finally,” Kelly said of Berkshire’s revitalized general store.
Across from the counter of the glass chocolate and candy counter sits a pyramid of small, glassy pails filled with everything from gummy sharks to Swedish fish. Berkshire now has its own Kids Candy Club: four refills of their favorite candy whenever they want – pail included – for a flat rate of $14.50.
“It’s so wildly popular,” Heidi said smiling. “Last week we had a customer buy three for the kids and one for dad.”
“We’ve hit hurdle after hurdle after hurdle,” Heidi said. “We’re going to be doing three types of businesses simultaneously: a general store, a coffee house and a bistro.”
The Barn Owl Bistro and Goods originally intended to open as a part-cafe, part-general store stocked with locally made goods where customers could get wine, beer, coffee drinks, books, games, breakfasts and lunch. The building needed some serious updates though, including plumbing and electrical work.
“It was a great old classic space, but it desperately needed an update,” Heidi said.
Everything was going smoothly and the store was poised to open when Heidi hit a snag: the records proving that the location had previously served food out of a kitchen were never digitized, and the state required those to serve hot food out of a kitchen today.
While candy and fudge can tide them over, the LeVells continue to work with the state to sort records out. In the meantime, the Barn Owl crew decided to start with fudge and chocolate.
And their giant chess set is a hit.
“We’ve had arguments over giant chess set matches, where whoever loses has to buy the other person fudge,” Zoe said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Next steps for the Barn Owl include featuring Red House Sweets baked goods out of St. Albans City and serving elegant coffee and tea drinks, including cappuccino and other espresso drinks.
Heidi said their coffee offerings will be open for the new year.
Local gifts at the Barn Owl
In stocking her store, Heidi said her goal was to sell high-quality, locally and American-made products.
“Going the ‘made in America’ route has always been something that I’ve personally believed in,” Heidi said. “But I wasn’t sure about doing it for the store because it’s so much easier to not go that route … I wanted a place where people could come to Berkshire, Vermont, and they’re not going to forget this. I want people to remember Berkshire, Vermont.”
While the locally made marzipan fruits, giant chocolate peanut butter cups and rum truffles from South Burlington-based Birnn Chocolates, vegan truffles, ribbon candy and pumpkin fudge are enough to draw sweet teeth from miles around, Heidi said candy is only part of her mission.
“I wanted a place for locals to be able to buy locally made products at an affordable price and really showcase local talent,” LeVell said.
Locally made jewelry, drawings, games and decorations, pillows and perfect presents for your pets are for sale at the Barn Owl Bistro and Goods alongside Zoe’s custom-planted plants. But the plants are only part of what her customers come for.
“I have a lot of people coming in for advice,” Zoe said. “They ask what kind of plant is best for types of sunlight, an office, a lifestyle. And I can tell them what works best for them.”
And locals have been flocking to the Barn Owl. Heidi said she’s welcoming in hundreds weekly.
“What happened to all of the gingerbread men?” Heidi asked Zoe last Wednesday.
“Someone just called and bought six,” Zoe replied.
“The ones we just bought?” Heidi asked.