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Essex couple opens firm brokering Vermont dreams
By Jess Wisloski
For the Colchester Sun
An airy, exposed-brick coffee shop filled with couches and the waft of fresh-ground Stumptown Coffee beans, a light din of activity and the occasional screech of a milk-steamer, repurposed railroad artifacts on the walls, the merciless foot traffic of teenagers and framed “landscapes” of Essex Junction at the height of the industrial revolution. Call it a dream — specifically, my New England fantasy business.
Mine’s not important though — but yours is. Or, this Essex couple thinks so, and is willing to help you stake your claim on it, using a model that’s become a growing trend among small businesses in the northeast.
Dreambroker Industries is a new brokerage firm that’s taking an unusual approach to selling local, small-town businesses. Its founders, a Lincoln Street couple, Damaris Drummond, 34, and Eric Dufresne, 42, are basically hoping to bust out of their 9-to-5 jobs by encouraging — and facilitating — others to do the same.
Using a business-funding model that’s increased in popularity since Kickstarter began — the website that enables donors to chip in for a cause, be it a comic book, ice-cream shop, or teeny-tiny tech device to bring it to reality — Dreambroker aims to bring the newest iteration of crowdfunding to the next level. They hope to do so in a way that could transform, or preserve, the streetscapes of Vermont’s most charming towns.
Drummond and Dufresne, who moved from Brooklyn four years ago to start a family in the village, said they were originally lured to Vermont by the potential, the romantic allure of a slower, better way of living.
“We bought a house…we fell in love with a dog,” Drummond said, recounting their path from the arts world of New York City, where she worked in galleries and he worked as a television producer and editor. In two years they had their son, Josiah, now 1.
“We’re loving living here,” said Drummond. “It’s really just an incredible pace of life, quality of life, and we want to spread that quality of life with others.”
But, though Drummond now manages the Darkroom Gallery several days a week, and Dufresne has found work in the state, he still accepts occasional jobs in New York City, producing for TV. Frankly, said Drummond, it’s hard for them to pull together a living full time in Vermont.
Enter Dreambroker. After the Boston Globe wrote the story of a stately southwestern Maine bed and breakfast, Drummond said she was inspired by how she saw crowdfunding, in the form of a win-this-business contest, wind up at the crossroads of historic preservation and New England tourism.
“Win the Center Lovell Inn” — which went so viral it was on the Today Show — allows contestants to apply to win the 210-year-old white country house, complete with sweeping views of the White Mountains and training by the owner of 22 years, by sending in a $150 fee and a crackerjack answer to the question, “Why I would like to own and operate a country inn.”
The winner, who’s hand-picked by the inn’s owner, agrees to keep the hotel as it is for the first year, and maintain its architectural look and paint scheme. Drummond said “something clicked” for her in reading about that, especially after she discovered — just days earlier — that Mix Cupcakerie & Kitchen, a picturesque vintage-cute bakeshop in Waitsfield, was on the market.
“We can create a business out of crowdfunding dream opportunities, and getting people to leave the rat race. But, leave the race, and come live in a place that has a high quality of life, where you can slow down,” she said.
Here’s how it works: The seller has a price they’re hoping to get by a certain date. Mix Cupcakerie’s deadline is May 17.
Dreambroker then runs a contest, using largely social media, hoping to attract a high number of applicants-cum-contenders paying an entry fee (for the bakery, that’s $75), writing a 100-word essay about why they want the shop, and submitting a cupcake recipe. (The recipe’s a unique requirement for this shop.)
In the case of an Alabama goat farm that is also using a contest-auction process to sell and has an October deadline, just 2,500 applicants would pay off the farm’s mortgage, and leave a new owner with an additional $20,000 for seed funding their new effort.
What does the “winner” get aside from this new business? In the Mix Cupcakerie’s case, 80 hours of on-site training from the current owner, Carole Kelaher, all the existing staff, equipment, and ongoing guidance as needed.
Where the Waitsfield community comes in, is the bakery is also taking donations towards the preservation of the bakeshop. “We are asking people in the community that don’t want to see another empty storefront to donate,” said Drummond. “It starts at $10 and goes as high as $300.”
Though the winner is also bound to a few strings attached — including the promise to maintain the space as it is currently for one year, and to keep Kelaher’s menu 90 percent intact during that time — they basically get a shop handed to them that they otherwise might never be able to build from scratch.
Dufresne and Drummond see it as a way to keep small Vermont business thriving. Drummond recalled her husband’s stories of the Brownell Block growing up, biking to get candy at Tip Top News, and shopping on the weekends. She said she wishes that it was still so vibrant downtown, and more pedestrian-oriented.
“We’d love to run a contest here and have it exceed our expectations and be successful,” she said. “We’d love to invest in our community with this project.”