Not Just Another Pretty Place

This property has been hailed as having the best menu reinvention of the year

by Will Lindner

hyde_away Bruce Hyde and his wife, Margaret DeFoor, have recently transformed the menu at Zach’s Tavern, the restaurant connected with the Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant in Waitsfield, to feature local produce. Their aim is to keep the prices competitive.

T here’s something a little crooked about Zach’s Tavern, one of the small, vintage buildings forming a quaint compound known as the Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant, snuggled beside Vermont 17 in Waitsfield. Folks of a suspicious nature might wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the owner, Bruce Hyde, is a Jersey boy.

But the innkeeper seems particularly aboveboard, having served three terms in the Vermont House of Representatives, followed by eight years as commissioner of tourism and marketing.

So that’s not it. Hyde, who has owned and operated the Hyde Away since 1987, appears to be a standup guy.

Except, maybe, when he’s standing on the polished wood section of the floor at Zach’s Tavern. Suddenly it all makes sense. Everyone is a little crooked on that floor, because as attractive and comfortable as Zach’s Tavern is, its floor is facetiously referred to by locals as one of the most challenging slopes in this skiing-centered community. (The Hyde Away’s website compares it to Paradise at Mad River Glen and Castle Rock at Sugarbush.)

“It’s a classic ski bar, with the floor tilting,” says Chris Pierson, who is Northeast marketing and community relations manager for Cabot Cooperative Creamery. “Really, it’s a classic old Vermont farmhouse, and that’s one of the nicest things about it.”

Pierson has been hanging out at Zach’s Tavern since the old days, when the little compound was known as the Snuggery, preceding Hyde’s arrival on the scene. Now the gregarious Pierson hosts Taco Tuesdays at the Hyde Away.

Lest this sound like your basic bar-food scene, where the food and beer function merely to keep the revelry going, what’s important to know is that the Hyde Away ownership and staff take their menu very seriously. The Hyde Away has taken to the locavore movement, which is particularly active in the close-knit Mad River Valley community.

“This has been the biggest change for us in the last year,” says Hyde.

His older son, Bruce Jr., who studied hotel management at Cornell University, returned to help out in the business and caught the locavore bug. His father says he wasn’t alone.

“We have a really crackerjack chef in our kitchen who was going in the same direction,” says Hyde, referring to a woman named Ryan Mayo. “She and my son got in on the buy-local campaign. We’re getting pork from Gaylord Farm in Waitsfield, and we’re getting greens all year long from the hydroponic operation at Hartshorn’s Organic Farm. The inn has partnered with Mehuron’s Market — “three generations of butchery in the Valley,” says the menu — to provide a selection of grass-fed steaks.

“We all saw the potential in the buy-local movement,” says Hyde, “but we never took the full plunge until Bruce Jr. and Ryan led us in that direction. The quality of the food is much better, and the freshness. But of course you’re paying more for it.”

That’s the transition the restaurant is trying to navigate. Hyde says his establishment has never been, and will not become, “one of those high-end, $50-a-plate places. We don’t want to lose our local clientele. It’s a challenge to be able to provide all the local food we’re doing and keep our prices competitive. But it seems to be working.”

The change has caught the critics’ attention. The Hyde Away was featured in recent issues of both Yankee and SKI magazines, and in an end-of-year culinary recap, Seven Days’ food critic hailed the Hyde Away as a “localvore destination” that had accomplished “the best menu reinvention” of the year — “in the state of Vermont,” adds Hyde.

Chris Pierson, glad-handing host of Taco Tuesday, has watched this evolution at the little compound since the 1970s. “The value and food that comes out of that kitchen now,” he raves, “is phenomenal.”

None of this is what Hyde envisioned for himself when he graduated from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., in the mid 1970s and returned to his native New Jersey to teach high school chemistry and physics in Old Tappan (not far from the Tappan Zee Bridge). In his 10-year teaching career, Hyde also coached runners, and had a memorable experience in that sport himself, placing 13th in the 1976 New York City Marathon.

As a sideline, in New Jersey Hyde got into purchasing and renovating houses, “flipping” them to new owners when they had been restored. That interest, and a growing desire to head north in 1986 with his wife and two young sons for a “change of life,” led him to look for similar opportunities in Vermont. In 1987 he came across the Snuggery, which had seen better days. He figured he’d invest several months’ work and a bunch of money in the project, then sell at a profit, just like he’d done in New Jersey. It didn’t quite work out that way.

There was a lot of history in the place. Originally an 1820s-era farmstead, the building was converted to a ski lodge by brothers Arthur and Sewall Williams. They called it the Ulla Lodge, after Ull, the Norse god of skiing. It later became the Snuggery, having been sold to the original investors operating Sugarbush. When Hyde got to it in 1986, it was in need of a major makeover.

“The roof leaked. The heating system was in bad shape. Every room was filled with bunk beds so they could pack in 70 or 80 people,” says Hyde. “The dining room was like a camp. I spent six or seven months tearing things apart and upgrading everything to satisfy state codes.”

He held a grand opening for the renamed Hyde Away Inn & Restaurant, including Zach’s Tavern (as it was already known), in 1987, and among the notable events of the day was his introduction to a young woman from Georgia named Margaret DeFoor. “She was on her way from Georgia to Colorado. She stopped in the Valley and never left,” says Hyde.

DeFoor hired on at Sugarbush, but eventually she and Hyde got together (his first marriage had ended), and they have now been married for 20 years. Besides Hyde’s sons, Bruce Jr., 30, and Jon, 27 (he lives in California), he and DeFoor have a 9-year-old daughter, Nora, who attends elementary school in Warren.

“Margaret is the brains behind this operation,” says Hyde. “She’s involved in every aspect, from the menu to staffing to payroll and accounting, and the renovation projects that are always on our list. She has an educational psychology degree from the University of Georgia, and I think that’s very helpful in business.”

Hyde’s venture into public life began when he and a cohort of like-minded folks decided to revive the local chamber of commerce. One of the interests galvanizing them was a proposal to build a 10-acre snowmaking pond adjacent to the Mad River. It would be a safety valve when the river was running high, and could be pumped up to the mountain in winter to refresh the slopes. “It became a model for the rest of the state and for the country,” says Hyde.

The project encountered opposition, but eventually was successful. And it piqued Hyde’s interest in politics. He ran for the House of Representatives in 1994, defeating the incumbent and serving three terms. In 2002 he lost a race for auditor of accounts, but that same year James Douglas was elected governor and tapped him for commissioner of tourism and marketing.

“It was an incredible eight years,” Hyde says, recapping his tenure as commissioner. “Internet marketing was really getting going and it brought a lot of international travel to the state. The thing I worked hardest on was to show the economic impact of tourism to the state of Vermont. We dispelled the myth that it’s just part-time, minimum-wage jobs. People that stayed in the industry working full time for five years were making 15 percent more than the state’s median income.”

The lodge features 10 rooms, ranging from private suites to bunk-type rooms with shared baths. It’s full during winter weekends and holiday periods, he says, with some 80 percent of guests being repeat visitors.

In the summer, hikers descend from the Long Trail (the inn is listed in their guidebooks). “We do their laundry for them and shuttle them back up to the trail,” he says.

During the slow season, Hyde and DeFoor like to travel. “I ski and snowshoe and do a little cross-country in the wintertime,” he says, and hike and bike and play golf in the summer.

The Mad River Valley is a challenging location for businesses, because the ski areas are separated from the villages of Waitsfield, Warren, and Fayston, and Sugarbush is largely self-contained. The Hyde Away has thrived nonetheless. The locavore movement has given it a recent shot in the arm, but Hyde credits two factors for his establishment’s success and longevity.

One is consistency. “We’re open every day of the year except the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving,” he says. “That way we’ve really nurtured our local business and don’t depend entirely on visitors.”

The other? “Our biggest success has been the staff we’ve been able to cultivate. The staff makes this business what it is. It’s really tough to be mad about anything when everyone here is so nice.”

And with such a high rate of return visitors, it’s apparently tough to stay away. •