Grills Gone Wild

More than a rib place; a rib kind of place

by Will Lindner

sunset_grille0818Seeing the need for a relaxed, informal, and affordable restaurant in Stowe, Richard and Nancy Haab opened the Sunset Grille & Tap Room in 1989. The barbecue place is among the town’s longest tenured.

The first time Dan Brault encountered Richard Haab, “Haabz” — as he was nicknamed by a junior high football coach and it stuck — was standing inside the bar he and his wife, Nancy, had just purchased in Stowe, preparing to perform ... well ... “renovations,” with a sledgehammer.

This was around October 1988, and Brault was a route salesman for Farrell Distributing. He had stopped in at the establishment formerly known as Li’l Abner’s Tavern to meet the new proprietors.

“I introduced myself and said I’d like to try to get my beer on tap with them,” says Brault. “Haabz was going nuts with this sledgehammer, destroying the old place to rebuild it into the new place.”

Somehow (think sledgehammer, beer), Brault had a pretty good idea this was going to work out. Indeed it did. “We conducted business together for 15 or 16 years,” he says.

They also became golfing buddies, and although Brault has moved on professionally, now working in the sales division at National Life in Montpelier, he’s a Stowe resident and says, “I still frequent the place.”

“The place” is the Sunset Grille & Tap Room, the establishment that rose, if not from the ashes, from the splinters of Li’l Abner’s 39 years ago. Haabz, 57, and Nancy, 55, are no longer rookies in the Stowe restaurant scene; they’re among the longest-tenured restaurateurs in a town built on the twin pillars of dining and skiing.

Yet their longevity derives largely from going against the grain in this reputedly high-end market. Not for them the “cuisine” of an exclusive, tourist clientele; their specialty is barbecue — “America’s original comfort food,” as they call it, or “Northern-style Southern BBQ,” as they also call it — which “pitmaster” Haabz, himself, prepares in smokers housed in an outdoor shed behind the kitchen.

“We wanted to be different,” Haabz declares.

When they opened, he explains, Stowe had excellent restaurants serving Swiss, German, and French specialties — it’s less the case now, he contends, with many of the local restaurants having moved toward more “generic” menus — but barbecue was nowhere to be found. Stowe was not only in need of a rib place, in the Haabs’ opinion, it was in need of a rib kind of place: relaxed, informal, and affordable for families, with a menu rounded out by favorites like grilled chicken and shrimp, burgers, and New York sirloin.

Evidence of Haabz’s talent at the grill, not to mention his versatility, is provided by plaques adorning the Sunset’s walls. A sampling: “Mass. State Barbecue Championship, Ribs & Brews Festival 2007, First Place Chicken”; “Grills Gone Wild, BBQ Championships 2007, Best BBQ Vegetarian”; “Wilkins Harley-Davidson Inc., 1st Place Winner; Annual Best Damn Chili Cook-Off.”

And the Sunset Grille & Tap Room has another distinction: It stays open late.

“We’re the only place in Stowe that serves after 10 p.m.,” Haabz emphasizes. “We’ve served until midnight since the day we opened.”

Not everyone knows this, partly because the Sunset Grille, though just 100 yards or so off the Mountain Road, isn’t easily visible from that well-traveled artery between the village and the ski resort nestled among the peaks. But when they find out, it’s a nugget of valuable information. Says Haabz, “We get people who arrive for their vacations at night and they’ll often come here before checking in to their hotels.”

Nancy adds, “We’re from New York and New Jersey. [We know] a lot of people expect to find places open at night.”

Then there’s their ace in the hole: sports. Early in the game (so to speak) the Haabs perceived an appetite for a sports bar in Stowe, a place with the technology to bring in distant stations so people could follow home teams and major sports events. They mounted a huge satellite dish on their roof, and since then have adapted to newer technologies to provide even more options, viewable now on six large screens and 30 TVs — this, in a restaurant with a modest footprint.

Sunday football is a major draw, as are basketball, hockey, and the Olympics. Heidi Scheuermann — a state representative and Stowe native — fondly recalls going to the Sunset Grille & Tap Room in 2004 to watch the Boston Red Sox claim their first World Series championship in 86 years.

These characteristics — the informality, the down-to-earth menu, a full bar (with 12 beers on tap and a range of selections from Bud and Coors to Vermont microbrews), and last year’s installation of the outdoor patio and bar to accompany the volleyball, horseshoes, and other activities — help attract a local clientele that makes up for the bar’s somewhat obscure location.

“We’re now about fifty-fifty, local and tourist,” says Nancy.

One of the best parts of their story, however, is that Richard Haab and Nancy Monaco actually met each other in the very establishment — Li’l Abner’s — that Haabz was taking apart with a sledgehammer the day Brault walked in.

Their first encounter, in 1985, is the stuff of local legend, having to do with boasts and challenges within the raucous barroom about the relative skills of male and female chefs. For although they describe themselves as ski bums in their early 20s, they had legitimate culinary credentials, he having earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and she, a similar degree from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Haabz, who grew up in Wantagh on Long Island, then rambled among kitchens in New York and California until a friend, knowing his passion for skiing, told him about Stowe.

“He said, ‘There’s nothing but restaurants on the Mountain Road. You should move there. The skiing’s awesome!’ So here I am.”

Nancy, on the other hand, set out to become a ski bum! After earning her degree, this native of Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, worked as a chef in her home state for four or five years, but craved a more well-rounded lifestyle.

“In the restaurant business you work six nights a week,” she says. “I wanted something to do during the day. So I came to Vermont to learn how to ski.”

On the fateful night they met at Li’l Abner’s, she was working at the Foxfire Inn and he at the Stoweflake Resort. In short order, the combatants (so to speak) became a couple. They married in September 1988, purchased Li’l Abner’s the following month (“The owners wanted out,” says Haabz), and just before Christmas, on December 22, they opened the Sunset Grille & Tap Room.

The sledgehammer, he contends, was the right tool for the job.

“The place was a dive,” he says. “But it had a lot of potential.”

Remaking it, and running it ever since, has been very much a family affair. First on deck was Haabz’s father, George, an engineer, who trooped up from Wantagh and solved the myriad mysteries around the wiring. One of George’s early inventions, still gratefully employed by staff members, is a board attached to a string at the kitchen entryway that someone burdened by trays of dishes can step on to open the door.

Next on deck, family-wise, were the Haabs’ four daughters, who began appearing 26 years ago (Charlotte), with twins Kim and Samantha showing up two years later, and finally Ricki, 20 years ago. They chipped in throughout their youth, but as they’ve grown up, gone to college, and begun careers, any help they can give is intermittent.

What hasn’t changed, even with the development of a solid, dependable staff (now numbering around 15), is that the Haabs are hands-on owners. Haabz shows up early each day to manage ongoing renovations and maintenance before manning the smokers.

“Nancy,” he says, “does everything else. She’s the CEO, the manager, the scheduler, the bill payer, the HR person ...”

Old friend Dan Brault humorously puts it this way. “Haabz is the face of the place; Nancy’s the backbone.”

Says Heidi Scheuermann, “They are two of the hardest-working people I know. They spend day after day and every evening at that restaurant, and I think that’s a major reason for its success over the years.”

Yet somehow they build in time for their community. They have devoted themselves to youth sports since before their daughters were old enough to play (which they did). Haabz’s passion has been hockey; he has coached generations of the community’s youngsters in hockey. Nancy has served on the board of Stowe Youth Hockey and has coached softball.

Their dedication doesn’t stop there. The Sunset Grille is the longtime gathering spot for Green Up Day volunteers, and the dropping-off site for their bags of litter. They host the annual fifth grade graduation barbecue, and jump in with both feet for local causes, adding plaques of appreciation to their walls, including “Stowe Conservationist of the Year, 2011.”

“Stowe is a great community,” swears Nancy. “Everybody pulls together. Everybody helps everybody out.”

Their enthusiasm for all things local, and another plaque for Haabz from the Vermont Hospitality Council, “Restaurateur of the Year, 2006 — in recognition of dedicated service to his community …,” actually raises a question: Have Richard and Nancy Haab been going against the grain in Stowe all this time? Perhaps they are the grain.