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Mission Accomplished

Written by Matt Crawford on . Posted in Entrepreneurs, Taste of the Landscape

Imagined while at war, soldier’s dream becomes reality as military-minded brewery takes hold in St. Albans

Photographed by Gary Hall

It is — as Billy Joel sang in his ’70s hit “Piano Man” — a pretty good crowd for a Saturday. Except it isn’t Saturday — it’s the middle of the week in northern Vermont and the crowd at 14th Star Brewery spills from the hardwood bar to the picnic table seating to the back room where about 30 people, predominantly women, take part in a directed art exercise marketed as “Paint and a Pint.”

Over the shoulders of the beer drinkers at the bar, the regular crowd shuffles in, queuing up to have their half-gallon glass growlers filled. Some quiz the bartenders about new beers on tap, some swill small samples before deciding on what brew to bring home to tide them over until the weekend.

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Andrea Gagner, CEO of 14th Star, spearheaded the growth of the company, which now rings up annual sales of $2.5 million.

Andrea Gagner is slinging beers tonight. She’s actually the CEO of the brewery, but as the painters and the regulars commingle in the taproom, she’s pouring pints ofValor ale and Tribute double IPA, ringing up sales at the register.

Located in the heart of downtown St. Albans, 14th Star Brewery is a part of Vermont’s thriving craft beer industry. In four short years, an idea that was hatched during downtime between patrols in Afghanistan has grown from a part-time operation into a company with a reported $2.5 million in annual sales. But there’s more to it than that. 14th Star’s ascension is a case study in small business success, a central figure in downtown St. Albans’ aggressive revitalization and a reliable partner for numerous charitable causes, especially those focused on veterans.

The genesis of 14th Star begins in a small outpost east of Bagram Airfield, a sprawling U.S. military base in Afghanistan, where Steve Gagner was serving. There, he would often come under sporadic and usually inaccurate rocket fire from Taliban troops, but there was also plenty of that hurry-up-and-wait that the U.S. Army is famous for. In those monotonous moments an idea took shape.

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Engine Light Flashing | Changing times hit snowmobiling

Written by Matt Crawford on . Posted in Outdoor Rec and Nature

This copyrighted article appears in the Winter 2014−15 issue of Vermont Life magazine. 

snowy Saturday will come this winter when one of the toughest tables to reserve in all of Vermont’s dining establishments will be in a rustic little structure near Walden Mountain. The walls are particleboard. Ketchup and mustard come in color-coded plastic containers. The napkins are paper. There’s not a sommelier, sous chef or valet on staff. The menu can best be described as “1950s drive-in” — burgers and fries, cheesesteaks and hot dogs. Hit it early enough, and there’s plenty of homemade zucchini relish to be had.

Situated in the hills just west of Lyndonville, The Coles Pond Sledders Cook Shack sits smack-dab on a snowmobile trail. Location, of course, is key to its success. It’s open for just a few months of the year and fills its 16-seat capacity on those weekend days when it’s snowy and cold and an estimated 00 snowmobiles zip by on their way to Hardwick or to a nearby lookout that offers stunning views of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.

High winds prevented jumpers from going too big, but the crowd of about 150 people were impressed during an event sponsored by the Barre Town Thunder Chickens. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

High winds prevented jumpers from going too big, but the crowd of about 150 people were impressed during an event sponsored by the Barre Town Thunder Chickens. Photograph by Bear Cieri.

“We get fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends — entire families that stop in here for something to eat,” said George Peak of Walden, operator of the Cook Shack. “I like to think the food is part of the reason, but the reality is all those people come here to be part of something.”

A mix of adventure travel, outdoor exploration and social event, snowmobiling sees about 10 percent of Vermonters ride each winter, plus thousands more who come here from out of state to take part. Many businesses are along for the ride — hotels, gas stations, machine dealerships, clothing retailers, mechanics and restaurants — to the tune of an estimated $350 million a year generated for the state economy.

Yet, over little more than a decade, the number of participants has shown a steep decline. In the winter of 2002–2003, membership in the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers stood at about 45,000. By last year, the number had dropped to about 23,000, a plunge of almost 50 percent.

What happened?

As a winter tradition in Vermont, snowmobiling, in historical terms, is relatively new, and holds a tenuous place in the state’s imagination. If Vermont recreation had a Mount Rushmore, snowmobiling would not be on it. Hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, cycling — all for various reasons connect more directly to Vermont’s identity, even though snow machines have been on the landscape, starting as backwoods workhorses, since the 1930s. It wasn’t until the late 1950s, when factories started manufacturing smaller gas-powered engines, that the first modern-day snowmobiles began to take shape. In the cultural backdrop of the time, with the emphasis on muscle cars, drag racing and powerboats, snow machines were a natural fit as a new recreational pursuit, and a boom time began.

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Rome Was Built in 12 Years

Written by Matt Crawford on . Posted in Entrepreneurs, Outdoor Rec and Nature

An independent snowboard company quietly racks up millions in sales

Josh Reid and Paul Maravets, founders of Rome Snowboards. Photo by Shem Roose.

Photo: Paul Maravetz, left, and Josh Reid, right, founders of Rome Snowboard Design Syndicate, outside their workplace in Waterbury. Photograph by Shem Roose.

There are those who get Rome Snowboards and those who don’t. Those who do include a server at a Waterbury watering hole called The Reservoir. She’s balancing truffle fries, a Heady Topper and an even more obscure Vermont microbrew on a serving tray while a black order pad adorned with “Rome SDS” stickers juts out of the back pocket of her jeans.

Across the street at the Blackback Pub & Flyshop, yet another Waterbury watering hole, a middle-aged man with a plumbing and heating company logo on the left breast of his tan polo shirt jumps into a conversation at the bar. When he’s told the worldwide headquarters of Rome Snowboards is less than a mile away, in a nondescript building on a dead-end street before the bridge across the Winooski River, he gives that little head shake often used to express mild confusion. He’s never heard of Rome. He’s blissfully unaware that Rome is carving out enough of a worldwide market presence to support about 140 unique products — a line that fills a catalog as thick as a sandwich.

Rome’s high-profile/no-profile dichotomy exists

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