The Vermont Mexican Restaurant Curse

If there is a Mexican Restaurant curse in that State of Vermont, then the town of Rutland VT is its epicenter.

Rutland is a town where even Taco Bell Can Fail

Mexican food in Rutland, Vermont is a problem. People like to eat there, they even like to eat Mexican Food – but they just don’t seem to like to eat Mexican food for very long. There have been many failed attempts to provide Mexican style cuisine in the Rutland area, all which resulted in the ultimate demise of every Mexican restaurant despite the valiant efforts of the restaurant owners and large injections of cash.

Rutland is a small, but busy town in Central Vermont that is home to some 18,000 residents and is located near to the ever-popular ski and snowboard area of Killington and Pico Mountains. It is in this town that there exists an awkward story about the curse of the Mexican Restaurant. There are no longer any Mexican restaurants in this town. This is the story of the curse of Mexican fare in Rutland VT. You may ask “does it really matter” if there is no Mexican food in Rutland? As there is no Chick-Filet in New York City, nobody eats grits in Boston and so who cares if no Chalupa’s are served on Main Street Rutland? This story is not really about the fact that Rutland doesn’t have any Mexican restaurants anymore, its more about that local people believed that there was a market for Mexican cuisine and then they were disappointed by the ultimate demise of said restaurants.

The general population of Rutland is mostly made up of blue collar, salt-of-the-earth people with the odd smattering of skiers, vacationers, locals and lost deer. The city has the usual fast-food joints like McDonald’s, KFC, Subway and Burger King. There are also a handful of diner style outlets like Denny’s, Friendly’s and Applebee’s – but no IHOP. Rutland even has a sushi restaurant downtown, so this demonstrates that the town is open to eclectic tastes. According to the 2000 census of Rutland’s 18,000 inhabitants only 0.15% are Mexican , that’s just 27 people who declared their country affiliation was south of the border. So at the very least there are 27 potential customers for Mexican food.

With the failure of two previous Taco Bells, a third time unlucky ?

The food at Taco Bell may be as close to Mexican food as KFC is to Emeril Lagasse, but it is interesting that two Taco Bell restaurants have failed in Rutland so far – something that has not been equaled before in the history of Yum Brands (The owners of KFC, A&W All-American Food, Taco Bell, Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut restaurants) These Taco Bell restaurant failures may be a general bellwether for Mexican food in Rutland. If a Taco Bell restaurant cannot survive, then one could assume that no Mexican style restaurants can survive either.

The first Taco Bell in Rutland was opened in 1984 on Route 4 (at the Strongs Ave. corner) close to Walmart and the Rutland Plaza Shopping Center). The location was one of high traffic, but this wasn’t enough to sustain it, this Taco Bell survived four years. Yum brands tried again with a second Taco Bell located on Route 4, closer to Mendon, located close to Home Depot, this too failed within a couple of years. It then stood empty for ten years, with no potential investor stepping up to take over – Taco Bell is, after all, a franchise and with no franchisee stepping up to the plate and willing to take over, Taco Bell would have to make it one of the rare “Taco Bell Owned and Operated” restaurants if they wanted to get it opened – given this locations’ failed history Yum Brands was in no position to take that gamble with stockholders money. It’s quite rare for a Taco Bell restaurant to fail, especially when they are the only game in town. It’s pretty much unheard of for two consecutive Taco Bell restaurants in the same town to fail.

In 2008 a third attempt at a Taco Bell opened up on Route 4

Located at Farrell Road and  close to the junction of Route 7 South, another Taco Bell opened up. Despite initial amazingly strong numbers, long lines at the counter and thirty minute delays for food, the novelty for this fast-food restaurant has quickly worn off for Rutland locals and its business has suffered a sharp drop off in recent months. Its reputation for errors on the orders has not improved since opening and it seems to be following in the footsteps of the other failed restaurants with poor service and product consistency and now lackluster sales. Given the history of the two previous Taco Bell restaurants, this Taco Bell may well also be headed for the scrap heap, which is a darned shame as an average Taco Bell costs about $1.7 million dollars to setup and a lot of local jobs will be lost. It also puts the south section of Rutland on the map that has just been supermarket central for a decade.

Other Mexican Restaurant Failures: Black Cactus Cafe

The Black Cactus Cafe was a progressive Mexican restaurant opened on Wales Street in the mid-nineties under its original name Tacos Tacos, a franchise started by a restaurateur from the Nantucket area. The Cafe was aimed at the diner style Mexican food market, perfect for blue collar demographic of Rutland. The name was changed to The Black Cactus Cafe in 1995 and it went on to be quite popular. At its Zenith, the business was sold to local business people and much of the original menu and ambiance were changed, and the clientele fell drastically. It was resold to another group of investors, and eventually met its demise when Candeleros (a copy of the successful sister restaurant in Manchester Vermont) moved in just a couple of doors down and made the Black Cactus Cafe seem tired and uninspired.

High End Mexican Dining Failure: Candeleros

Also opened on Wales Street was Candeleros restaurant. This impressive high-end Mexican restaurant had a huge amount of dollar investment poured into it. According to the city assessor’s office five condominium units were rolled into one, to create a 5000 square feet, 120 seat restaurant. This restaurant was designed and decorated with a Southwestern and Mexican flavor, using green lumber for an aging effect, and multi layered rough plastered walls with cream, yellow and orange coloring. Underneath were grayed pine floors. The chairs and booths were lined with pillows and bolsters. A greenhouse room faced the street. The copper-topped horseshoe bar seated 30. This was an impressive Mexican restaurant had a great start in life. Initially the food was pricey, and people in Rutland aren’t used to something considered “high end” Mexican food, a oxymoron of sorts. Its sister restaurant in Manchester VT  still does well with ten dollar burritos and fifteen dollar tequila shots, but in blue collar Rutland these items weren’t flying out of the kitchen. They adjusted their food and pricing accordingly, bringing them both down to meet local demand, but that’s when things got bad – dropping off the quality didn’t lead to success. The desperate, but enterprising, owner of Candeleros started having Rave party’s on Saturday nights to get some foot traffic, but he didn’t manage to increase the register take enough to break even and they finally closed the restaurant in 2005.

Smokin’ Bowls Mexican Shack Burns Down To The Ground

Located about an hour away from Rutland at Interstate 91 and Route 103 in Rockingham VT is Smokin Bowls, a great Mexican fare shack, with amazing chili and late night service. According to locals, the Rutland Mexican curse stretched out its destructive fingers that night and burned the shack down in the winter of 2009. It has since been rebuilt, with additional fire protection.
Lackluster Mexican Restaurants at Killington and Pico Mountains

Baja Burrito At Killington Fails To Deliver Mexican Food

25 miles away from Rutland, a Mexican fare restaurant ” Baja Burrito” provides skiers and snowboarders with Mexican style food, but its poor quality and expensive prices make it a “last resort” for Killington locals. It is viewed by K locals as even less Mexican that of Taco Bell (If that’s even possible) and its inconvenient location high on the Killington Access Road ensures that the Rutland locals do not patronize this restaurant unless they are skiing on the mountain or they are coming home from work at Killington. Both Pico and Killington Mountains have Burrito stands that operate during the ski season, but both of these are sad “Microwave” reheat stations where they serve up store-bought frozen burritos. At 400% profit per serving even Chris Nyberg, the money-hungry CEO of Killington, has to be impressed that Killington skiers would stoop so low.

A Smattering of Other Failed Mexican Restaurants In The Area:

Sharkeys Grill in Mendon VT – Failed in 2004
Taco Station in Pittsford VT – Failed in 1996
Mike’s Taquitos in Ludlow VT – Failed in 1992
Tex’s Mex Fare in Chittenden VT – Failed in 1989

The many attempts at bringing Mexican food to the Rutland area appear to be littered with failures. Clearly the people want it. but quickly tire of it. leaving the restaurant high and dry. The more eclectic patrons of Killington, who are naturals for varied types of cuisine, have little choice in the Mexican matter. This crowd from New York City and Boston has more varied tastes, which could explain the roaring success of Sushi Yoshi, the local sushi restaurant at Killington and other eclectic cuisine in the area – but they don’t really have a reasonable choice for Mexican food.

According to Greg Masters, a regular customer at the Skye Box Grille at Killington “Skiers at Killington were livid when both Mexican restaurants closed down in Rutland, “We have no Mexican food at Killington and had to travel 25 miles to Rutland, now they cannot even do that” when reminded about Baja Burrito Mr. Masters added that he deemed their food not worthy to be classed as Mexican food.

“It’s food I suppose, but it’s not Mexican” Jeff Miles, another Skye Box Grille regular, spoke about The Black Cactus cafe “I loved going down there, but most people in Killington didn’t even know it existed, it was always worth the trip for me though – now it’s all over”

“Don’t expect Rutland local-folk to appreciate good Mexican food anytime soon” added Janice Stern, a cashier working at a mountain store on the Killington access road during her school-break “I am originally from Florida and I love Mexican food”

So what are the plans for Mexican food in Rutland and Killington? “Don’t expect anything soon” says Janice “But you are welcome to come to my house tonight” “Monday is always Taco night” she added. In the spirit of journalistic research we did go to see Janice but her Taco was something else altogether.

Susan Abrahamson

Recent written research pieces have been printed in Wired Magazine, Tech Review, Business Insider and Cat Fancier. Although the latter story did not require any hands-on tech knowledge, Mr Tiddles gave it his full approval and his fuzzy logic is really rather cute.