It wasn’t the 10-year anniversary she had envisioned.
Instead, Courtney Roman--co-owner of Railroad & Main--sat in an empty restaurant Tuesday afternoon waiting for the phone to ring so she could jot down an order for curbside pickup.
Months ago, she had been thinking of how to celebrate having her own business open for 10 years--pondering the idea of a “Friends and Family” night to honor the occasion with those closest to her. While that scenario might have seen less people dining than if they were serving to the public, it would have certainly been well-over the number of bodies who walked through the doors March 31.
Still, Courtney and her business partner, husband Todd Roman, were able to sit back and appreciate what they have and the support they’ve received from their customers over the years.
“It's very strange, but we're grateful to still be here,” Courtney said. “The empty restaurant isn't because of anything we're doing; it's just a terrible circumstance, and we'll all get through it. It's so nice to see cars in the parking lot and lined up to pick-up food. People have been unbelievable; everyone’s just been great. People are amazing.”
While Courtney has been serving up food at 35 Main Street for 10 years, it hasn’t always been with Todd, and it hasn’t always been under the name Railroad & Main.
Courtney, who grew up nearby and graduated from Colchester High School, first opened the Essex Grill on March 31, 2010. At the time, she wasn’t married and used the help of her father to get things off the ground. She had been working for, and garnered most of her head-of-restaurant experience with, Chili’s.
Towards the end of her tenure there, Courtney was traveling a lot--helping start new locations for the chain before moving on to another one. She then wanted to move back to Chittenden County and settle down. She initially worked at the former Sirloin Saloon in Shelburne before it closed in June 2008. Courtney then went to bartend at TGI Friday’s while she looked for a place to call her own.
As an entrepreneur in her early 30’s, Courtney wanted something “safer” than being another restaurant in Burlington. She spent over eight months searching for the right location before finding what used to house AJ’s Kitchen in Essex Junction.
“I didn't want to get into a place that was so high pressure that there was no room for error,” she said, “because I hadn't done it before. I wanted a place that would give me a learning curve.”
Courtney was able to lease the 35 Main Street location--telling her landlord from the start that she was looking to eventually make a purchase. That happened about a year later, and the building was hers. Courtney says her father was instrumental in getting the restaurant off the ground--helping to paint and putting coolers together.
After opening, Courtney was in need of a seasoned bartender and server, so she reached out to a friend and former colleague at TGI Friday’s: Todd.
“He was like, ‘Give me two weeks; I'll give my notice, and I'll be there,’” she said. “And the rest is history.”
Courtney says the restaurant would evolve about every two years--whether it was by changing the menu, working on the structure, or making aesthetic upgrades. Finally, she and Todd figured they couldn’t do anything further and pondered the future of the Essex Grill.
“That building had seen its best day, and we just weren't going to get anywhere with it,” she said. “We shopped around; we looked at downtown Burlington, and we looked at places in Williston. But we had built something here, and we didn't want to leave; I didn't want to lose that community feeling. I’m sure every restaurant says this, but I feel like we have the most loyal base of people who come and support us. We just didn't want to leave Essex.”
Courtney’s father then proposed the idea of tearing down the Essex Grill and building something new--something personal and specific to their dreams. The former establishment was demolished in March of 2018, and the Romans were back up and running by November of that year.
“What's better than creating something completely [your own],” Courtney said, “where every tile, every paint color, every light fixture we specifically picked out. We just couldn't be happier.”
With the new physical restaurant came a prime chance to take on a new name and identity. Courtney says there was some back-and-forth--conflicting thoughts between her and Todd as to whether or not they should keep their business called the Essex Grill. Going from a location that had three barstools and four beer taps to one with 18 stools, 16 beer taps, a fireplace, and a sleek design, Todd didn’t think “grill” suited the new atmosphere they had created.
While Courtney was hesitant to change, she told her husband she could be persuaded with the right idea. When Todd pitched Railroad & Main, she was all aboard.
Nearly a year and a half later, the Romans are looking forward to getting their customers back to the tables.
“We have regulars who come in here weekly--sometimes twice a week,” Courtney said, “and it'll be nice to get back in touch with the community. It's very isolating. We're going to be very happy to be putting food on china versus into a to-go box.”
She noted that they might have some sort of celebration when they’re able to reopen their doors--combining their 10-year anniversary with being able to once again seat their guests.