Business & Economy

Penny Cluse Cafe in Burlington to close

Penny Cluse Cafe is set to close after Thanksgiving. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Penny Cluse Cafe, the beloved Burlington restaurant that for nearly a quarter century has dished out breakfast and its own versions of Mexican classics to everyone from then-Vice President Joe Biden to University of Vermont students and their parents to the neighborhood crowd on Cherry Street, will close its doors after Thanksgiving.

“Penny Cluse was very personal to us, named after my wife’s dog,” said Charles Reeves, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Holly Cluse. 

For that reason, Reeves said, the couple does not want to sell the business. 

Reeves said he and Cluse broke the news to employees Monday night.

Unlike other restaurants, Penny Cluse Cafe is not closing because of the pandemic or the resulting difficulty in hiring staff.

“We wanted to work until a point where it made sense for us to go and we’ve hit that point and we want to go out being totally up on things and choose our own time,” Reeves said. “It’s just time for us to go.”

Joe Biden, Sue Minter
Vice President Joe Biden considers what to order as he has breakfast at the Penny Cluse Cafe in 2016. He is seated with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter, right, and U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Marcelle Leahy, foreground. Pool file photo by Glenn Russell

A longtime local favorite, the restaurant has also attracted well-known visitors, including, most recently, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who dined there Saturday.

Reeves said he might pursue other projects, but he does not plan to open up another restaurant anytime soon. The couple plan to sell the building but keep the building next door, where they opened Lucky Next Door, a cafe that has remained closed since the pandemic. 

He said he got into serving breakfast by accident, when he had graduated from Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, and moved to San Francisco. 

“I really liked the idea that in a breakfast place, you see your customers a lot,” Reeves said. “I wanted Penny Cluse to be a place where people felt like they could come in by themselves.” 

Reeves said he was able to pull that off when he and Cluse opened Penny Cluse Cafe in 1998, a year after they moved to Vermont. 

“The counter is always full,” he said. “People know our staff. We know our customers, and that’s the best part, knowing people.”

Reeves said having a stable of regular customers allowed him and his longtime chef, Maura O’Sullivan, to try out new dishes and see right away if customers liked them. 

Asked to name his favorites, he cited the chiles rellenos, the chicken tortilla soup, the salsa verde and the escabeche.

The restaurant is famous for its homemade jam and home fries and vegan diners rave about the tofu scramble. 

Reeves said he has seen many people who were young when they worked in the restaurant “grow up and become adults and do things and have kids and buy houses and open their own businesses.” 

Among Penny Cluse alumni, Reeves cited Andrew Mechanic, who opened the Swingin’ Pinwheel, a Burlington restaurant that closed last year, and Sipha Lam, who opened Wilder Wines, a wine store across the street from Penny Cluse Cafe. 

“We’ve been so happy here and I know it’s going to be distressing for a lot of people that we’re closing and that this known quantity of a restaurant isn’t going to be here anymore,” Reeves said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect title for Janet Yellen.

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: fthys@vtdigger.org

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