Agnes Devereux moved to New Paltz in order to enroll her children in Mountain Laurel Waldorf School. With her youngest graduating from the public high school, she and her husband are now ready for the next chapter of their lives. What that means is that Devereux’s highly-regarded restaurant, Village Tearoom and Bake Shop, is closing as of April 14. The property has already been sold, and all that’s left to do is to pack up and head off to northern Dutchess County, where Devereux will continue to work as a caterer.
“I never planned to open a restaurant,” Devereux said as she thought back over the past decade and a half. When she and her husband, Daniel Sheehy, purchased a home on Plattekill Avenue along with the building next door, which was originally the tailor shop of Aldred Schoonmaker, she had an inkling of putting a tea room on the first floor, and perhaps rent the second story of what was then a two-story home out as office space. A designer by training and locavore by passion, the idea of restoring the historic building fired her imagination. As she plowed through the building code requirements, it became obvious that serving tea and scones alone would not turn a profit, and that offices above would increase the renovation costs significantly. The business plan morphed into a full-service restaurant with catering, but — and this is one of Devereux’s regrets — she never revisited the name.
“I regretted the name right away,” she said. That’s because in the United States, the connotation of a tea room is of “doilies, very fine china and fussy things. It gives men the heebie-jeebies.” In Dublin a tea room is not presumed to have such a narrow scope, but by the time she realized there was a cultural gap it was too late. She feels she’s been working against the name ever since.
Having grown up in a hotel, service always came naturally to Devereux, and acclaim followed with articles in a number of publications. Knowing what she wanted the restaurant to look and feel like, with an emphasis on local food and sincere devotion to service, made it easy for the designer in her to put the plans together. Flying in the face of the perception that it’s hard to open a business in New Paltz, she received her special-use permit the night the public hearing was opened in 2004. “It’s not that this community is anti-business,” she said. Rather, “People come with lawyers, but they are not prepared.” Devereux wasn’t: Planning Board members got all the plans required under village code at the time, along with pictures of the signage, diagrams showing the location of every planter, chips to show the paint colors, a detailed menu and even samples of the baked goods which visitors to the village have been enjoying ever since. “There is a list” of requirements, she said, and the best way to open a business is to follow it in the first place. “I did not have a bad experience. I’m a designer, and I treated this project like a client.”
That those particular buildings were available changed local history. The original plan was to buy a home “in the country,” but Devereux started imagining an isolated life, driving children hither and yon, while her husband was away in New York City, and village life emerged as preferable. She remembers the kids walking to Mountain Laurel once they were old enough, and how “that first trip to Jack’s was a rite of passage.” All the while she was able to live right next door to her business, not a common thing in the 21st century.
He may be behind the scenes, but Devereux is clear that this venture would never have succeeded without her husband. He was up to his elbows in the initial renovation, and every morning he inspects the place for burned-out light bulbs as he empties the bathroom garbage. His professional photography has solidified a certain look in print and online, his handyman services have been invaluable, and before delivery was available he picked up all the local produce at a variety of farms and shops in the Hudson Valley. “He does the work that gets no glory,” Devereux said of her loyal partner.
“I love old houses,” she said, and restoring this one was a challenge which excited, rather than daunted, her. As is often the case, some of the most solid portions were the oldest. Additions put on decades later had dirt foundations, which had to be shored up. Some bigger changes were also in store: the low ceilings of old may feel cozy, but don’t comply with current building code. This is why the windows on the second floor seem quite low; the ceiling of the first story needed to be raised a foot, and the floor along with it. The restoration wasn’t always smooth, either: when they winched in the front wall which had bowed out, all the clapboard siding fell off and needed to be replaced. She knew that neighbors at the time feared “a frat house” on the block, and took those concerns to heart. To help guard against that in the future, she had the building registered on the village’s list of landmarks. That may have been her first brush with the historic preservation folks, but not her last: Devereux joined the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), assisting and advising others in the community on how to best maintain and add on to old buildings like hers.
Just as she rejects the sense that New Paltz is an anti-business community, Devereux doesn’t buy the idea that the HPC is the “aesthetic police.” Rather, its members provide free advice at an expert level, ideas which tend to look better and cost less by working with the existing structure rather than imposing a different concept over the top. It was the historic feel of New Paltz that lured her here in the first place, and she’s proud to have been part of a group committed to preserving that. “It’s exciting to have an old house,” she said, and people blog about restoring them. In fact, when she completes her move, she will be creating a new Instagram account to chronicle the restoration of their next home.
Devereux might be able to explain where she purchased every door (lovingly refinished and framed by Sheehy in the front yard) and how she preserved the original beams (some of which were so beetle-riddled they are now only decorative), but the list of all of her employees has grown longer than her mind can retain. While she’s had many skilled, loyal, longtime employees, far more have come and gone in short order. She does recall how one college student left for a break during her training shift and never returned, saying nothing. “She was a communications major,” Devereux said with a laugh.
Another statistic is closer to mind: no less than 36 restaurants have opened and closed in the time the Village Tearoom has been in operation. A restaurateur notices such things, although she never saw those others as competition. “It’s a reflection of me,” she said, and as such can’t really be reproduced by someone else. That reflection includes her commitment to seasonally-appropriate food: “I don’t want inferior berries,” she said, and thus customers will never see a berry tart on the menu in the winter. Desserts are the part of food people seem most likely not to expect seasonal, organic or local food, but that’s never been the case at the Village Tearoom. “People expect sweets all year round, but growing up in Ireland, we only had access to what was in season.” There’s no preaching, just a quiet commitment to what she values and her customers have long appreciated.
Since the tea room was opened, the trees have grown stout, including a copper beech which was saved from certain doom by pushing the parking far from the building. Devereux believes it had been surrounded by asphalt at some point in the past, and that putting in planters rather than cars saved its life. She knows there could be more parking in front, but she herself didn’t want her customers looking at a sea of cars when they dined out front.
The shift to catering alone will cut back on the workers needed, as well as simplify the schedule. It’s one thing to provide for bar mitzvahs and weddings — often in locations so rustic that even water needs to be brought in — but it’s quite another to do all that while keeping a restaurant open for business at the same time. In recent months, Devereux has returned to baking because her baker left, and hiring a replacement during the slower winter months didn’t make a lot of sense. Fortunately, it’s something she loves, although the early mornings are not her favorite. She’ll do all the baking once the transition to Agnes Devereux Catering is complete. Many of her former full-timers are more than happy to help her cater weekend events around their weekday careers, as well.