by Aaron Warner
Pizza, like the stock market, will outlive most any economic downshift. Especially in Vermont where cheese is a necessary ingredient and ordering one for delivery is a staple among young and old. Of the many stories of small businesses failing during the pandemic, this is not one.
Nestled among the green mountains of Vermont is the lovely little town of Randolph just south of Barre on I-89. Famous for the tech college, it boasts only two pizza joints to serve the locals. They also sit across from each other next to the railroad tracks just up the main drag.
“It’s motivating to have your competition right there, although they serve a Greek style pizza and ours is more New York,” explains the new owner who goes by J.J.
Jeremiah “J.J.” Poljacik and his wife Le recently purchased 802 Pizza (formerly Al’s Pizza) and have quickly turned it into a local hot spot. The Poljacik’s are both native New Englanders, although Le’s family is originally from Vietnam. Both of them also have a gift for running the business.
J.J. saw the opportunity after several years selling cars in Burlington followed by a short stint trying to start up an SEO business. Le was homeschooling their two boys and now has a venue for her suddenly famous baked goods.
Shortly after the purchase, which included an upstairs rental unit they were able to move into, they began renovating. The campy dining area was in need of a facelift. A few mop buckets, rags and some fresh paint and the transformation was underway. Anyone who meets J.J. quickly realizes his vision is superseded only by his energy to make it happen. Within a few months he invested back into the business and brought in a handmade bar, installed the taps and invited local musicians to share their sounds with the patrons. This once struggling pizzeria was now the go to spot for many of the locals.
Opportunity strikes for those willing to hustle and hustle is J.J.’s middle name. Having a knack for learning the workings of the pizza business he was ready to replicate it just down the river in South Royalton. Similar in feel and setting, 802 number two now attracts much of the Vermont Law School crowd with similar suds and sounds with a bustling kitchen and affable staff.
When asked if he was struggling to find help like so many other businesses he says assuredly “No.”
“There is a type of person who loves the restaurant business. We bring them in for a trial to see if they are a good fit and then go from there. We usually know within a week or so. If they show up, have a good attitude and work hard we have a spot for them.”
Amidst clinks and drinks the town folk and students sit shoulder to shoulder or in the adjacent dining room in booths all enjoying and contributing to the atmosphere. If there were a post-pandemic malaise it doesn’t exist here.
Did I mention J.J. is a hustler?
Meet Tessie’s Tavern in Bethel, the latest in the Poljacik Project. If third time is the charm Tessie’s is brimming with it. Tucked behind large trees and a lengthy white wooden fence at the fork on Routes 12 and 107 (technically 88 North Road), Tessie’s is a step up from the 802 fare. The menu includes a mussel and shrimp appetizer in a broth that J.J. thinks should come with bread for you to sop it up, and I agree. Entrées range from soups to burgers, to high end steak and frites (those are fries with a superfluous t tossed in for the Ivy League crowd) at medium-end pricing.
Ensconced in the Martin House (formerly the Greenhurst Inn), Tessie’s has indoor and outdoor seating. Indoors you’ll find a well-lit bar capped with a marble looking granite top backed with a full selection of adult beverage options. The wooden floors lead into several indoor tables or outside to a wraparound porch that has intimate seating for two or spacious seating for larger parties. Tucked into a nook-like space on the porch was another local musician who played his favorites while also taking requests.
Tessie’s also boasts a patio area in front of a brick oven and a gazebo to get out of the sun and play some games if the corn-hole sets aren’t being used.
Acquiring pizzerias and taverns at this rate forced me to ask J.J. “When did you become a member of the mafia?” Laughing, he shot back, “I haven’t sold a twenty bag in twenty years, man!” This down to earth moment is a reminder of how far he’s come from his misspent youth in the Claremont area. Both J.J. and Le share a common faith and it shows. Not only are they blessed but they are blessing all who come along for a meal or a drink and a smile.