The morning begins shirtless and in a back storage room.
At a little after 6:00 on a Wednesday in early October, just a few minutes before he’ll start greeting guests, inn owner Dan Cote is scrambling to find something to wear. “I don’t have any shirts!” he bellows to the B&B’s assistant innkeeper, Jessica Knisley, who looks only mildly startled to find her boss fishing through a box of yellow polos. “Oh, Dan,” she says, stepping into the room and turning toward a freezer for a box of sausages. “Good morning.”
Dan’s laughing, but he’s not joking. He is out of shirts—which is why he’s pawing through stuff normally reserved for guests and the B&B’s small gift shop. His own shirts are clumped together, freshly washed but still in need of ironing—something his wife, Penny, with whom he owns the Inn Victoria, an eight-room B&B in downtown Chester, Vermont, just hasn’t had time to tackle. “Oh, we’ve been getting dressed in the freezer room for a long time,” she cracks later. Dan, fully accustomed to this reality as well, grabs a shirt—a women’s shirt, he’ll eventually find out—and slips it on.
Minutes later, Dan is in the living room, greeting a guest named Woody, a retiree from Orlando who’s seeing the New England foliage with his wife and eight other Floridians. “Good morning!” Dan calls out, striding toward his guest. “How was your sleep?”
The bed was comfortable, Woody replies, but then he launches into how the hot-water tank must be busted. “My wife ran out of hot water while trying to fill the bathtub,” he says. Woody’s not indignant—he’s more matter-of-fact than anything—but also proceeds to tell every guest about what happened. It’s like a tape on automatic loop: Good morning! Boy, you’ll never guess what happened to us. Dan apologizes after the first round of the story, then heads to the basement to check on the hot-water heater. He does a quick inspection, but he knows there’s nothing wrong. Just too many people trying to take a bath all at once, he says. “This has probably occurred only a couple of other times,” he notes. “Each of those tubs can take about 60 gallons—it can happen.”
I saw that hot-water heater, and almost every other square inch of the building and the Cotes’ business.
For two days I shadowed the innkeepers as they operated their B&B—work that essentially amounts to a never-shrinking to-do list of greeting and helping guests, making food, cleaning rooms, contending with mountains of paperwork, and standing ready for any unexpected curveball that might be thrown at them. Their days often begin at 6:00 and conclude 16 hours later in a heap of exhaustion in a cramped apartment at the back of their building.
In the three years since they’ve become B&B owners, the Cotes’ social life has largely ground to a halt. Too impatient with the couple’s busy schedule, many friends have drifted away, while the couple’s three grown children make appointments with their parents for phone conversations. They’ve learned to live with a phone that never stops ringing, weathered difficult guests, packed on pounds, and learned that it’s difficult to plan a getaway as simple as a one-hour bike ride. As for a vacation? “It’s the most stressful,” Penny says. “When you leave, you’re breathing hard and you’re exhausted. It’s like pulling away from a suction cup or something.”
But then there’s the good stuff: the friendships they’ve formed with many of their guests, for example; the chance to work together; the success they’ve had in doubling the inn’s business; and the fact that after so many years of working for other people, the Cotes are their own bosses. “The flexibility of our time is massive,” Dan says. “I don’t feel like a pig in a pen anymore.”
That holds true even when one of them is in the basement early in the morning trying to examine a hot-water heater.
Having finished his inspection, Dan hustles back upstairs, where he finds Woody, with whom he has a good rapport, still regaling guests about the hot water. The inn owner flashes another smile, letting only a quick ribbing (“A good man like you shouldn’t need all that hot water to get clean”) reveal his mild irritation at Woody’s reluctance to let the issue go. Besides, he doesn’t have time to linger on it. The breakfast table needs setting, there’s a meeting with local business owners to prepare for, and because of the rain, a couple doing an inn-to-inn walking tour will have to be taxied to their next B&B.
Dan hurries over to the dining room, where Penny is putting juice glasses on the table. “How we doing, boss?” he asks.
“Doing good,” she says with a hearty smile.
It’s just a little after 7:00 a.m.
There’s a saying in the B&B world that goes like this: Walk into any inn and ask the owners whether their business is for sale, and you’ll be invited to talk numbers. For many, the pull of an idyllic Bob Newhart kind of life quickly morphs into the reality of long days, low profits, and little relief. It’s why the average B&B owner lasts just six years on the job.
Dan and Penny Cote haven’t hit that wall. They bought the Inn Victoria, set in the heart of Vermont’s Okemo Valley, in 2010. Like so many others, they came to the business by way of a dream. The Cotes, both 54 and Mainers, had first hitched onto the idea of becoming innkeepers 25 years ago, while staying at Vermont’s Quechee Inn. The lure of working together, as well as the chance for Penny and Dan, who have a heightened talent for making people feel welcome, to build a business around helping others, was also appealing.
For the next two decades, Dan and Penny lived their lives, settling into a large home outside Portland, Maine, raising three kids and assembling successful careers. Penny started her own school; Dan became an insurance executive. He earned six figures, drove nice cars, and took his family on expensive vacations.
But three decades in a pressure-packed corporate environment took their toll. In 2009, Penny watched with alarm as her husband shed 20 pounds in just two months. He was stressed, she says: “I knew that if we didn’t change our lives, I was going to lose him to a heart attack. And Dan, since I’ve known him, was and is a dreamer. We couldn’t go down the street without his talking about buying a business and fixing it up. It got to the point where if you’re going to do it, do it.”
And, like that, the Cotes redirected their lives. The couple’s long-held plan to retire at the age of 55 got bumped up five years. They cashed in their savings, put their house on the market, and started shopping for a B&B. In September 2009 they set foot inside the Inn Victoria for the first time. Four months later, they owned the place.
“The banks all thought we were crazy,” Penny says. “Dan wrote himself out of his position [at the insurance company]. He was probably the only person back then willing to leave his job. But we got a buyout and used the money to make the down payment on the business.”
“We’re doing nothing!” Penny exclaims.
Two hours into their workday, the Cotes are taking a quick break. It’s a ritual they’ve built into their mornings, a little five-minute moment near the start of the day in which the two check in with each other, see what’s pressing, and gear up for what lies ahead.
“You have to do something like this,” Penny says, clutching a mug of coffee. “And you have to take a vacation here and there, because otherwise you’ll burn out. And we don’t want to burn out.”
But that’s exactly what nearly happened their first year in the business. Back then, they hadn’t hired anyone to help run the inn. They did all the laundry, all the cleaning, all the cooking. They’d finish cleaning up the kitchen at night, then scurry up to their apartment to iron sheets until 10:00 or 11:00. By autumn, a Vermont B&B’s busiest time of year, the Cotes were running on fumes.
“Those first six months, we were just exhausted,” Penny says. “No word for it. It was like having a brand-new baby. You don’t know your name. I’m alive and I’m walking, but I really don’t know what else I’m doing. At one point, we were going to the grocery store for like the 92nd time that week: We pulled into the parking lot, locked the doors, put the seats down, and fell asleep in the car.”
When their break ends, Dan and Penny head back inside. The Florida group is finished with breakfast and is getting ready to leave. It’s a long goodbye, with hugs from Penny and photos of everyone together.
It’s also a window into the quick bonds the Cotes form with their guests. Many are repeat visitors who have grown close to them. Cards, e-mails, and presents are all exchanged. During my time with the couple, Penny received an expensive-looking Army jacket from one of her regular guests as a show of support for the Cotes’ son, who’s served three tours in Iraq. Other presents have included a rocking chair, bottles of wine, and jewelry.
“You have to love people and love having them in your house,” Penny says. “If the house is empty for a day or two, I don’t like it. We like to share our wine. We like to sit and talk. Some people don’t want to be bothered, but there are lots of others who’ll want to talk all night.”
But in the business of accepting complete strangers into your home, you’re also welcoming a divergent set of personalities into your life. Not everyone who walks through your door is likable, not even to a pair of accommodating innkeepers. In a desk drawer in their apartment, the Cotes keep what they call the “Jerk File,” a short list of people they’d just as soon never see again. The two couples who bailed on trying to pay after spending a day drinking the Cotes’ wine, watching television, and then ordering dinner? They’re on the list. So is the guy who took over a second room and tried to get out of paying for it.
Also on the list is the overly sarcastic guest from D.C. who treated the inn’s staff like hired help. “He just seemed to enjoy making people’s lives miserable,” Penny says. “At one point he made our daughter cry. During breakfast he and his wife were reading, and I asked them, ‘Oh, what are you reading?’ He just looked up and said, ‘A book.’ Just like that. I had to start giving it back or I was going to punch him in the face.”
Then there are the complainers. They don’t like that there’s so much food served at dinner, that Chester’s sleepy Main Street is too “noisy,” or that the inn’s cable package doesn’t carry enough sports channels. “People, usually the husbands, get pissed when they can’t watch football,” Dan says. “We don’t have ESPN, and the world just stops.”
But, the Cotes say, 95 percent of their guests they adore: the doctor and his friend who entertained them late into the night on piano; the woman from the Netherlands recovering from cancer who “made everyone feel good about themselves”; and the ones who feel so relaxed that they’re perfectly comfortable hanging out in the main room in their bathrobes. “Sometimes they’ll fall asleep right on the couch,” Penny says.
The Florida group ranks right up there, too. Last night the contingent stayed up late with the Cotes, drinking wine and singing in the main room around the piano—which makes the goodbyes hard for Dan and Penny. They really don’t want them to leave.
But no sooner is the group’s big van backing up than the Cotes are back to work. They clear the dining-room table, and Penny helps Jessica organize the kitchen for dinner. The plan to serve pork loin gets scrapped because the meat won’t thaw in time—which means that at some point Dan will need to go to the market for steaks. Then there are the rooms. The inn is fully booked for the night, so every room must be turned over. Bathrooms have to be scrubbed clean; floors, too; and they’ll need fresh linens for the beds.
But wait! The two walking guests still need a ride to the next stop. As Dan trudges off to his economic development meeting, Penny gets behind the wheel of her husband’s green Toyota truck and drives the two women to the next inn, on the outskirts of town. “That means I don’t have to help Jessica clean the rooms,” she jokes. But it’s not a quick out-and-back. The women want to see some scenery, and Penny obliges, following a circuitous route of back roads that will ultimately keep her away from the inn for a good hour and a half.
When she returns, she jumps into the cleaning, strips beds, and fixes a shower curtain before turning her attention to a lineup of freshly washed sheets that need folding. Then it’s time to greet the new guests.
It’s 2:00 p.m.
“Let me show you something,” Dan says, motioning me to the kitchen. He points to the counter and a big bag of ice with a hole ripped into the side. “Most people, if they did this, would do something about it, but not Penny.”
Just then his wife walks into the kitchen and intervenes: “It’s not right or wrong, it just is what it is.” Then she flashes a big smile: “Besides, this wouldn’t happen if you’d bought me an ice maker.”
“Well, you’re not going to get an ice maker,” answers Dan, who begins scooping the ice out and putting it into smaller plastic bags.
“Not my bread bags!” Penny exclaims.
“That’s all I could find,” Dan counters, moving over slightly so that his wife can help him.
The strength of their partnership relies heavily on the fact that Dan and Penny aren’t clones of each other. Dan is more pragmatic—cautious and careful about every decision he makes. Penny, by her own admission, loves to think big, damn the details.
“I’m the one who runs around and goes, ‘Oh, this would be great,’ but Dan can implement it in steps,” she says. “I just say, ‘Bite the elephant. And chew it and swallow it. Don’t take it in little pieces.’ He’s the fine-details person. You don’t want to be around me when I’m cooking, because there’s stuff everywhere.”
But in transforming their lives to become B&B owners, both Dan and Penny have had to be meticulous. Prior to buying the Inn Victoria, the couple steeped themselves in the business of running an inn. They hired a buying broker, consulted a lawyer on their business plan, and connected with an accountant who specializes in B&Bs. A design firm revamped the inn’s Web site (innvictoria.com), and the Cotes overhauled the inn’s marketing materials. Before the Cotes had spent a second as owners of the Inn Victoria, they’d paid $20,000 to firm up their dream. “We wanted to get it right the first time,” says Dan, who has an MBA. “We did our homework.” The couple also attended a weekend-long innkeeping school to learn the intricate details of the business, specifically good guest relations. (Important lesson: If someone forgets something at the inn, never call up to see whether they’d like it back. “Why?” I ask. Dan smiles. “Because they may not have come with their actual wife or husband,” he explains.)
The investment the Cotes made in the business after the closing was even more substantial. In all, they’ve spent close to $200,000 in upgrades, everything from new linens and beds to renovated bathrooms and a redesigned backyard porch.
“You have to come in capitalized and be able to run it,” Dan says. “It allowed us to go beyond what the business could support initially and get things for the business, like signs on the car and a better Web site. Brochures. We hired Jessica. Now the business supports all of that, but there’s no way we could have grown as fast without that outside capital.”
But for all their planning, all their research, all their due diligence, the Cotes still had to adjust to their new reality. In their previous life the couple never looked at what something cost. If they needed it, they bought it, whether it was a gallon of milk, a case of wine, or a piece of furniture.
“We’d owned the inn for just a couple of weeks, and I remember we went to a dollar store to pick up some things,” Dan recalls. “I was walking down the aisles, saying to myself, ‘Two weeks ago I was an executive. I never would have been caught dead in a store like this.’ I was embarrassed by that thought. I got over it, but it was an odd experience for me. Suddenly there was a budget. When we were thinking about doing this, it never dawned on me that I’d have to change my shopping habits.”
“We’re hiding!” says Penny, with a big laugh.
As her guests wind down on their steak dinner with homemade apple pie, Penny has slipped upstairs and plunked herself in a cushy loveseat in the upstairs apartment. She’s forgone supper and gone straight for dessert, and, as her two cats parade around her, she throws occasional glances up at a big TV, showing an episode of Law & Order, and then at her laptop in front of her. There’s still a pile of paperwork to get through.
“I don’t think anyone’s checked into Alice,” she tells Dan, as he walks through the door.
“That’s fine,” he says.
“Should I call?” she asks. “What time is it?”
“It’s 7:00,” he says. “It’s not late.”
Penny picks up the phone and gets ahold of one of the guests. It turns out that there’s been a mix-up. The party thinks they’re booked for tomorrow night and will be arriving sometime in the afternoon. Penny is polite and accommodating, crossing the names off one box on a piece of paper and writing them down in another. When she hangs up, she lets out a big sigh.
“By the time I get up here, my head is just spinning,” she says. Around her is the chaos of a personal life neither she nor Dan have had time to address. The piles of books, the scattered papers, the still-unpacked look of the place, are in striking contrast to the clean order that defines the rest of the inn. Down in the basement, there’s a whole area of filled boxes and suitcases that the couple hasn’t had the chance to sort through in the three years since they bought the inn.
As Dan finishes up his own piece of pie, Penny puts her full focus on her laptop. There are credit-card payments to sift through and expenses to organize for the accountant. Then someone will have to take care of the last bit of kitchen cleanup.
By the time they’re done for the day, it’s past 10:00. Dan and Penny are exhausted and require sleep. They’ll need it: 6:00 a.m. will be here before they know it.