Soup Shack at Top of the Hill Grill enters 2nd season

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BRATTLEBORO — Less than 20 minutes before opening time on a recent Saturday morning, the general manager of the Soup Shack added a spoonful of ground cinnamon to a rondeau of chili that was cooking on a stove. The squat steel container held a lot of chili.

"We're running a little behind today," said Michael Young. He used a plastic spoon to take a sample taste of the chili and then nodded, satisfied with the batch.

Young called across the prep kitchen to Michelle Fiske and asked his employee if she would soon be ready to go out to the shack — a small wooden building that rests atop a four-wheeled trailer — and wait for the early customers. Fiske said she would be in place at 11 a.m.

"A little behind, but we should be okay," Young said.

The Soup Shack, which sells chili, gumbo, stew, sandwiches and soup, operates in the parking lot of the Top of the Hill Grill at 632 Putney Road. The shack shares ownership, along with some employees and menu items with the grill, which closed for the year in October.

The Soup Shack, now in its second season, opened in November and will be operated until April, when it will close about a week before the Top of the Hill Grill reopens.

Both eateries are owned by Jon Julian.

"One of the reasons Jon decided to open the Soup Shack was to be able to keep top employees around year-round," Young said. "He has core staff in place for when the grill resumes in the spring."

The Soup Shack is smaller than the Top of the Hill Grill, and the wintertime food service operation employs four people, compared to 25 at the grill. A kitchen, located in a mostly windowless building painted the color of redwood and connected to the soup shack by a gravel sidewalk, is used to cook foods for both restaurants.

"It's always a challenge when you're doing fresh prepared foods like we do — including all the meat-smoking and stuff," Young said. "It's very challenging to make sure we don't have too much or that we have enough, especially when it gets busy."

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Young, a neighbor of Julian's in Williamsville, became the general manager of the Top of the Hill Grill in 2018. He was in charge when the Soup Shack (then called Stockpots) opened in December of that year. Young said the shack has been easier to manage on the second go-round, even though it has been busier and the menu is larger compared to the inaugural season, because he and the staff have developed a work routine.

A Michigan native, Young moved to New England four years ago, after spending the previous 30 years in Boise, Idaho. He owned a bakery/deli and a catering business, and taught culinary classes as an adjunct instructor at Boise State University. He spent a decade working in the knife-making industry, and uses some carving knives of his own manufacture in the prep kitchen at Brattleboro.

"This industry is in my bones," Young said.

The Soup Shack is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Monday until Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Saturday hours were added for the eatery's second season.

Three sandwiches which are summertime favorites at the Top of the Hill Grill — smoked brisket, pulled pork and the "burned ends" of the brisket — are now available at the Soup Shack. They are the same sandwiches as those served during the summer, but how they are transferred between seller and consumer is different.

"That's what we found last year that people liked," Young said. "When the weather's nasty, people come up and order, or they call in an order and then we bring it out to their car."

When the Top of the Hill Grill reopened last spring, the Soup Shack was parked at Julian's house, according to Young. Later this year, when the grill opens, the shack could remain open at a different location.

"We've had some asks about placing it someplace in the summertime, and we're going to discuss that," Young said.

The Soup Shack's general manager typically works in the kitchen but reports to the trailer whenever he is summoned to help with a line of customers. Three people then perform food service duties inside the shack.

"Like any part of this business, you have to do the dance," Young said. "You have to be able to work with each other and know what your duties are, so you're not running into each other. When it's busy, it's a lot of fun."


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