So You Want to Run a B&B?
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.”