MONTPELIER — The New England Culinary Institute will consolidate its long-running café and bakery with its flagship restaurant on Main Street to get a grasp on its finances, NECI’s president said Tuesday.
NECI president Milan Milosinovic said La Brioche’s lease expires Dec. 31, and the bakery will co-locate with NECI on Main, which is closed during the day.
“We have a patio there, and I think we could make a better La Brioche there than we have now,” he said. “We have to be very (aware) about costs and try to spend as little as possible.”
The institute will also reduce food service at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, but Milosinovic remains optimistic with prospects in the fall — this, despite enrollment challenges that have forced recent closures of small Vermont colleges.
“(It’s) a tough time for higher ed,” Milosinovic said. “The economy is good, it’s extremely good, but for trade schools like ours, it’s tough because prospective students prefer to go to work rather than go back to school, pay tuition and get the same money if they didn’t go to school.
“We’re lucky we are small and nimble and flexible, and that’s what we do,” he added. “We have been doing this for a couple of years, trying to invest in admissions and build a new budget, and on the other side, trying to consolidate.”
Doug Nedde, owner of City Center where La Brioche is based, said NECI is current on rent and confirmed the lease on the space expired this year. He said he’s looking for another tenant.
“We’d love to get another restaurant or a service business, like a credit union,” Nedde said. “Any type of use would be great.”
One regular customer, retired judge Barney Bloom, of Montpelier, said he would miss the current space La Brioche occupies when it moved but would still support the business.
“As long as I can get my coffee, that’s what matters to me,” Bloom said.
He was less sure how well the transition for La Brioche into NECI on Main would work for the café and bakery.
“It would depend upon the floor plan, so it’s hard to predict. I’m used to the current floor plan and the arrangement,” Bloom said, adding he supported the institute on its reorganization.
Founded in 1980, NECI had a high of about 800 students in 1999 but only 85 students this year, according to Milosinovic, who took control of the school in 2016. Besides the two restaurants, NECI also operates food service at National Life and at the arts college, the latter which will be scaled back.
“At National Life, we’re trying to actually make it better than it is now, but we do have a contract with them; we have a solid agreement with them about continuing,” Milosinovic said.
AT VCFA, Milosinovic said low student ratios for both schools meant it was impractical to continue food service there. It will end when NECI’s contract expires in August, Milosinovic said.
“Their students are mostly online and can’t be in the (dorms), and I don’t think it’s the most effective way to run a cafeteria which is, most of the year, empty,” Milosinovic said. “When our contract ends at the end of August, they will find a way to feed their resident students, and I think we will feed our students at NECI on Main.”
Milosinovic admitted NECI’s enrollment is “low” at 85 students and noted it would fall to about 60 at the end of summer when some students graduate. But he said admissions inquiries for the fall semester were “better than last year.”
Fighting off rumors, Milosinovic said NECI still has a good complement of chef-instructors. The school lost a pastry chef but retained two other long-time pastry chefs, Milosinovic said.
“For the size of the school that we have and the number of students, we have seven, eight full-time chefs, so that ratio is extremely high,” Milosinovic said.
Milosinovic said he recognizes NECI is an important anchor business in the city for many years and said he would work hard to make it successful.
“One thing I can tell you, I will never give up,” Milosinovic said.