For Sanfo, the Chinese restaurant that has occupied a storefront in a Mountain Road shopping center for over a decade, the upcoming end means a new beginning.
The current Sanfo location will close Oct. 10 and reopen at the end of the month a village away as a take-out operation and general store in Moscow.
Until earlier this year, the mantle of Moscow’s sole eatery was occupied by The Pizza Joint at what was, once upon a time, a schoolhouse on Moscow Road. Prior to the Pizza Joint, a beloved general store in another location provided the neighborhood with immediate access to basic groceries.
Now, Sanfo owners Troy and Lynn Huang Lin want to combine both traditions by opening a take-out eatery that also functions as a small market where local residents can purchase milk, eggs, beer, Chinese cakes and fresh vegetables without having to drive all the way to Stowe’s village proper.
“We’re providing the fresh vegetables out for our customers, and at the same time we’re just putting food on the shelves for people to pick up whatever they want,” Troy Lin said.
The hybrid concept looks to be all things at once to a community that has no other immediate options when it comes to dining and groceries. For restauranteurs with experience in Chinese American food, it’s a bold gamble.
“I think in this area, for the people who live here most of the time with their family, I think they need us,” Lin said.
Though the zoning permit process on the untraditional location was an even longer process than usual for the Lins after a party of Moscow neighbors appealed the permit through a lawyer, the family is eager to open in their new neighborhood and feels buoyed by the outpouring of support they’ve received.
“When we put a sign outside saying we’re coming, a lot of neighbors stopped by our restaurant and said, ‘You know what? We love that you’re going there. Because if you remember before, the general store, it closed.’ They miss that time. If you live here, you’ll have somewhere to shop for everyday people,” Lynn Huang Lin said.
A local culinary tradition
By running a Chinese restaurant in Vermont, Troy Lin is keeping up a family tradition.
Lin’s father immigrated to Vermont in the 1990s from the southeastern Chinese province of Fujian. He then opened the restaurant China Fun in Waitsfield.
“It’s where I get all my recipes,” Lin said.
The Lins took over the restaurant in the shopping center off Mountain Road in 2010. They christened the restaurant Sanfo, which roughly translates to “lucky three,” as they opened their restaurant just after the birth of their first daughter.
As they prepare to open their new location, they’re juggling a busy family life with two daughters, now 11 and three. And, as the COVID-19 pandemic went on, they felt the new reality for restaurants and food service changing their business model.
Though there will be a small buffet at their new location, the entire seating area of their restaurant has been closed since March 2020 as take-out has become their primary function. With space they weren’t using and a lease that was growing more expensive, the Lins struck out to purchase a long-term location from which to base their business.
“We’re going to be here at least another 15 years,” Troy Lin said.
“We’ve already been here 11 years,” Lynn Huang Lin said. “We’re part of the community.”
Contentious zoning process
When the Lins initially approached Stowe’s development review board, they were looking to change the zoning designation of the property to allow them to open a proper restaurant.
After some discussion at the initial June meeting, the board pointed out that the property did not have adequate parking or septic capacity to house a restaurant with seated dining, and that the board would not approve a zoning change unless these issues were addressed.
The Lins resubmitted their application to serve only takeout, just as The Pizza Joint did before them, along with basic grocery offerings. This would allow the new Sanfo to open without having to change the zoning designation from retail, the zoning designation for Stowe takeout-only eateries.
The last time the zoning designation of the building was considered was in 2008 when its designation as a pottery store was changed to retail store, and the Pizza Joint originally opened in that location after it moved from Route 100 in the Lower Village.
At the development review board meeting in June, some initial objections on behalf of Steve McNulty and Kate Berseth were made alleging that the 2008 zoning change was not for The Pizza Joint and no restaurant should be operated from the property. The board contended that its status as retail operation allowed the new Sanfo to operate a take-out business and sell other goods legally.
An appeal was filed to stop Sanfo from opening and, at a Sept. 7 meeting, Burlington lawyer Craig Weatherly appeared on behalf of a group of Moscow residents that included Barbara Gameroff, Donna and John Adams, McNulty, Berseth, Lisa Patlis, Elizabeth and William Nutt and Shauna Larson.
Weatherly argued that the neighborhood was a residential area with limited, permitted commercial uses, which don’t include restaurants.
Though The Pizza Joint operated out of the building since 2010, Weatherly claimed that a restaurant in that area did not conform to the character of the neighborhood or the historic nature of Moscow village.
After a back and forth with the board in which board member Thomas Hand once again clarified that take-out food service did not function as a restaurant in the eyes of the town’s zoning laws, Gameroff herself tried reason that the neighborhood was not able to handle a business like this by testifying that a delivery truck serving The Pizza Joint made it unsafe to pass on the road when the truck was backing into the drive.
Valeria Sodano, who owns Timberholm Inn in Stowe, spoke in support of the Sanfo owners. To her, the repeated references to the neighborhood’s new Chinese take-out place as violating the neighborhood’s character struck her as borderline racist.
At least one of the Moscow residents fighting the arrival of her new neighbors, Donna Adams, objected to this characterization.
“It is wrong to jump to conclusions regarding the motivation of neighbors exercising their lawful right of appeal concerning a flawed 2008 zoning permit,” Adams said in a letter to the editor published in The Stowe Reporter last week. “Are we not allowed to call our town staff and appointed officials to task?”
“Providing support for an Asian family business is well-intentioned, but not an excuse for name-calling,” she said.
She declined to comment further.
“As the community continues to grow, we should be supportive, versus intentionally trying to move somebody out just because certain neighbors don’t feel that the quality of whatever is happening from one person’s restaurant to the other may be destroying the landscape of the community,” Sodano said.
Sodano said she initially didn’t understand that the term “character of the area” is an official term in the zoning regulations regarding whether the way a business fits in with an area and the municipal plan.
“I didn’t realize that that was the terminology used by the zoning board and I did apologize for that notion,” Sodano said. “I still don’t understand why it was such a big deal. If someone was to have bought that space and turned it into another pizza joint, hypothetically speaking, would there be an issue? Probably not.”
Seth Jensen, deputy director at the Lamoille County Regional Planning Commission, said character, as a zoning term, can serve a variety of different purposes.
“By its nature, it is somewhat subjective, and therefore, an area that can be very appealable, because different people might have different definitions of character and of what the character in the neighborhood is,” he said.
Jensen said that Vermont has tried, over the past two decades, to make character a less subjective criteria by pushing towns to build comprehensive narratives regarding the function of different neighborhoods.
“But, here is a history,” he said, “especially in housing, of character being used in a way that can be exclusionary.”
Ultimately, the Development Review Board denied the Moscow neighbors appeal and, as other businesses are located in that area, ruled that Sanfo conformed with the character of the neighborhood.
According to the Lins, Gameroff, who had no comment for this story, subsequently called the Vermont Department of Health to investigate their operation prior to their opening.
“That’s pretty interesting,” Troy Lin said.