OLD LYME — It’s time to sell the Bee & Thistle, says David Rufo, and finally retire for real after 13 years this fall. A day after making the announcement, and putting the inn up for sale, Rufo and his girlfriend Sheila Blomquist sat down with CT Examiner’s Julia Werth, and described what has meant to make a home in Old Lyme, to run one of the iconic inns in the region, and their sense of where they hope the next owner will take the Bee.
CT Examiner: In 2006, when you first bought the restaurant and inn, what were you hoping for?
Rufo: I was hoping to do more sailing. My ex-wife and I bought it, and at that time it was more of what she was doing than me. I had a boat in Stonington for 33 years, up until just recently. As things progressed I got more involved. My main job the first couple years that we owned it, was to make the inn a lot more approachable, to take away the mandatory suit and tie and make it a place that’s more like a home. I wanted people to come in and dress the way they want to, as long as it’s somewhat tasteful –somewhat is the keyword.
Blomquist: Wasn’t when you came here… wasn’t this kind of retiring?
Rufo: Yes, this was one of the retiring attempts. But if I had to get involved in it, I would pick out what I wanted to do — I wanted to make it more approachable for a wider range of people.
CT Examiner: What did you change apart from the dress code to make that possible?
Rufo: We changed a lot of furnishings, we worked on attracting a younger crowd. It probably dropped from 70s to 40s for a lot of the people who come in here now.
Blomquist: And they added live music.
Rufo: Yes, in 2010. There was a gentleman that worked here and we learned he was a pretty established singer-songwriter and so we would meet after the restaurant closed, just half a dozen of us. Then that grew, and it grew into the restaurant. Then we had Eric from The Dirt Floor local recording studio step into the music at the Bee with a pretty high level.
CT Examiner: What about in the wintertime, how does the atmosphere change during those months?
Blomquist: That was part of the music thing, it gives people something to do in the winter.
Rufo: And during the winter you can pretty much do what you want. In the summer there are expectations – everything from weddings to more formal dining – reflected in the people.
Blomquist: In the winter its locals and they come regularly. We try to come up with things to do. We like to showcase the artists… the whole first floor is local artists… so we try to have meet and greets with the artists we have featured… the music. We are going to be trying to come up with doing films, we are still doing things to give people stuff to do in the winter. We had a little cabaret sort of thing. It’s fun.
Rufo: You are able to do things that are not in the ordinary, a little offbeat. That’s what winters are for. I mean we used to put blankets on the couches. It made it more cozy, we added footstools and we had fireplaces.
Blomquist: Then after Thanksgiving to January we do tea, like an official tea. We have a roaming guitar player… and like whole generations… there are women who come in, who used to come in with their grandma and now they’re bringing their kids and their grandkids. That’s really neat.
Rufo: And not a lot of them, but there are fathers bringing their daughters and that’s pretty neat.
Blomquist: Last year we were booked the whole year and in the winter there was one girl who had her birthday party here and they brought in a woman to teach etiquette and they had a tea party here, like a real tea party. We like to build generations at the Bee. People come back every year for their anniversary who got married here. They stay in the same room that they stayed in every year. There are people who come every year and they’ve been coming for 30 years.
CT Examiner: I know the wedding industry has been growing in this area, how has it grown and changed for you here at the Bee & Thistle?
Blomquist: Yes, this season it has been almost every weekend.
Rufo: We will have done 18 weddings before the year is out this season. It’s big. What it does is we were sliding into a wedding venue more than everything else and we were starting to lose our character.
Blomquist: It’s a great thing and we love having the weddings, but it is really finding a balance there to give people great weddings but still cater to our local people. It’s a lot of work finding the balance here.
Rufo: And we want to hold true to who we are.
CT Examiner: How would you define who you are?
Rufo: The big first focus is on the restaurant. Without the restaurant you couldn’t do weddings and you probably couldn’t do rooms. It would be my recommendation to move back in that direction.
Blomquist: We would like to have it be a quintessential New England inn with an amazing restaurant that has quality food and drink and is welcoming.
CT Examiner: What about the ‘inn’ side of the business, how has that changed over your 13 years?
Rufo: It’s more seasonal. In the summer we have more rooms booked because of the more weddings and a lot of grooms and brides want exclusivity and they take the whole inn. The foliage season we have dropped off a bit because last year was a really quick season so it hit us on the European tourist side. A lot of the English and Germans used to come here.
CT Examiner: What has been your favorite part of owning the Bee & Thistle?
Rufo: After meeting Sheila, the second thing is for sure the people that we’ve met here.
Blomquist: We met here, I was working here as a busser, then in the garden. David scooped me up. When I first came he wasn’t around because he was injured and couldn’t walk. I didn’t even know who he was. But then when he started walking around he practically ran into me.
Rufo: That was absolutely the best thing that was inn-related. But, we’ve met everything from artists, to musicians from New Orleans, writers, doctors…
Blomquist: We’ve gotten to have some neat conversations, and see people who come back for years. We also have amazing people who work here and a lot of them come back every year and stay in touch.
Rufo: A big loss to us on the staffing-end has been the college closing. That was awful.
Blomquist: We would get the students from over there to come and work for us for the summer and even feature some of their artwork in our lounges.
Rufo: That’s what Old Lyme is. Old Lyme is artists. When you think of the people who stayed here in the beginning — the impressionists who were all over here, and the actors and actresses at Goodspeed. The students would stay here, gather here, practice in the hallways. It was a lot of fun. You’d hear them in the hallways when you were downstairs and think wow this is just a great Sunday morning. And that’s what you try to create, try to find someone who knows more than yourself. We saw so many people who were really interesting, some a little spooky, but it’s good.
CT Examiner: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your 13 years?
Blomquist: Keeping up with the building. Just being an old building there is a lot of upkeep.
Rufo: And the fire escape. That’s what the state does to you, they make something mandatory and then give you no way to finance it. That’s a sin. I guess maybe they’re still angry over the railroad.
CT Examiner: Is owning an inn, wedding venue and restaurant what you expected it to be?
Blomquist: It’s a little more than he expected.
Rufo: What we did five years ago or so, because it was three different businesses, I decided to have a manager for the restaurant, a manager to focus on events and weddings, and one for the bar. We would meet once a week and be able to delegate.
Blomquist: But we’ve had a lot of changes in the last year. Tosh [Urbowicz] our events coordinator left to focus on her family. Jack [Larrow], our bartender, was here for six years and then decided to move on and that was a huge change. It took us a long time to find someone to fit in. Thank God [our chef] Kris [Rowe] didn’t leave, that would’ve been the end of it. With two of our three managers moving on it was a very big change.
CT Examiner: Did their departure encourage you to move on as well?
Rufo: No, we’ve been thinking about it.
Blomquist: Now we are both ready to move on and do some fun things.
CT Examiner: What are you hoping to do after selling the Bee & Thistle?
Blomquist: We are going to do some traveling.
Rufo: When I went to Sheila’s house one day — this was in the very beginning — she had a little matchbox car.
Blomquist: I’ve always wanted a trailer like this. I had a matchbox version of this. Then the beginning of this year, we found this one on ebay. We got it because I’d wanted one for a long time. I like to travel around, and adventure and explore. David had his boat, but I don’t know anything about sailing. If he falls off of this I can get him, if he falls off of the sailboat I will feel very unequipped to help him. So he sold his sailboat and we decided that we’re going to go on some adventures and live life much more simple. Just nice and simple and easy and spend time with family.
Rufo: And hopefully no ticks.
CT Examiner: What are you hoping for, for the next owner?
Blomquist: Hopefully they won’t make too many changes because people love this place. They love the warmth of it. They love coming here.
Rufo: And the most important thing about running a restaurant business is staff. And after a rough summer, now we really do have wonderful staff. You have to spend a lot of money to get them, but we’ve got them.
Blomquist: Our staff knocked it out of the park this year and really stepped up. We have two waiters who know how to bartend, so they took turns. Everybody stepped up their hours, it was just amazing, everybody came together and did everything they could and did an amazing job.
CT Examiner: Was it hard to decide to leave now?
Rufo: No, we’ve been on this program for a while. Like Sheila said, this is my third attempt.
Blomquist: I’m going to help him accomplish it this time.
Rufo: We will be retired I guess, but we aren’t going to be totally absent.
CT Examiner: Are you hoping to fully sell the property?
Rufo: Yeah, we have a really good arrangement with the Chilton & Chadwick real estate company — that’s what made it easier to go ahead and sell it, because we stay in control of who and how. We will make sure we get a qualified person. The ideal buyer would be the people [currently employed] in that building [the Bee and Thistle] — that would be ideal — and we would like to do that somehow someway. Whether it is an investment company that does it for them or something that Sheila and I figure out. Maybe you can’t do it… we are going to try.
Blomquist: Now we also have a general manager who has come in and been wonderful at pulling things together and looking at everything and being the one person instead of everyone having to step up and do extra jobs. Also, our wonderful woman in the office who is becoming his assistant is really stepping up which allows David and I to breathe a little more now because we were really having to be very involved this summer and that was really stressful. That was the header of ‘we need to do something’ because this summer we didn’t really have a summer. We didn’t get to see the kids very much, and his daughter just had a baby, and we’ve only been able to see it once.
Rufo: And my mother died.
Blomquist: All those things really make you reevaluate what’s important and what you want to be doing with your time.
Rufo: Turning it over to a general manager is a good idea, but you have to be really, really careful with how he works with the other people. It’s hard.
Blomquist: Making sure everybody understands where they stand and what their roles are and us staying involved enough to make sure it is going like that, but not having to be so involved that we’re doing everything. That’s where we are now.
This Sunday, Rufo and Blomquist will be hosting a gathering at 7 p.m. at the inn for anyone interested in learning more about coming plans for the Bee & Thistle or interested in buying the inn.