The dream always starts the same way. You’re sipping Earl Grey tea served in vintage china with fresh lemon, sugar cubes, and a silver spoon, settled into a rocking chair with gingham cushions on a wide front porch by the sea. Or you’re cuddled under piles of antique quilts in a 19th century four-poster in front of a crackling fire. What could be more romantic? Steeped in the seductive ambiance of another century at a bed and breakfast, you say to your spouse, gee, honey, wouldn’t it be nice to open a B&B? Leave the rat race? Sack the commute? Bake muffins all day?
Usually, however, the dream ends as soon as you pay your bill and drive your Pathfinder out of the driveway of the Simply Charming Inn. For Janet and Michael Pressel, the dream didn’t end. It started in 1995, where the couple, then DINKs (double income no kids) in New York City, were vacationing at a B&B in Easthampton, Long Island. One night, tucked into a Montauk pub, they fantasized about moving out of the city and having more space.
Janet, a stock analyst covering financial services for Bessemer Trust, grew up in a suburb of Cleveland, the daughter of a Chrysler engineer and a homemaker, and earned a bachelor’s in business from Kent State in 1990 and an MBA from NYU in 1996. Michael had taken over the business started by his father, formerly an assistant commissioner for the city of New York, had started and was now president of the Manhattan-based RPO Incorporated, a construction consulting firm with heavy hitter clients like Turner Construction. He grew up in Yardley, Pennsylvania, and graduated with a bachelors in business from Kent State in 1989. That night in Montauk, says Janet Pressel, "We talked about what our ideal house would look like. Michael scribbled on a napkin his ideal floor plan."
In 1999, the couple looked at four houses in Princeton and Lawrenceville. When they walked into the 250-year-old house at 3301 Route 206 Janet elbowed her husband. "This is your floor plan." The couple purposely wanted a historic house but didn’t initially plan on opening a B&B. "We both have a major appreciation for historic structures," Pressel says. "We’d go away for weekends to quaint New England towns and stay in B&Bs. We really loved that look."
The Pressels settled into their "new" five-bedroom house (a stone wing built in 1736 and a frame wing built in the 1760s), continuing to commute to the city during the week and entertaining friends from New York on the weekends. The house, which had gone through several prominent area families through the centuries, including the original owners, the Opdykes, as well as the Hunts, the Gulicks, the Baldwins, and the Connahs, gradually fell into disrepair.
In the mid-1970s, its three young owners, Alex Greenwood and Clifford and Stephen Zink, undertook a major renovation, executed with painstaking historical accuracy, based on pages of plans, elevations, and photographs that the owners uncovered in the State Archives in Trenton, documents created by the Historic American Buildings Survey as part of a W.P.A. Depression era project in which unemployed architects and draftsmen were put to work recording examples of early American architecture. Over the course of four years, every square inch of the house was brought back to its original glory, from the wide pine floorboards in the entrance hall to the 12-foot fireplace in the kitchen (now the great room) to the smokehouse and stables. The barn’s foundation was intact, but not the barn, so the owners purchased a barn in Dutch Neck and reassembled it, piece by piece, in a "raising," assisted by 60 friends, described in a 1980 issue of the now-defunct Princeton Recollector.
Like any old house, legends seep from its creaky staircases and built-in cupboards. According to the Princeton Recollector article, the house may have been taken over as British officers’ quarters in December, 1776, and it is said that the young Lord Ralston was bayoneted by an American soldier, when he was caught wenching on the second floor of the house.
When the Pressels’ daughter, Edie, was born in November, 2003, Janet, 37, decided she no longer wanted to commute to New York. "I had a desire to have a business of my own. I wanted to resign from my career in the city and be closer to home." It seemed only natural to turn the house into a B&B, which, at first blush, didn’t seem too difficult an endeavor; the property, as part of Lawrenceville’s historic district was already zoned for B&B use. The Pressels moved to Pennington and undertook a two-year renovation, adding bathrooms, shoring up the beams in the great room, and raising the roof to turn the third floor into an innkeeper’s apartment. What proved more tenuous was the planning board approval process – including developing a full-blown site plan and enduring a grueling five-hour meeting. But ultimately, says Pressel, the township "was great. They just wanted to do it right."
This past Memorial Day weekend, just two hours after they received their temporary CO, the first guest arrived at the Inn at Glencairn. "I have never missed a deadline in my life," says Pressel, who by the end was fully running the project, when their general contractor was sidelined by illness. "I felt at some points I was developing a mall, hiring all the engineers and lawyers." And she sings the praises of several subcontractors including High Tech Landscapes in Martinsville, New Jersey; Ford 3 Architects at 32 Nassau Street; DM Barry & Co. Security in Trenton; THS Electric in Lambertville, and Rick Hunt of MP Hunt in Trenton, who did much of the site work.
Pressel did all of the interior decorating herself, purchasing furniture – a mix of modern and antiques – up and down the eastern seaboard from New York to North Carolina. The all-feather beds are reproduction antiques – and purposely so. "From my experience in traveling and staying in Ritz Carltons and Four Seasons hotels, I found the antique beds in most B&Bs were horribly uncomfortable." So while most of the dressers and armoires are authentic antiques, Pressel chose reproductions "where it made a difference." They named the four bedrooms and the two-bedroom suite after the five prominent families that had inhabited the house over three centuries.
Her business sensibilities also kicked in where amenities are concerned; all the rooms have wireless Internet connection and boast flat-screen TVs "for those who can’t live without their CNBC." The 100 percent white Turkish cotton robes by Frette (the same robes that hang in the closets at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Four Seasons Singapore, and the Soho Grand in New York), are so hefty that handyman Joe Stremlo of Hamilton, who tackles a new list of chores at the inn every third Wednesday and was working on a closet the day this reporter visited, said, "I had to lift them out of the closet one at a time; you want to hug them." But there is only one phone in the house, in the downstairs parlor. "Everyone uses their cell phone now anyway," says Pressel.
Over the summer, close to 90 guests have come: business travelers "tired of the typical hotel experience," says Pressel, as well as travelers from Rhode Island, New York, New Orleans, Florida, Minnesota, and even Thailand. The inn is a member of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, which refers Regional business, as does nearby Bristol-Myers Squibb. They get overflow from Jasna Polana, the golf club on the former Johnson estate just up the road, and come fall they also expect business from all the nearby colleges and private schools – alumni, families visiting students, and families looking at schools.
Does Pressel miss the pulse and energy of living and working in the city? Not a bit. "I don’t have the routine of waking up at a certain hour, getting on the train, working straight through. I have a much more flexible lifestyle." She readily admits that now, as a "CEO" of a B&B, she has a lot more respect for CEOs. "As an analyst I would meet with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and my job was to critique them; now I’m in the driver’s seat and I’m accountable. It’s so easy to question and criticize; you don’t realize there might have been 10 steps to get to that point. I really don’t miss Wall Street. I had a 13-year career; that’s like a 40-year career for someone else. Now I’m able to focus on the other side of my brain. Although I do have to sit down and do the accounting."
Granted, her husband still commutes to the city – and thus provides a steady income. Pressel says the inn will have to maintain a 40 percent occupancy rate for them to break even (rooms run from $195 to $235 a night). What are the chances the Pressels will make it? Actually, quite good, according to Terry Anderson, president of Preferred Inns of New Jersey, an association of about 80 member inns and B&Bs. "The market is very solid; business is very good. People are looking constantly for unique adventures close to home and don’t want to spend a lot of time on the road."
Anderson and her husband have been the owners of Chimney Hill Farm Estate, a 12-room inn in Lambertville, for 12 years. "Here in Lambertville and New Hope we’re a destination. People come here and venture off to Princeton, which is renowned for its architecture, theater, and history. Princeton might be a connecting trip (on an itinerary) that includes Lambertville and Philadelphia." She says an inn in the Princeton area also boasts a great market for house hunters. "Inns tend to have inn owners and innkeepers who are generally familiar with the area and can send people to that great little Italian restaurant and that great place to eat lunch outdoors. At a hotel, the staff may not live in the area and will often just make recommendations from advertisers and brochures."
She says the Pressels fit the profile of the modern B&B owner. "In today’s environment where there are tremendous education resources and owners are mostly upscale middle class professionals who choose the B&B as a lifestyle business, they have a very good chance for success because one partner still maintains a steady income, and the wife is monitoring (the property) very closely."
This "lifestyle business," where you make revenue from the property you live on, says Anderson, is not as easy as it looks. "In the world today of opening an inn, inns are highly sophisticated and because most of the people buying inns (are doing so) as a lifestyle business, they are going to be aimed at a much higher level of success than those who bought inns 10 or 15 years ago, thinking they were just going to be baking muffins. Just due to the cost of the property itself, it’s a whole different venue." (The Pressels purchased the Inn at Glencairn as a private home on 3 1/2 acres for $615,000, and that was before undertaking the renovations and furniture purchases necessary to turn it into a B&B.)
Anderson, who was running three business meetings on her property the day we spoke on the phone ("CEOs like our very private location"), says the Internet has had a tremendous positive impact on the business of running a B&B. "Today I’m shopping on the Internet for room service trays. I can find any type of pattern of coffee pots." Her inn of course has a web site that takes reservations 24/7. "While I’m out I have a PDA and am watching my business." She says a real danger, though, of the Internet is scams, and she cautions that owners have to stay involved: "You have to update your Comcast account, and fully understand procedures for online payments, as well as those over the phone, and what the various credit card companies will allow you to do."
She also admits that it’s nearly impossible to run an inn on your own. While she is on the premises fulltime, she also employs a full time innkeeper and two part timers on the weekends. "If it’s just you, you always have to take some type of break, you have to go places. Staffing can be exceptionally beneficial, an opportunity to maintain constant communication (with current and prospective guests)."
The Pressels made the decision to hire a fulltime innkeeper right off the bat. With her daughter now 20 months old, Pressel says: "I didn’t want to have an inn with a child running around. I also knew that cooking was not my first love. And I didn’t have the hospitality experience." They found the perfect answer in Bob Riggs, a former social worker and veteran innkeeper who has presided over 30 inns in the last 12 years.
Riggs’ dream of owning a B&B took a decidedly different path than the Pressels.’ He spent his childhood in Rochester, New York, the younger of two sons, and was raised primarily by his father, who worked in production for Eastman Kodak. His mother, who worked for General Railway and Signal Company as an administrative assistant, died when he was eight. The seeds of travel and hospitality were sown in Riggs from the get-go: the boys and their father spent summers at a camp cottage in the Finger Lakes region of New York State and camping and fishing in the Adirondacks; every Easter was spent in Florida with relatives. His maternal grandparents lived just down the street from them in Rochester. "My grandmother was enormously hospitable," Riggs says. "She always had soda pop, coffee, tea, something baked; someone was always staying for dinner. She was meticulously clean and always had the guest room made up."
While his high school guidance teacher told him he should become a dental hygienist, Riggs conducted his own "personal inventory," an exercise he would perform several times in his career, asking himself "What do I find fun?" Calling himself "an OK cook," he earned a two-year degree in restaurant management in 1971 from Edison Community College in Florida, the same year Disney World opened. He interviewed at Disney but the travel bug hit him again. He honed his skills as a chef at country clubs and restaurants in Rochester, Florida, and New England, including a religious summer school in Maine, until he was drawn to an alternative college, Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, where he completed his bachelors in social work in 1980, and once again, took a personal inventory.
In San Francisco he worked with the Children’s Home Society, which provided adoption, foster care, and crisis intervention services. A chance trip to Portland to visit his girlfriend’s friend changed his life. "We hit the town of Yachats and fell in love. It was a gorgeous little coastal town, typical, with rough rocks and huge trees, just spectacular, and we stayed at a B&B. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to run a B&B, but where will I get the money?
Within a year, he and his girlfriend, Patricia K. Patton, had put on their traveling shoes once again and moved to Yachats. As Riggs took one restaurant and hotel desk job after another, he fed his dream to own a B&B by traveling to B&Bs in Idaho, Montana, and Washington State. "I fell in love with the concept," says Riggs, adding that the hominess reminded him of his grandmother’s house. After a move to Eugene, Oregon, Riggs and his girlfriend parted ways amicably (they are still close) and Riggs went back into social work, working with the homeless. "I wanted a B&B so bad and was looking for a way to do it without capital." He continued to travel voraciously; then, at one B&B, the owner said to him, "I need a break once in a while." The light bulb went on: Riggs could be an innsitter, caring for inns while their owners went on vacation.
Riggs placed an ad offering his services in Country Inns magazine. "I did the unthinkable. I quit my job without a new job." You cannot not believe in fate when you learn that the very first inn that responded to his ad was the Oregon House, the first B&B Riggs had stayed in with his girlfriend in Yachats. "This was a confirmation that I should be doing this," says Riggs. His first gig was baptism by fire.
"That inn has 12 rooms and is 12 miles from the closest community. The innkeepers showed me all the ropes before they left, for two weeks, with the inn fully booked. Then, as they say, the feces hit the whirling blades. Their pet goat was sick and on its last leg. The septic went. The high school girls who did housekeeping on the weekends called out. Everything that could go wrong did." He did communicate with the owners by phone and survived the experience. When the owners got back, they were so impressed they told Riggs they had met another B&B couple in Cannon Beach, Oregon. "They had five B&Bs. Suddenly, I had six accounts." By the end of his first year he was invited to a B&B conference.
In 2004, Riggs published "Innsights: An Innsitter’s Tale" (Publish America, $16.95), chronicling his years tending inns across the country from Boston to Sante Fe, and Wisconsin to San Francisco and Napa Valley. "That’s not a self-published book," Riggs says. "I got an advance and I get royalties." On a fateful day when Riggs was actually dogsitting, not innsitting, he tore his rotator cuff walking a "humongous" dog and had to stop innsitting during his recuperation period. He managed an antique mall while writing his book. In April, 2005, he read about the Pressels’ project on b&b.com. "Once again, I took a personal inventory, and thought, how about becoming a fulltime innkeeper?" He had been away from the East coast for 26 years and decided it was time to return. He saw the Inn at Glencairn and says, "I fell in love." And the Pressels fell in love with him, choosing him out of 200 applicants.
I told Riggs I imagined his social work experience came in pretty handy, meeting the needs of persnickety B&B guests. "I’m a good listening ear," he says, adding that he would call only one percent of guests persnickety. "Actually I call them ‘challenged guests.’ And usually, it’s for some reason: maybe they got off the plane and lost their luggage or had a fight in the car." The majority of guests are quite amenable, he says, sharing the same mindset that first drew him to the B&B experience. "It’s a whole culture, the wonderful ambience, breakfast, it’s like being home."
An accomplished amateur photographer (two of his photos of the Pacific northwest grace the entrance hall), Riggs is helping oversee the Pressels’ plan to exhibit the work of area artists in the house (the great room is dedicated to showcasing the Polaroid transfers, monoprints, watercolors, and photographs of Janet Hautau of Princeton), while taking reservations, overseeing workmen (a patio was being installed on the day I visited), and of course, cooking breakfast every day. He has Thursdays off, when Janet comes and tends the inn (and a sitter watches her daughter).
One lesson to be learned from the Pressels’ experience: those spontaneous ideas you scribble on a napkin, like the Pressels did so many years ago in Montauk, are worth holding onto. "I still have that napkin," says Pressel. "I’m thinking about framing it."
The Inn at Glencairn, 3301 Lawrenceville Road (Route 206 South), Janet and Michael Pressel; Bob Riggs, innkeeper. 609-497-1737, www.innatglencairn.com. $195 to $235 a night.