A recent post on the Saratoga Grill’s Facebook page announced the return of the longtime Hillsborough favorite. Unlike many restaurants and other businesses entering a reopening phase of the COVID-19 world we live in, the Saratoga is coming back from the loss in February of one of its founders, Colleen St. John, who opened the restaurant in 1995 with her husband, Kevin.
To say the Saratoga is reopening under new ownership would be misleading. The new owners, Colleen Murphy and Adam Iorfida, have been involved with the restaurant for the past few years. Murphy had been an everyday presence and helped manage the restaurant during Colleen St. John’s battle with cancer. Murphy is also Kevin and Colleen St. John’s niece.
For some time prior to Colleen St. John’s passing, a succession plan was in the works.
“Colleen had been sick with cancer for about five years,” Murphy said. “Last summer, they closed for dinner. Colleen said she didn’t want to do dinner and Kevin was tired. He was working every single shift for lunch and dinner in the kitchen. They decided it was time to start slowing down. Adam and I had moved here from New York City about three years before, maybe a little more than that. We had the hopes of helping them. We always let them know that when they were ready, we were interested in taking over the restaurant.”
Transitions of ownership are never easy. Despite Colleen St. John’s lengthy bout with her illness, her loss came as a gut-check to Murphy and her husband.
“It’s strange to say or think that Colleen’s death snuck up on us,” Murphy said, “but it seemed like a lot of things were not in place. Once it happened, it was like ‘Oh my gosh. What’s gonna happen?’ Then COVID came sweeping through. We’ve had…it’s been an interesting year. In January, our youngest child, who is now 10-months-old, was diagnosed with a lung disease. So, we’ve had a really interesting year. Then Kevin said, after we were closed for dine-in for about a week, that he didn’t really want to do this (open the restaurant) now. And we were, like, OK.”
So, while Murphy and Iorfida are quick to empathize with other people and businesses with regard to the coronavirus, they also realize it gave them time to refine their plan for the restaurant and contend with personal concerns.
“I think in a lot of ways it’s made it easier,” Murphy said. “We had time when there wasn’t pressure to be running at full force.”
“For us, there was upside to having that time,” Iorfida added. “It gave us time to get a plan for the restaurant. On a personal side, our youngest child has had the benefit of staying home for four months and be well. It’s a daily exercise of trying to find the positives.”
And the plan for the Saratoga Grill is taking shape, even with an abbreviated schedule. When the time comes to resume full and regular business hours, the restaurant will again offer dinner. A new chef is being brought in and the menu will likely be expanded. There will be some aesthetic changes, but the heart and soul of the Saratoga Grill will be unmistakable.
“I think our kind of mission is to embrace Hillsborough and how it’s changing,” Iorfida said. “We are proud of what Hillsborough represents and what Colleen and Kevin built. We see a transition to a younger and more modernized society here. So we might have one foot in the past — we are fans of history and tradition — we also want to push hospitality and a little more modern aesthetic to balance. We’re hard-working, old-fashioned people. But we are also embracing technology and modernization to a certain extent. We’re culling all of the good things out of everything.
“Our plan is to have the world be better and be open much more for lunch and dinner,” he said.
So far, it’s clear that Hillsborough can’t wait. The Saratoga’s Facebook post was met with excitement and encouragement.
“It’s been wonderful. The town has been incredibly supportive,” Murphy said. “I’ve been lucky to have been working with the clientele for the past three years. It feels good. I was very nervous. There’s a lot of nerve-wracking things in taking over a restaurant, especially when you’re trying to keep things kind of the same while updating certain things. We’ve been very, very lucky with the support from the town.”
Murphy admits it has at times been difficult coming into the restaurant and doing the physical part of taking over, which has included sorting through Colleen St. John’s paperwork and other items. It’s a part that people dread: Not only the passing, but the packing.
“It’s been difficult to clean out the office and not think about her,” she said. “It has been good, though. I’m trying not to think, ‘Oh gosh, she wouldn’t like me doing this.’ I’m trying to think, ‘I’m doing this because I know you were tired and you didn’t have the time to do this.’ I’m trying to think about it positively.
Murphy said her uncle, Kevin, has been instrumental in helping her get her arms around the kitchen needs at the restaurant. She believes it’s helping him, too.
“He has had his ups and downs,” she said. “The past two weeks have been great for me personally, because he’s been in the kitchen with me teaching me all of his recipes. It’s been a very fun and peaceful time for me. And I think for him, too. I think that he has also enjoyed it.”
“It’s a very tough time to lose a spouse,” Iorfida added. “We can’t really embrace him. The distance we’ve had to keep has made it difficult.”
And now that the Saratoga is in good hands, Kevin St. John is able to take time to visit other family members in Arizona.
“I think we wish that a lot of this could have been done when she was still alive,” Murphy said. “We were trying to make that happen. Colleen and Kevin were the hardest working people. They were just so dedicated to this restaurant. For better or for worse. And they put everything they had into it. It would have been nice for her to retire and spend a summer sitting by the pool. We move on and we’ll keep working hard. We’re a family of hard-working people and we hope that comes through once we reopen.”