Situated atop a bluff overlooking the historic “Healing Spring of the Great Spirit” sits The Olde Bryan Inn on Maple Avenue. The third oldest building in the city, OBI, as it is known locally, rests on the oldest site in the city and is both a repository of history as well as a gathering place for generations of Saratogians.
Steven Sullivan, known to just about everyone in town as “Sully,” has been at the helm of OBI since 1981, when he became partners with Joe Wilkenson and Dave Powers. During that time, the restaurant has carved out its niche as a place to enjoy hearty food in an atmosphere of cordiality.
Just as Alexander Bryan, a Revolutionary War hero and Saratoga’s first permanent resident, intended, OBI is the quintessential “neighborhood tavern.” Of course, what we know today as the tavern was actually part of a residence, and what is now the bar was really two rooms used for cooking and eating. The original tavern was a log structure located across the street from the OBI.
Perhaps it’s the rough-hewn beams and the quarried stone; it could be the more than 600 pewter beer steins, that belong to life-long customers of the tavern, resting in the original Skidmore mailboxes; or maybe it’s the languid nude reclining atop the massive stone wall, beckoning customers to the warmth of the hearth below.
Whatever it is, the feeling you get at OBI is one of warmth, welcome and hospitality. And it doesn’t all come from the ambience. It’s also a consequence of the culture Sully and his team have worked hard to develop and refine over the years.
“It didn’t just happen overnight,” says Sully. A natural entrepreneur, Steven Sullivan is originally from Boston,
the eldest of five children. He came to Skidmore in the 1970’s, originally intending to become a dentist. “They had a good pre-med program. Instead, I ended up with a degree in psychology.”
Sully put himself through school waiting tables and tending bar, ultimately starting his own antiques business. He bought and sold large antiques and, one day he went by the old stone building on Maple Avenue and saw some large church pews sitting outside. The building was in the process of being renovated. Sully inquired if the pews were for sale. They weren’t. However, one thing led to another and Sully was hired as a waiter at the OBI, a few years later becoming a partner in the business.
Since then, he and his team have learned the importance of creating a place that welcomes customers; but one that also nurtures and supports its staff. That is one of the reasons customers have been returning to OBI for 37 years – and why some of its employees have been there since the beginning. It’s hard to get a job there because nobody ever wants to leave.
Take John Kosek, for example. He has been there since the beginning and started as a chef. He left to complete his undergraduate degree at UNLV, returning to Saratoga a few years later to become the OBI’s General Manager.
Kosek is also an amateur archaeologist and he loves telling the history of the building and the people who lived there. During renovations and expansions over the years, he has presided over the “digs,” discovering and preserving artifacts from the 1700s to the present day. Among his prize collections are a colonial coin dating back to the 1770’s and an 1880 Morgan silver dollar. Shards of pottery, old rusted belt buckles and carpentry nails and tools round out the collection.
Kosek’s love of history and archaeology have turned into
an opportunity to engage the youngest members of the community. Every year, Kosek conducts nearly two dozen tours for groups of second graders from elementary schools in Saratoga and Schuylerville. They learn all about the history of the place, where the stone for the building was quarried, the people who lived there, what their lives were like and even stories of ghosts that may still inhabit the old building.
“It’s pretty amazing when you realize that this building is 40 years older than the racetrack,” says Kosek.
After the tour, the children enjoy an OBI grilled cheese and return to school with heads full of stories of Revolutionary war heroes, archaeology, and the earliest residents of the city.
Creating a secondary role for the OBI as a place where young people can learn about their city and their heritage is just one of the ways the business nurtures its staff and encourages them to be their best selves. It’s also great for business. Kids want their parents to take them to the restaurant with the “two eyes” on the second floor of the building, referring to
the two round windows that look over the street below.
Many other employees attest to the culture of empowerment that leads to longevity with the company. There’s Johnny Capelli, who’s been with OBI for 26 years. “He’s more excited now then ever before about his work here and the business,” says Sully. Capelli started out as a line cook, gradually taking on more and more responsibility. Today, Sully says he is not only a great chef; he is also a wonderful leader and coach to the other employees.
His other chef, J.D. Salvato, who is now the Executive Chef at Sully’s other establishment, Longfellows, started out as an intern.
For Sully and his team, it’s all about empowerment and encouraging each other to be their best.
“That’s something that comes about by listening and paying attention,” says Sully. And its something that doesn’t automatically happen. It has to be part of the work.
“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care,” says Sully.
For the people on the staff at Longfellows and OBI, they know how much they are appreciated and cared for. There’s Robin Kelsey, a manager at OBI with 22 years under her belt. Or Karen McLain, who is now Sully’s HR manager. She started out 27 years ago as a waitress and Sully calls her a great “right hand.”
“We try to hire people who fit a certain profile: they want to stay local and we will train and develop them.”
Sully mentions Kayla Benton. She started out as a busser, moving on to become a hostess and then a banquet worker. “She was a fantastic server and six years later she now tends bar. She is a model for what can be done when people want to thrive. We also encourage our people to continue their education.”
Over the years, Sully has learned the value of making a difference for his staff by being sensitive to their needs.
Assistant Starters, 24"x36", oil on canvas Schedules are made up a month in advance, so people can plan for the important things in their own lives that need to be attended to. He has also been at the forefront of the city’s initiative to develop affordable housing for people who work in the hospitality industry.
“Most of our workforce comes here from Fort Ann, Hudson Falls, Salem and Greenwich,” he says, adding that this is where there are opportunities to earn a living.” By making housing affordable in this area, people don’t have to make the long commutes to and from work, which in turn improves their quality of life with their families.
So, while the hospitality, hearty menu and a rich and colorful history are part of what sets The Olde Bryan Inn apart from other establishments, you’d be hard pressed to find another business that takes as good care of their employees as they do their customers. SS
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