Randall Brown and his wife Lynn pose in front of the piano at Beardslee Castle.
by Dave Warner
The restaurant business is a tough one, so it’s really time to celebrate when someone makes it 25 years in the business. And, that’s exactly what Randall and Lynn Brown have done.
Randall is originally from the Burnt Hills area, south of Saratoga. His wife Lynn (Gorman) Brown, is a Little Falls native. Randall got his degree in computer science, but never even used it. “All through school, I worked in restaurants. When I came out this way to go to school at SUNY in Utica, I answered an ad for a waiters job at Beardslee Manor,” he said.
All the time he was going to school and during the summers, he worked the restaurant scene, going as far as Cape Cod during one summer.
While working at Beardslee, he met Lynn, as she was working there herself. Randall said, “It’s been quite a journey.”
Every restaurant that Randall had worked in growing up had been what would be termed fine dining. “High end, high quality,” stated Randall.
In August of 1989, there was a fire at Beardslee Manor, which destroyed the whole kitchen area. The water damage and the holes that had to be cut for entry by the firemen to fight the fire and contain it to the kitchen caused even more damage.
When Randall looked at the location, he expected the damage to be worse than what he saw. However, “If I knew then, what I know now about how bad it really was, I would have said oh my God, what a project,” he said.
The original owners chose not to restore and reopen the business and put it on the market, so it opened an opportunity for Brown, his ex-wife, and a partner, but it took three years to pull a deal together. “We worked with the Small Business Administration, the Mohawk Valley Certified Development Corporation, Herkimer County Trust at the time, and it was a project,” said Brown.
But, he felt it had potential because the dining areas weren’t burned out and the original ceilings, floors, and woodwork were all there. “It needed a huge amount of restoration and the entire kitchen was gone. The idea was, that it would still be significant as a historic building because not much of that was damaged and it could be restored,” stated Brown.
It took them a year and a half of restoration work to get it back in shape. “It was such a showpiece and people had been missing it for those years after the fire. We opened in February of 1994 and the Dungeon Grill area didn’t open for another month and a half after that.”
Brown thought that if they rebuilt it, people would come and that if they enjoyed it, they would come back. “That’s the formula for any good restaurant. You have to depend on return visits. If you have to depend on attracting new people all the time, you’ll be in trouble,” he said.
His thoughts though might have been a bit naive. He said “I’d had about 13-14 years in the business and had managed some places. I knew that the area didn’t have much in the way of fine dining. There was the Canal Side Inn, but that had the Bistro French-style approach. This place had the building, the ambiance, and everything to go with it.”
Brown had been working in the Hudson Valley prior to purchasing Beardslee and the culinary scene there was ten years ahead of what was happening in this area. “So, when we came up here and started serving great wines for $4.00 a glass, people were shocked at the price. Things seem normal now looking back on it, but it was foreign to people back then.”
“Customers in the area were used to seeing potatoes or rice, a vegetable and meat on a plate. That’s what they were used to. So, what we did here, was quite a jump-off from that. Everything that people talk about now – farm to table and foraging – we were doing that from 1994 on,” said Brown.
They were also going directly to farmers and having them grow things. “All of that came from my background working in the Hudson Valley area and close to New York City,” he said.
The expectation was, that they would bring something new to the area and part of that original plan was to have a bed and breakfast as well. After a short period of time though, they felt that wouldn’t work.
Those first years were difficult, but according to Brown, what changed everything for them was the Internet. “We put our website up in 2000 and it was such a visual medium and visual space and people would see a picture of this place and want to come here. We got a lot more people in and the history of the ghosts and all here, even though I don’t like to play that up, attracted people as well.”
“The idea was, to take a great place, fill it with great food and service and it would be a receipt for success,” stated Brown.
It’s a challenge being a bit away from any major population area. The business doesn’t spend a lot of money on advertising but instead, puts it into the staff, the service, and the food. They let the guests do the advertising for them.
A high point for Brown was getting married to his wife Lynn on the property. “We had all our staff, friends and family here in 2000 and that was fabulous. My son was born here about six months after we opened,” he said.
Brown feels like they’ve done a lot of things that are different. They’ve done fairs, live music and other events at the location. “I can’t even count how many dinner theaters we’ve done. We’ve been doing them since 1996 probably. We’ve also done over 2,500 weddings.”
He feels like the staff is amazing when it comes to weddings. “We get great comments and fill up our wedding schedule every year.”
The restaurant serves about 30,000 people a year. “Being creative with the food keeps us young and into it,” said Brown. “We are constantly looking for new ideas.”
The staff has stayed pretty consistent over the years. Jennifer Leskovar (dining room & banquet co-manager along with Lynn Brown), Saute Chef Sean Cruz, Grill Chef Devin Verri, and longtime dining room head waitress Stephanie Kane have been with them for quite a while now. “I call myself the executive chef here, but it doesn’t mean I’m sitting here cooking every meal, those guys are,” said Brown.
“If you treat staff well, they’ll treat your guests well. It’s really great to have the staff that we have. There’s really not much turnover.”
They have a wood-burning grill where things are cooked over nice aged dry maple or cherry, that is cut right on the property. Brown said, “The flavors for steaks and everything is amazing.”
They also have about 350 different wines that are available and 150 craft beers.
Every year the restaurant has grown, some years by double digits. “We’ve had a lot of recognition lately from local and international gourmet groups, as well as critical acclaim. I think that’s going to continue to grow.”
The couple re-invests in the property every chance they get to keep it looking good. There are no current plans to expand and they intend to keep it going “as long as we’re kickin'” said Brown.
They are working on restoring the carriage house. There is a high water table under the structure and it has sunk over the last 150 years.
They’re also doing a lot of research on the Beardslee’s, trying to come full circle on the history of the location and their part in it.
There are going to be several special events throughout the year to celebrate their 25 years in business. “Some special dinners and we’ll do about 20-25 murder mystery dinner theaters this year as well. We also might be doing an antique car show this summer, clam bakes, and other special things,” said Brown.
Editors Note: The Browns have accumulated volumes of information on the Beardslee Family over the years with dual goals of writing a comprehensive history and finishing their application for national historic register status. If anyone has any stories or bits and pieces of Beardslee history please get in touch with them.