Betting on Saratoga

Dec. 15, 2012 @ 03:12 PM

This may come as a surprise to those that claim taproots deep in the clay, Southern soils of Orange County: The owners of Saratoga Grill are actually from New York!
Kevin and Colleen St. John are quite comfortable saying they are from the north, where winters are long and warm weather is short. From inside the intimate surroundings of their restaurant, Saratoga Grill, they both appear humble, content and equally eager to begin another day in the chapters of their lives they have written together.
“I graduated from high school and my mother got me a job in a restaurant and it is all that I have ever known,” says Kevin. “I grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York; it is a small town that is popular with affluent people and it has a rich history of horse race tracks. I worked at Lillian’s and worked my way from waiting tables to management,” says Kevin.
The story of how Kevin met Colleen is one of a mutual friend knowing a mutual friend, and Kevin being in Florida, where Colleen was living at the time, to watch the 1991 Orange Bowl, between Notre Dame and Colorado.
Says Colleen, “We met in January and were married that May. It was, and is, love.” Colleen was from Syracuse, N.Y., and had worked for an insurance company before moving to Sarasota to work for an airline industry. “Raleigh-Durham was a hub and I would travel back and forth to see Kevin and we just fell in love with this area,” Colleen said.
Eventually, the two moved to Wilmington where Colleen worked for an insurance company again and Kevin managed at the Blockade Runner.
“Kevin wanted to us to open a restaurant and I said that I would give it three years,” says Colleen. “We looked at Raleigh, Charlotte and even Kentucky before meeting Bob Greer and learning of this location in Hillsborough,” Kevin said.
Before it was Saratoga, it was the Regulator, and in 1995, Kevin and Colleen opened the doors to the upstairs restaurant and began their careers together as a married couple with a restaurant as their child.
“The place was a turn-key and we were fortunate because the equipment was already here. I spent a lot of time renovating and getting things ready; I even slept here as we were still living in Wilmington,” Kevin says.
They opened on a Wednesday. “It was February 8, 1995, and we opened despite what was a heavy snow for the area,” says Kevin.
In the early days of the Saratoga, finding help was tough for the St. Johns. “Nobody applied to our job posting,” Colleen said. “We had some tough moments those first few days of being open. That Friday night we had a busy night and the other waiter helping me out had never waited tables before. We made some long-lasting friends, then, and that was despite running out of scones,” Colleen recalls. “Yet, by the next week it was Valentine’s and we were running smooth,” Colleen says.
The Saratoga restaurant is a destination for locals and out-of-town and out-of-state patrons alike. It serves friends and people of fame. “Bob Dole has been here as has Richard Nixon’s brother,” says Kevin. More remarkable, during the tenure, the Saratoga has built a reputation for great service and for a menu that has essentially not changed. “For the most part our menu has remained the same since we opened. We cook everything on a small charcoal fired grill and at one time I chopped mesquite for the coals,” says Kevin.
On the menu, patrons will find a Reuben, an open-faced sirloin sandwich with garlic butter, honey-almond salmon, a Saratoga salad, and in baskets brought to newly arrived guests, the best scones ever made in the South by those that hail from the area above the Mason-Dixon line.
“Some people come here just for the scones,” Colleen admits.
It surprised this writer to learn that Colleen makes the scones every day. “It is a recipe I borrowed from my sister. I make about 80 scones daily during the week and 200 a day for the weekend,” Colleen says.
The walls of the restaurant are decorated with works from local artists, including Kenny Glenn, whose works line the southern wall. “He (Glenn) crafted a signature piece which we have sold several times,” Colleen says.
The ambience of Saratoga is quaint and special. It is a place one can eat a burger for lunch and a place to formally dine in the evening. Yet, of all that Saratoga is, it is the presence of Colleen and Kevin that makes Saratoga a special place in this quaint town.
The two are detailed in how food is prepared and served and more importantly how customers are treated. With an ease and simple elegance, these owners are as likely to answer the phone as they are to refill a glass of water as they are to share a few moments with lifetime friends made since their tenure in Hillsborough.
When asked of how the two get along, both at the restaurant and at home, Colleen says, “We love each other.”
When not setting tables for guests, Kevin golfs, and rides his bike for exercise. In a previous life he was a track athlete, once posting a personal best 4:17 one-mile sprint. For Colleen, her spare time is spent sewing. “I make everything from table cloths to slip-covers,” Colleen says.
It may not be a surprise that these two residents are not from a long lineage of Southerners. Yet, the roots from Saratoga are strong and they are comprised of care for each other, care for their customers, and as long as Colleen is able to craft her scones, these roots will never wither.
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Saratoga Grill
Address: 108 S. Churton St., Hillsborough, NC 27278
Phone: For reservation information or to inquire about semi-private events, call 919-732-2214.
Hours: Saratoga is open Monday through Saturday and has a bar in back of the restaurant.