On a tract of old farmland not far from the Saratoga Race Course flourishes a venerable restaurant, which has passed its good name along to generations of owners and even the mother of a Kentucky Derby winning racehorse.
The Wishing Well restaurant in Wilton, N.Y. first opened for business in 1936. Nearly 40 years later, Robert and Brenda Lee purchased the property and relaunched it in May 1968.
In that time, the pair, and now their son Robert Lee, created a richly elegant white tablecloth destination restaurant, bathed in rough-hewn woods and framed portraits of beautiful racehorses; they built a gathering spot so popular that the restaurant motto declares: “Eventually everyone winds up at The Wishing Well.”
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Lee discusses what it takes to keep a good thing going after all this time.
Q: How have you managed to attract and retain customers for so many years?
Our attitude and service is one trait we pride ourselves on. We treat each patron as though they’re a guest in our home. The Wishing Well is very inviting and comfortable. And our menu offers many classic dishes that have been tweaked over time so they remain relevant.
Q: What’s an example of a longstanding menu item you’ve tweaked?
Frog legs! Frog legs defined continental cuisine in this country 50 years ago, and we continue to offer them, and they’re very popular, especially among young people. We sauté them in some garlic, butter and veal stock, and with these tweaks, they’ve remained a very popular item.
Q: What’s your secret to longevity?
The staff is very important to our success. We’ve empowered them to make decisions, and have made sure they all have a fundamental understanding of what they’re involved in by working for The Wishing Well. All of our staff understands our history, the significance of it, and they care about the people who visit us.
Q: The Wishing Well has an impressive history.
It was originally a farm house on a working farm that encompassed 600 acres. It was started by the Stiles family, who built the farm in 1823 and ran it until the 1930s. Jack Hedrick of Utica, who was in the textile business, purchased the property in the 1930s and opened the farmhouse as a restaurant and built a bar next to it. (The original deed prohibited the sale of alcohol in the farmhouse).
The property was sold again in the early 1960s to Jack and Irving Ziebert of Troy. As an aside, their brother Duke Ziebert ran a famous restaurant in Washington, D.C. called Duke’s. Then, in 1967, my parents purchased it and on May 3, 2018, The Wishing Well will have been our family restaurant for 50 years.
Q: The Wishing Well name also appears in horse pedigree.
Wishing Well was the name of a mare who along with another horse named Halo produced Sunday Silence. *Sunday Silence won the 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
Q: What has been the biggest obstacle in continuing the family business?
Probably the biggest thing in my 30 years here was the death of my father in 2002. He launched The Wishing Well, and was very much identified with the restaurant. After he died, I learned that the Wishing Well has a longevity that hopefully will transcend our family. The building has stood on this land since 1823, and the restaurant since 1936. I view my time here as that of a steward of the restaurant, for however long that may be.
Q: What is the meaning of the statement, ‘Eventually everyone winds up at The Wishing Well?’
The decision to spend disposable income on dining says something about the customer as well as the restaurant. The choices a diner makes tend to be different at different phases in life. A young family, for example, may choose differently than someone who’s in another place in their life. We believe that there’s a time in people’s life that what we offer at The Wishing Well becomes more relevant. — The Wishing Well uses Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank you!