By R.J. DeLuke
Gaffney’s, a landmark Saratoga Springs restaurant and bar, has changed hands and with that transaction, the owner is riding off to the ski slopes after investing 35 years of his life in the business.
The building—which has two indoor bar areas and, during spring and summer, an immensely popular outdoor patio bar—sold in November. John Baker has been leasing the facility he has owned for so long, continuing business as usual while the new ownership, Saratoga Hospitality, makes the transition to becoming the operator.
The 16 Caroline St. building, built in 1903 by John Gaffney, also has 12 apartments on the upper floors.
Saratoga Hospitality also owns Broadway eateries Max London’s Restaurant, Max London’s Restaurant, Mrs. London’s Bakery and the Saratoga Stadium.
Baker, an avid skier, said he will split time between Saratoga Springs and a home he has in Vermont. He will be retiring, though not necessarily for good. “I’ll see how bored I can get,” he quipped about future plans.
The change did not come easily. Baker said he had been considering an exit strategy for about a year, but didn’t have the business listed for sale. A conversation with local real estate agent Lucette Levinsky of Reynolds Real Estate resulted in the interested buyers and the deal was struck. “She did a fantastic job,” he said.
Baker has mixed emotions and some tears were shed at the meeting where he made the announcement to staff. (All are expected to remain under the new ownership).
“There have been three generations —customers and staff,” he said. Even among the Bakers, John’s brother, father and son have worked there.
Departure will be difficult. “You think about your business every five minutes. Even when your on vacation or taking your kids to school,” said Baker. “When I walk out the door for the last time, there will be some positives looking toward the future, but some mixed emotions .. It’s been my whole identity since I was 24.”
That’s the age Baker was when he took over the business in 1982. His other experience in the food industry was operating a hot dog cart in the city, called Frankly Speaking.
“At 24, I was the new kid on the block,” said Baker. That block was sparse in 1982. Gaffney’s and the Tin & Lint, 2 Caroline St., opened in 1970, were the mainstays of the street that is now the center of night life in Saratoga Springs.
“Sometimes you’ve got to go out when you’re on top or near the top,” he said.
Baker owns a building on Broadway and has other rental properties in Florida and overseas. So some of his energy will go into those. He also plans to do some traveling and spend more time with his family before any other endeavor presents itself.
“I plan on staying active in the community, at least part time,” he noted.
As for Gaffney’s, Baker said not much will change. There are about 40 employees through much of the year, but several more come on board during the busy summer season.
He said Saratoga Hospitality will not close the business during transition. Renovations will be done slowly.
“They’re going to build on what I’ve done for 35 years and make some improvements,” said Baker.
There will be at least one last hurrah for Baker. Gaffney’s will host a Christmas party at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15. Proceeds will be donated to Wellspring, the Saratoga County-based domestic violence and sexual assault services resource. Some former bartenders will also work parts of the shift, donating their tips to the organization.
Guitarist/singer Rick Bolton, who has performed at Gaffney’s for years, will play and bring in some of the musicians who have also played there over the years. The band Sirsy will also perform.
“New phases, old faces” is the slogan for the event. It’s a phrase Baker used when he first took the business over.
As for memories, Baker said they’re too numerous to single out. His staff and regulars are like family. Manager Kim Smith, for example, has worked there for some 30 years. Her family members have also worked there.
Gaffney’s website is www.gaffneysrestaurant.com.