By Paul Post
Scott Johnson and partners have welcomed guests to Sperry’s Restaurant since 2010 when they reopened the iconic Spa City landmark, which had been closed for about a year.
The popular eatery entertains a “Who’s Who” list of horse racing industry celebrities each summer.
“Anybody who’s anybody has eventually ended up at Sperry’s,” said Johnson, an attorney and former three-term (2008-13) Saratoga Springs mayor. “It would be easier to tell you who hasn’t come here than who has.”
But after 13 years, his group is handing stewardship of the establishment to new undisclosed owners. He declined to identify the party’s identity pending completion of the sale, but said they’re experienced restaurant owners.
The sale is under contract with a closing date on or before April 15.
“It’s time for me to start downsizing what I deal with on a regular basis,” Johnson said. “The restaurant was one of those things. I decided it was time to sell. We’ve been approached before by people who showed interest. The timing wasn’t’ right. This time around was different.”
“I’ve been assured that the Sperry’s name will continue and key staff will hopefully stay on board,” he said. “If you’re looking at buying a restaurant like Sperry’s with its longstanding history and reputation, you’d be foolish to do away with what’s worked for many years.”
The sale is for two separate entities, the restaurant business and the property at 30½ Caroline St., owned by JMO Partners. Johnson is managing partner of both.
He bought the restaurant with his wife, Julie, and partners Bob and Cheryl Ohanesian.
“We wouldn’t have bought Sperry’s Restaurant if the real estate wasn’t included,too,” Johnson said. “I’m a big believer in controlling my own destiny. We didn’t want to be at mercy of a landlord.”
First opened in 1932, Sperry’s was originally owned by Chubby and Cappy Sperry, which previously ran it as a Prohibition-era speakeasy before transitioning to a restaurant and bar. After Chubby Sperry’s passing, his wife ran things until 1979 when she sold it to John Rockwell and Ridge Qua.
Later, Qua became sole owner and eventually sold Sperry’s to Johnson’s group.
It is still the city’s second-oldest restaurant. Only Pennell’s, which recently celebrated its 90th anniversary, has been in business longer.
Johnson’s group worked hard to maintain the site’s historic character, one of its most attractive qualities, while serving exceptionally fine fare in a casual, yet elegant atmosphere.
“Our history hangs on the wall,” he said. “There’s a lot of period photographs that go way back. We wanted to preserve the tradition and ambience when you first walk in the door, with the original black and white floor tiling and art deco lighting. We added red booths to make it more traditional looking.”
While the main dining room was kept the same, renovations to two other dining rooms, including one overlooking the back patio, have a more contemporary flair.
Johnson’s group also expanded the patio and had a 12-foot high acoustical wall built to keep noise out from nearby sources, so guests can enjoy themselves in a relaxed, outdoor setting.
The COVID-19 pandemic was challenging for the restaurant industry and Sperry’s wasn’t immune to such difficulties.
“But we survived and stayed open except for the time New York State forced us to close,” Johnson said. “We followed the guidelines to reopen and eventually got back to 100 percent capacity. Some diners are still apprehensive, but the pandemic’s biggest impact has more to do with a shorter labor supply.
“Previously, we were always at full capacity (about 85 employees) during the peak track season. The last couple of seasons we’ve been unable to fill all the positions because people just didn’t come back to the industry, they went elsewhere or the unemployment insurance was too good.”
In winter, Sperry’s has about three dozen workers.
However, Johnson said business has become more steady year round as Saratoga Springs’ popularity has grown as a four-season destination with a full slate of ongoing events on the calendar.
Johnson said COVID wasn’t the main reason for deciding to sell. He simply wants more time to pursue other interests such as partnering as co-owner of a small horse racing stable. “If we make money it will probably be lucky,” he said. “It’s a wonderful hobby. That’s part of what Saratoga is.”