Saratoga Springs

Heaping Helpings: After pandemic’s worst, family-owned Walt & Whitman is eager for Saratoga Springs summer

Interior of Walt and Whitman’s Brewing in Saratoga Springs
Interior of Walt and Whitman’s Brewing in Saratoga Springs

SARATOGA SPRINGS – News is still coming out of the former Saratogian building in downtown Saratoga Springs.

These days, it’s all about craft beer and food, adaptation and perseverance.

Three months before COVID hit, the structure that once housed Saratoga Springs’ daily newspaper reopened as Walt & Whitman Brewing and Walt Cafe. The family-owned business has weathered the worst of the pandemic, and owners now look forward to what they hope will be a busy summer season.

Co-owner Will Crager and his family opened the brewery and eatery in December of 2019. Its name is a nod to renowned American poet and journalist Walt Whitman.

“We view Whitman as a poet who wrote about the journey of a lot of different American craftsmen and craftswomen,” Crager explained. “So we think about craft beer and not only that, but craft food, and crafted and quality ingredients, and hopefully overall, when people come in, a crafted experience.”

Crager and his family worked with Bonacio Construction and Phinney Design Group to renovate the historic wood-and-brick building, which was built in 1902 at the corner of Lake and Maple avenues. The renovations took more than a year to complete.

“The chief thing for us was making sure we maintained the integrity of the building,” Crager said, noting that all visible wood, brick and stone is original to the structure.

The space that once housed the newsroom operation is now Walt Cafe. Bright and airy, with exposed brick walls, it seats about 30 patrons.

Walt Cafe offers coffee, espresso, cold drinks and smoothies. In addition, diners can order house-made English muffins with a variety of toppings, a grilled cheese sandwich and a banana crunch parfait. Also on the menu are Walt Tarts, a homemade version of Pop-Tarts, available in a variety of flavors. Crager said they quickly became a favorite.

“Early on, I was having too many of them. They’re really good,” he said. “In the morning, they’re great, but they’re also kind of a cool dessert that we offer downstairs in the taproom as well.”

The taproom menu also features Detroit-style pizza, burgers, wings, salad, shawarma and more.

Menus for both cafe and tavern are masterminded by executive chef Brandon Schatko.

“Everything is house-made — that idea of freshness and quality and craft,” Crager noted.

The building’s lower level, where a printing press once stood, was transformed into a lounge, taproom and brewery. Guests enter through the lounge, which has a fireplace and midnight-colored walls covered with paintings, quotes and photographs that highlight the arts.

“Saratoga is an incredibly rich literary, musical and artistic town, so we tried to bring a little of that to life with the design of the space, the naming of it after Whitman. We hope to continue that as we can get some live music acts in the future and maybe build the space out a little bit more to cater to that,” Crager said.

Beyond the lounge is the taproom, where a glass wall reveals the brewery’s shining stainless steel components. Exposed beams recall the building’s vintage, while stone walls, sunken below sidewalk level, give the space a subterranean feel.

“In the winter it’s great. It’s kind of this cozy escape, and then in the summer, it’s nice too. On a hot day, it’s nice and cool,” Crager said.

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Seating capacity during non-COVID times is 180 on the lower level. With social distancing, that number has decreased to about 50.

A large patio allows for outdoor seating of roughly 20 with social distancing.

Walt & Whitman’s brewmasters, Keegan Dombrosky and Nick Meyer, hail from Back East Brewing Company in Connecticut.

“They’re young guys — hardworking and very in tune with not only the product and the process and ingredients, but also customer feedback,” Crager said.

The brew team’s goal is to build a diversified draft board that includes something that will appeal to every type of beer drinker. Among the offerings is Le Petit Poète, described as “a French farmhouse ale with notes of banana, clove and black pepper.” Whatever it Takes Saison features “new world yeast and ancient grains.”

“Keegan and Nick make a really great Hazy New England IPA, but they also make a really great lager and saison, and just all these different styles of beer. Their ability to adapt and diversify is really strong, and I think that’s what sets us apart,” Crager said.

Adaptation became the name of the game when COVID hit. The operation shifted to takeout and the owners scrambled to figure out how to keep the business afloat. Many staff people were let go, and there were weeks when the business shut down completely as a health and safety precaution.

Walt & Whitman got the green light to sell takeout beer during the pandemic. The only problem: The canning line wasn’t set up yet. Due to COVID restrictions, the Canada-based installers slated to arrive in March were prohibited from coming.

So Dombrosky and Meyer took on the task, and got the lineup and running in time for summer 2020.

During the pandemic, the brewery’s food takeout menu expanded to include take-and-make meal components such as chicken bone broth, giant English muffins, pizza sauce, ranch salad dressing and Korean BBQ sauce. Take-and-make options will continue after COVID restrictions are lifted, Crager said.

“We’d love to get a little bit more creative with it,” he said. “The idea of offering take-and-make kits and then posting videos about it on our website — having an interactive experience — we think can be a cool way for [customers] to experience Whitman at home.”

Walt & Whitman has also been approved to sell their Walt Tarts and Detroit-style pizza through Goldbelly, a service that ships restaurant food nationwide.

The pandemic-prompted indoor dining shutdown provided time to analyze and tweak the brewery’s dining service model.

“In the beginning we had a host and a hostess. No reservations at that time, but we had long waits on the weekends,” Crager recounted. “It was really, really great, but I think the feel of what we were looking to achieve was just a little bit different than what we were executing.”

Now the taproom offers a seat-yourself experience with counter service. Food and drinks are ordered at the bar and patrons receive a text message when their food is ready.

“It’s a much more casual experience that we think highlights that kind of taproom and beer focus,” Crager said.

Crager credits a hardworking, flexible team with the brewery and cafe’s survival, and said they’re all looking forward to what will hopefully be a more traditional Saratoga summer.

“It will be great to just kind of see things come back to life,” he said.

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Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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