SARATOGA SPRINGS — Walking around downtown Saratoga Springs, it’s clear there’s no shortage of restaurants.
But there is a gap in service, according to Julia Sanzen, co-owner of Farmers Hardware, a fast-casual restaurant that opened earlier this summer on Maple Avenue.
“The food scene in Saratoga has really grown, but there was something lacking, and that’s breakfast and lunch,” Sanzen said, “There was a huge gap between restaurants that offered dinner and restaurants that offered breakfast and lunch.”
Last year, when Sanzen and Tyler Russell, her boyfriend and co-owner of Farmers Hardware, were first thinking of opening a brunch spot, they originally were going to keep it to a small place. But that idea kept growing and turned into a full-fledged restaurant, something Sanzen never thought she’d own.
She grew up close to Saratoga Race Course and was always interested in food.
“I come from an Italian family. Everyone in the family cooks,” Sanzen said. She speaks quickly, and when she’s talking about the food industry, it’s clear she not only knows the ins and outs of the industry, but has a passion for creating unique dishes.
Earlier in her career, Sanzen focused on the nutrition side of the industry. She graduated with her bachelor’s in health promotion management from American University. After spending a few years working with corporate wellness programs in New York City, she yearned to work more closely with clients and food.
Sanzen studied at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan and worked in several well-known restaurants in the city, including Mercer Kitchen. She also had the chance to work with Rocco DiSpirito, a celebrity chef in New York City. They worked on his book “The Pound a Day Diet,” and she cooked meals for everyone from the Kardashian family to the women on television’s “The View.”
Shortly after that project, Sanzen managed the food and dining services at the Brearley School, a prestigious private school on New York’s Upper East Side. She ran a staff of more than a dozen people and prepared food for over 1,000 students and staff every day.
“I think we’re getting out of the faux pas of bouncing around to different jobs. I’m glad my resume is a few pages long,” Sanzen said.
In 2016, when Sanzen decided to come back to her hometown and open Farmers Hardware with Russell, her lengthy resume served her well.
The fast casual restaurant, which Sanzen said is in part modeled after Shake Shack, serves a mix of classic brunch and lunch dishes, with Sanzen’s creative spin. There’s banana-stuffed French toast, an egg breakfast with ribs, and a dragon bowl with quinoa and Thai peanut dressing.
“Even though there’s that quick service, you’re getting culinary excellence from the kitchen,” Sanzen said.
Everything from the furniture to the food was done by Russell and Sanzen.
Russell, who owns Storied Boards, a reclaimed lumber and furniture company in Lake George, designed the tables and stools, along with the rustic walls. He created communal-style tables that are a smooth reclaimed maple (only appropriate, given the address) and the fresh pine stools. There are a few industrial-looking metal decorations that give the place a more urban atmosphere, which comes from Sanzen’s sense of style.
“We wanted everything in here to have character, to have a story,” Sanzen said.
Perhaps the most interesting story can be found in the kitchen.
“My kitchen is a shipping container,” Sanzen said, “It’s a professional commercial kitchen. It’s insulated. It’s just a kitchen in a box.”
The three-story building that houses Farmers Hardware couldn’t accommodate a kitchen. So Sanzen and Russell took the kitchen outside. It’s set up a few feet away from the restaurant, resting on helical piles. It’s a tight squeeze, but the entire kitchen (stove, oven, fryer, etc.) fits.
While the name Farmers Hardware doesn’t exactly conjur images of Tex-Mex turkey burgers or the stuffed French toast that frequently come out of Sanzen’s shipping container kitchen, it does honor the building’s history.
“We found out that this building was the warehouse to Farmers Hardware on Broadway,” Sanzen said, “It doesn’t sound foodie, but it just works.”
According to Sanzen, things are going as well as can be expected in getting the restaurant off the ground. She’s been trying a few things to see where Farmers Hardware really fits in the local market. They’ve run a few events on their third floor, which they rent out for parties, and they’ve begun holding a happy hour with live music.
Within the first year or two, Sanzen said, things are liable to change, but she’s glad to be back in her hometown and part of the growing Saratoga restaurant scene.
“It’s exceeded my expectations and it’s surreal that we’re doing this,” Sanzen said.