Leveraging a storied history, beautiful grounds and an out-of-the-way location, the owners of this Elburn treasure are crafting its new identity as a wedding and social events venue.
The building and property were in disrepair, yet Patti and Mark Southern saw potential in Fisherman’s Inn – a closed-down historical restaurant in Elburn they frequently drove by.
In Mark and Patti’s eyes, the property was still beautiful and the facility had an interesting 50-year history. They wanted to see the restaurant come alive again.
“We had a vision for the place,” Patti says. “My great-uncle, Ralph Schleifer, was the previous owner, and when he died in 2005, the building was turned over to a trust. It fell into bad shape, until it closed in 2009. My husband and I drove by the property so many times, and finally one day he said, ‘You know what? We should buy it.’”
In 2012, the Southerns rolled up their sleeves and began the massive renovation project that would return Fishermen’s Inn to its former charm. Walls were torn down and replaced with reclaimed barn wood. Paint was sanded away to reveal the building’s original stone. The 20-acre grounds became abundant with walkways, waterfalls, ponds and gardens, while a new patio and bar area became part of the interior. Fishermen’s Inn is now a blend of rustic elegance and natural beauty coupled with professional service and exquisite cuisine.
At first, the Southerns planned for Fishermen’s Inn to be a restaurant once again. However, in what they now consider a savvy business decision, the couple decided to open the facility in 2014 as a private wedding and event venue.
“We realized that we had to be a high-end restaurant in order for it to succeed and for people to come all the way out here, and people only spend that kind of money on dinner for special occassions such as birthdays and anniversaries,” Patti says. “However, people love the middle-of-nowhere, destination wedding feeling. It’s a beautiful slice of heaven that’s just five minutes away from everything you need. We can still serve excellent cuisine, and we can provide lifelong memories.”
Already, Fishermen’s Inn has 86 weddings booked for 2017 and 30 booked for next year. Private events, such as fundraisers, birthday parities and corporate events dominate the schedule during the wedding offseason months of January through March, although weddings are also held during this time. Fishermen’s Inn hosts a couple of public events throughout the year, usually around the holidays, but the Southerns intend to keep the venue private. They compromise by offering live music on the patio every Thursday evening from May through October, which is open to the public.
No matter what the event, Patti’s goal is for guests to have an experience rooted in kindness, professionalism and care.
“From the moment people walk in, I want them to feel like family,” she says. “That’s my main goal whenever I first meet with somebody. It’s huge because if you think about it, we’re going to be working together for at least a year. I get to know the people and their families pretty well by the end of that year. It’s important to me that they feel good inside.”
Patti knows she has achieved her goal when she casually overhears words like “outstanding” and “excellent” when people comment on the food and service. However, what really touches her is the bride’s reaction to seeing the venue all set up on her wedding day.
“That’s what gets me the most – when the bride walks in, looks around, and just starts crying,” Patti says. “That’s how I know we did it right. That moment is going to be a lasting memory for her.”
Wedding ceremonies at Fishermen’s Inn can accommodate up to 300 people indoors or outdoors. The indoor location has floor-to-ceiling windows with a wide view of the grounds, while the outdoor spot is right in the midst of the beautiful property. The indoor location is always prepared as a backup in case of inclement weather. A special bridal suite and groom’s area are included with the space.
Throughout the property’s 20 acres, there are willow trees, split rail fences, flower gardens, an arched bridge and a windmill to take pictures in front of. Patti looks forward to seeing the finished wedding photos almost as much as the bride and groom themselves.
“Every photographer is different, so getting pictures back is always exciting,” she says. “They find so many unique places to take these beautiful wedding photos. I also love how happy everyone looks.”
Cocktail hour can commence outdoors on the patio or indoors up in the loft, which has a deck overlooking the property. The space transforms into a reception hall later in the evening for dancing. Dinner is held in the main upstairs dining room, which has massive beams overhead and natural light flooding the space. Food is delivered directly from the kitchen so that nothing has a chance to get cold.
Mark and Patti are particular when it comes to excellent cuisine. Executive Chef Pablo Rocha, Sous Chef Annie Silvestri and the rest of their team make everything from scratch, including salad dressings, gravy, French fries and even the candied walnuts on salads. Guests can choose what they’d like to eat from two protein entrees and one vegetarian option. They also get hors d’oeuvres, a soup and a salad. Wedding cake and a four-hour open bar are also included in dining packages.
When Rocha wants to present new hors d’oeuvres and entrees on the menu, he presents a tasting to the Southerns, who critique the food on both taste and presentation. Dishes are re-worked multiple times until they can be called perfect.
“Pablo has an incredible vision for how he wants his food to be,” Patti says. “That’s one of the biggest compliments we get – that the food is amazing.”
One of Patti’s wisest moves has been to formulate an innovate technique for serving food. It was unacceptable to her that people would have to wait for their food while others were already eating. So, she created a method to serve everyone all at once.
“It took us a while to figure it out, but we’ve got it down,” Patti says. “It helps that most of our staff has been here since we opened. We’re known for excellent service thanks to our kind-hearted, hard-working staff members.”
When searching for an event venue, Patti’s biggest piece of advice is for brides to know exactly what’s actually included in the package they’re purchasing. Is there a cake-cutting fee or a bartender fee? Are linens and chairs included? Every single detail of what’s included at Fishermen’s Inn is outlined in a packet that’s available upon request.
“What you see is what you get with us,” Patti says. “You’re not going to have any surprises.”
She advises all business owners to uphold the same tenants of honesty, professionalism and kindness.
“We’ve stayed true to ourselves the whole time,” she says. “We don’t look at what other people are doing. We learn what works and then we constantly try to better ourselves. It’s actually pretty simple – if you can make people happy, you’ll have a good business. And that’s what we’re good at. We’re good at making people happy.”