When you open your new restaurant the Thursday before Fourth of July weekend on Martha’s Vineyard and there’s a line out the door on day one, there isn’t much time to ease into business.

“It was like drinking from a fire hose,” said Ken Brown, co-proprietor of Sarah Brown’s Comfort Food in Oak Bluffs.

Add to that a pandemic. And a new business model. Sarah Brown’s is a 50-year-old catering business founded by Ken’s mother and still operating on Long Island in New York.

But Ken and his fiancée and business partner Deirdre Foreman, who both have MBA degrees and met three years ago on the Vineyard, decided to add a restaurant to the resumé of the catering business by opening a casual spot on Martha’s Vineyard. The new Sarah Brown’s Comfort Food is at 53 Circuit avenue* in the space Beetlebung café formerly occupied.

The 50-year-old business is named for founder Sarah Brown, Ken's mother. Jeanna Shepard

The restaurant menu is filled with traditional comfort food; many items are based on Sarah Brown’s original recipes.

Sarah was born in North Augusta, South Carolina, and was the oldest of nine children. She learned to cook from her father and wound up doing most of the cooking for her siblings, who loved her food. She went on to cook at a whites-only restaurant, moved to Long Island and worked for many years as a cook for a family in King’s Point. In 1970, with a young family of her own, she quit her job and started her own catering business. Word spread far and wide about Sarah’s cooking, and over the years the company, which grew exponentially, has cooked all over New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut and as far away as Cancun, Mexico.

The business is still a family affair. This year, Ken’s niece Stephanie Brown and nephew Shawn Spruill are in charge of the kitchen at the new restaurant, and Ken’s son Kaalon Brown and another nephew Kishon Ross are working the front of the house at the restaurant. Ken grew up working in his mother’s business; he remembers washing pots and pans when he was as young as seven years old.

The menu of family favorites includes their signature chicken with white wine and grapes, as well as fried chicken, Sarah’s Burger, filet mignon, salmon, fried whiting and pasta primavera. They’ve also recently added smothered turkey wings with mashed potatoes and a broiled lobster tail to the entrée menu, which includes Oak Bluffs brisket too.

Ken Brown grew up in the restaurant business. Jeanna Shepard

But already the most popular items on the menu are the side dishes: the long list includes yams, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, black-eyed peas, mac & cheese, potato salad, garlic-butter haricots verts and sautéed okra.

“People love the sides; sometimes that’s all they order,” Deirdre said.

Ken said switching their business model to a sit-down restaurant has been a huge shift in their business practice.

“Catering is by appointment only; you know exactly what you’re going to do usually a month in advance. In the restaurant business, it’s just hurry up and wait. You’ve got to be prepared,” he said.

Another challenge for the Brown family has been adapting to the idiosyncrasies of running a business on Martha’s Vineyard.

“There’s a learning curve on the Island, supplies are different. In New York, if you need something you go pick it up. Not here; you gotta know who sells what,” Ken said.

“I think we’re getting the swing of it though,” he added.

Currently, Ken and Deirdre plan on being open seasonally (April through November), this year for takeout, Wednesday through Sunday. They’re taking reservations for indoor dining one party at a time. They also have outdoor seating available on Sundays during Oak Bluffs’ Circuit avenue closure from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. And they still offer catering services as well too.

“It’s been more than what we thought it was going to be, which is a good thing, but it definitely caught us both by surprise, Deirdre noted. "The support has been overwhelming – people tell us they’re so happy we’re here.”

“We want to keep it coming, we appreciate the love. We want to build and grow some strong roots here,” said Ken.

Beginning in a few weeks, Ken and Deirdre will start serving breakfast and plan on eventually incorporating more baked goods into their menu as well.

“We’re committed to serving the community and we like to get feedback," Ken said. "We know what we like to do and what we like, but we want to know what the community likes and we want to accommodate that.”

For Ken and Deirdre, attentive customer service is just as important as a comforting menu.

“We want to know your name. We want it to feel like a very warm place,” Deirdre said.


*Editor's note: In 2021, Sarah Brown's relocated to 25 Circuit Avenue.

Aaron Wilson is a reporter for the 
Vineyard Gazette.