In 2012, John and Holly Willis decided to open up their own restaurant. “One that would ‘Truly be made in Sarnia’ for Sarnia,” says John Willis. This was not a corporation, so by relying on their own ingenuity and help from close friends, they designed BrownStones. John had opened up 27 restaurants across Canada and used that knowledge when designing the kitchen and restaurant layout.
When it came to naming the restaurant, Holly suggested they look at the kids’ crayons as they always have great names. “We saw a shade of brown and that’s how BrownStones came to be.” One of the comments they often receive is that the restaurant looks like a corporation. “We designed it that way to instil confidence. We are all about quality and are as good as any corporation, yet come from Sarnia.”
BrownStones is designed for sports teams, and they sponsor over 60 of them. The restaurant has 240 seats and a 40-seat heated patio. The crown jewel is the 10x6-foot TV sitting above the bar. In 2014, a small brewer approached them about supplying a BrownStones lager. “Within three months they were at capacity, so it moved to a larger brewer and still remains our top draught, by a large margin.” Equally popular is the BrownStones Caesar. “We are known for having the best Caesar in town. It features bacon, cheddar cheese, a pepperette, high-quality vodka and top shelf condiments, to make just the perfect mix.”
The Willis' designed the first menu in their home kitchen with their four daughters, Paige, Mackenzie, Lennon and Sloan, as the taste testers. The menu changes each year. “We stay with the current trends, but it still remains Sarnia-focused.” BrownStones is known for some special items. “Guests lose their minds over the Hand-Dipped Buttermilk Chicken Tenders. Equally as impressive are the Philly Cheesesteak Egg Rolls. We wanted to take an amazing sandwich and put those ingredients into an egg roll.” This item is one of the reasons that BrownStones is known for having unique appetizers.
BrownStones was the first restaurant to offer "Buy-One, Get-One Free" appetizers after 9 pm, every night of the week. They also offer great food and beverage specials throughout the week. “You have to be aggressive in this business because it's very competitive. Holly and I are constantly bouncing marketing ideas off each other. One campaign saw our spin on Monopoly money, a $5 BrownBill. Guests cut them out and brought them in."
Willis attributes their success to his family and staff. “We have a three-tier logo, which is a quick reminder of Food, Service and Atmosphere. Our atmosphere is only made possible by our staff. Without their hard work and attitude we are just four walls with drywall and paint. They bring the energy that transcends to our guests who come in.” BrownStones isn’t located with all the other restaurants in Sarnia. “Guests have to be intentional about coming here, which is a testimony to how great the food and service is. The restaurant business can be time-consuming and challenging, but when you love what you do and you have amazing guests and staff, it makes it more than worthwhile."