After 70 years Tillman closing Village Inn today

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 30 December 2021 at 2:20 pm

‘We will miss you and never forget you.’ – Tillman family

Photo by Tom Rivers: Mark Tillman, front right, will close Tillman’s Village Inn after today. He is pictured with some of his employees today including Kim Achzet (front left), an employee for 33 years. In back from left: Marty Wolfe, manager of Fair Haven Inn, employee for 13 years; David Sharp, employee for 7 years; Victoria Mortensen, general manager and employee for 21 years; Tracey Frasier, employee for 15 years; and Sammy Davis, employee for six years.

GAINES – Today is the last day of business for Tillman’s Village Inn after 70 years of operation by four generations of Tillmans.

Mark Tillman, 66, is retiring. He has been working at the restaurant since he was a young boy, first sorting beer bottles for his father, Bill.

Mark lived upstairs at the Village Inn the first three years of his life, and his parents used the liquor room as his nursery when he was a baby.

Tillman has been full-time at the Village Inn since 1977 after serving three years with the Marine Corps. His daughter Samantha has joined him in recent years at the VI.

Mark said the business is still successful and isn’t a “Covid casualty” like many other restaurants around the state and country, which had to close the inside to customers for months due to Covid restrictions.

Tillman wants to retire while “I still have some spring in my step.” The building is for sale.

Mark said closing the business has been difficult and emotional due to the close relationships with so many customers and his employees.

“We’re nothing without the community,” Tillman said today.

He has followed his father’s example of taking on any job that needed to be done at the restaurant. He strove to offer quality food without making people feel they needed to dress up fancy.

Mark motivated his staff by offering respect, rather than fear.

“It’s how you treat people,” he said.

File photos: Tillman’s Village Inn is the only remaining stagecoach stop on Ridge Road still serving the public with food and lodging. It’s been in near continuous operation since 1824. The Tillmans served about 4 million pounds of prime rib over the years.

Mark wanted to retire about two years ago but wanted to see his employees through the early days of the Covid pandemic, when the community and state faced high unemployment. He believes the employees are in demand now and better able to transition to other jobs. But it’s still hard for him to say good bye to the staff. Two of the current waitresses have been at the VI for more than three decades. June Avino has worked there nearly 38 years and Kim Achzet has been with the Village Inn for 33 years.

Victoria Mortensen, the general manager the past five years, started as a server 21 years ago.

She praised the Tillman family for their trust and confidence in her.

“Knowing the Tillmans has been one of my greatest blessings,” Mortensen said. “To start as a server and work up to general manager, for that I will always be grateful.”

The Village Inn has enduring popularity, she said, by offering quality food at affordable prices.

“It’s a beautiful venue and it’s a great place to work,” Mortensen said. “Everyone gets along. It’s like a family.”

Mark is the third generation to run the business. For many years he worked next to his brother Tom with Mark managing the dining room, the staff and the books while Tom ran the bar and kitchen.

The two have taken out an ad in this weekend’s Pennysaver thanking the community and their employees for all the support over the seven decades.

“There is never a good time to say goodbye to a successful business where many of you, your parents, grandparents and beyond celebrated ‘LIFE,’” the two brothers write in their message. “However, this IS the time, to both say goodbye and thank you. You made the Tillman family and the Village Inn family shine for over 70 years. We will miss you and never forget you.”

The Tillmans bought the Village Inn in 1951 when it was a dilapidated structure at the intersection of routes 98 and 104.

This large dining room showcases the original timber frame construction of the carriage barn with antiques and historic photos. The original inn has been enlarged by incorporating two historic barn structures that previously serviced the horses and carriages of early visitors. The hand-hewn beams were shaped by axes and machetes nearly 200 years ago. Tillman displays many artifacts from the bygone era – saddles, harnesses, food barrels and many historical photos. The restaurant’s liquor license is framed from the early 1900s. In 1905, the license cost $150, a fee payable to the state.

Tom and Mark’s grandfather Sam and their father Bill took on the challenge of running the restaurant 70 years ago. They were from Rochester and recruited their buddies from Kodak to help upgrade the building.

The Tillmans built a thriving business often serving 600 to 700 people a night, a destination restaurant known for prime rib. Many wedding receptions, banquet parties, first dates and funeral receptions have been held at the Village Inn.

Mark Tillman said he feels honored the site was a venue for such important gatherings in so many peoples’ lives.

He also praised Norbert Hausner, a Rochester architect, who helped design renovations and expansions at the Village Inn, bringing the family’s vision to reality. The family never wanted a sterile party house atmosphere. It wanted the building to honor its historical roots as a stage coach stop on the Ridge.

“In 1951, our parents and grandparents traveled from their homes in Rochester, to a small farming hamlet in the center of Orleans County to chase a dream,” Mark and Tom write in their thank you message to the community. “You – our customers and staff – made that dream a reality in helping establish a WNY institution in hospitality.”