“Thirty-six years have gone very quickly,” Kreis Beall told the 75 guests gathered on the tent-covered porch of her beautifully appointed Lyons View Drive home recently.
That’s how long it’s been since Beall, then a 23-year-old mother of a four-month old, and her husband, Sandy, moved into Blackberry Farm, the eight-bedroom family home in Walland, Tennessee, that would become her passion. A passion she would pass on to her son, Sam, whom today is the proprietor of what has become an internationally acclaimed 64-room luxury inn and retreat located on 4,200 acres about 30 minutes south of Knoxville.
Beall said she literally couldn’t cook a thing when she moved to Blackberry. So she signed up for cooking classes from Kathleen Barron, Knoxville’s premier cooking instructor from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. Barron was known for fancy, high-end dishes which Beall happily practiced and perfected. “I couldn’t scramble an egg, but I would turn out a beautiful beef Wellington,” she laughed.
Beall took to entertaining like a fish to water.
“I loved having people over,” she said. “We’d have people over five or six nights a week. Finally, Sandy said, ‘We need to be in the inn business.’”
From 1976 to 1990, Beall said she practiced making “yummy, good-looking food.” Blackberry had a set menu for every meal. There were no choices. “We said it removed the burden of decision-making from the guests,” she laughed.
And, she said, “I listened.” All through the years, Beall said, she and the staff paid close attention to what the guests would say. That’s how Blackberry became what it is today, one of the most celebrated luxury resorts in the world. Among its many accolades, Blackberry Farm was voted the number one resort in North America by Travel + Leisure and has been a member of Relais & Chateaux, a collection of the most exclusive restaurants and hotels around the world, since 1994.
“At Blackberry Farm, the answer is always yes,” Beall said. Servers are trained to keep an eye out for any little thing that might give a clue on how to delight a guest. For instance, a lunch server recently overheard a couple admiring the lovely view of the water and musing about how nice it would be to dine at the boat dock. When they came for dinner, an elegant table for two had been set for them in that very location.
Today, Beall says she has retired and son Sam is the proprietor. He has, she says, a world renowned wine palate and he studied at the California Culinary Academy and apprenticed at the acclaimed Napa restaurant The French Laundry.
“It’s all because of Sam that Blackberry Farm exists,” his mother said. “Blackberry is better than I ever imagined because Sam is there.”
Kreis Beall, it turns out, also is a master marketer. She learned early on that she could not build a clientele through advertising. “We couldn’t buy our guests,” she said, referring to advertising. She learned she had to cultivate food and wine writers. “It’s editorial that drives guests,” she said. So she spent a lot of time dreaming up activities that would interest writers. “We had a lot of wildflower weekends,” she said. She also extended invitations to food and wine people to come over for tea. She conducted familiarization tours for travel and leisure reporters.
One interesting thing she learned was that folks didn’t really believe they could have a high-end resort experience in Walland, Tennessee, where Blackberry Farm is located. “So I took Walland out of our address,” Beall said. “I just said Great Smoky Mountains.”
And, believe me, Blackberry Farm is high-end. Rooms start at $745 per night (with a two-night minimum stay) and go up to $4,950 per night for the three-bedroom farm house. Many celebrities stay at Blackberry and Beall says, “we treat them just like everybody else.”
Blackberry has tennis courts, a pool, a spa — things you would expect at a resort. But it also has a working farm with sheep and goats and other animals, a truffle field, vegetable gardens, a jammery, a charcuterie, a bakery, a 160,000-bottle wine cellar and on and on. “We are a family of artisans — musicians, farmers, vintners and chefs,” Beall said. Next up: a new spa barn, she said.
The evening with Kreis Beall was the first of three such events called “Behind the Scenes” sponsored by Leadership Knoxville as a fundraising project. Still to come is an event featuring Ken Lowe, president and CEO of Scripps Networks Interactive on Jan. 22 and one that will be hosted by Jim Clayton, the founder of Clayton Homes, on March 8. Tickets are $75 each and a limited number will be available to the public beginning Jan. 1 For more information, click here or call Leadership Knoxville at (865) 523-9137.