The border between Western North Carolina and East Tennessee has long drawn travelers with its embarrassment of natural riches. From the Smoky Mountains and Nantahala National Forest to kitschy-cute Gatlinburg and even Dollywood, the area has much to offer families, roadtrippers, and adventurers. But for all the beauty and enchantment the region showcases, it has, historically, had little to brag about in terms of food, especially in comparison to similar destinations rooted in outdoor activities, like the Cascades—near food mecca Portland, Oregon—or the Rockies, dotted with elite ski towns.
Nevertheless, Southern Appalachia’s reputation is changing as epicurious foodies zero in on the niche cuisine, and cash-strapped chefs seek a slower, more relaxed alternative to big cities. The region’s appeal has also been bolstered by a smattering of resorts that yoke luxury accommodations and amenities to competitive dining programs—all within a setting that no city or suburb could possibly replicate.
One property that has risen to the top of hotel destinations is Blackberry Farm, nestled at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains and less than an hour south of Knoxville, Tennessee. Over the past 40 years, the family-owned property has evolved from a six-room country inn to a powerhouse resort spanning 4,200 acres that welcomes guests from around the world. On the dining side, it boasts such honors as Bon Appetit’s No. 1 Food Lover’s Hotel in America in 2013, as well as multiple nods from the James Beard Foundation; the most recent win was for Outstanding Service in 2015, and the most recent nomination was for Best Chef: Southeast this year.
“It’s just been an incredible journey. Thinking back, it’s really the team and the family dreaming the impossible and then making the impossible a reality,” says Matt Alexander, who ascended to the role of president last year. “In 1999 when I started, we were just a small inn, and we wondered how we were going to get guests to come to Walland, Tennessee. Now we’re one of the top hospitality brands in the country.”
Blackberry Farm has been so successful that earlier this year it did something that few independently owned resorts venture: It opened a sister property. Blackberry Mountain made its debut in February and has already racked up gleaming reviews from the likes of The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, and Architectural Digest. It’s the culmination of, if not a 10-year project, at least a 10-year brainstorm.
“We’ve designed really special and distinct experiences. Both properties have two dining venues, and I feel like someone should come to the Mountain and really absorb and soak up the Mountain. Or someone should come to the Farm and really soak it up.” Mary Celeste Beall
“The immediate goal was to buy the land so that we could protect it because I do think we’ve done a really good job of being stewards of the land,” says Mary Celeste Beall, the proprietor of both resorts. “We took 10 years figuring out how to incorporate it into our world and how to share it with our guests. My late husband, Sam, and his dad and some others would go over there and spend six to eight hours just exploring, and they would come back with all these different scenarios. Finally I said, ‘Look, once y’all figure out what really makes sense, then I’ll pay attention again.’ I’m kind of joking, but I’m kind of not because it went through so many different versions.”
Legacy of the Land
It was Beall’s in-laws, Samuel “Sandy” and Kreis Beall, who opened Blackberry Farm in 1976. Although young, Sandy was already something of a restaurant virtuoso; he founded Ruby Tuesday while studying at the University of Tennessee. The Bealls raised their family on the property, and in 1998 one of their sons, Sam, stepped up to run the business. It was around that same time that he married his high school sweetheart, Mary Celeste.
Although Blackberry Farm experienced significant growth under his parents, Sam Beall has been credited with turning the resort into a dining powerhouse and paving the way for what would become Blackberry Mountain. But after 18 years at the helm, Sam Beall’s tenure was cut short. Though an avid outdoorsmen and skilled athlete, he died in a skiing accident in Colorado in 2016.
At the encouragement of her father-in-law, Mary Celeste Beall took Sam’s place as proprietor. Since then she’s been leading the brand, while also raising their five children. The Blackberry Farm team was with the family every step of the way
“One of the biggest challenges for our team was the loss of my husband, Sam. Talk about a crazy experience for a team, who are more like family, to go through the process of starting something new that we knew he loved and was so passionate about and to make all these decisions together,” Beall says, adding that Sam’s love of adventure, food, and the outdoors served as a guidepost. “Everyone that was involved and is involved had such great pride in what we have created. It’s been a really powerful experience for all of us.”
What they created is an altogether distinctive experience; Blackberry Mountain may share a name and leadership team with its older sister, but the two are differentiated destinations that are meant to be enjoyed separately. The adjoining properties aren’t far as the crow flies, but driving down one mountain and up to the next easily takes half an hour.
“In order to really dig in and enjoy one place, we think people should just focus on being where they are,” Beall says. “We’ve designed really special and distinct experiences. Both properties have two dining venues, and I feel like someone should come to the Mountain and really absorb and soak up the Mountain. Or someone should come to the Farm and really soak it up.”
Slightly larger than the Farm, Blackberry Mountain spans 5,200 acres and includes conservation land, the resort and its facilities, and on-site homes. Outdoor activities and adventures have long been a hallmark of Blackberry Farm, often in the form of horseback riding, cycling, and boating excursions at a nearby lake. The new property doubles down on adventure with guided hikes, trail runs, mountain biking, rock climbing, and even on-site camping, which, with chef-prepared meals and curated campsites, might be more appropriately called “glamping.”
The outdoors is also more integrated into the landscape design at Blackberry Mountain than Blackberry Farm. In fact, Beall says that may be the most obvious difference between the two.
“At the Farm you really have to be intentional about going into the woods; the Farm is rolling hills, lots of pasture, and lots of open land,” Beall says. “At the Mountain, we have a lot of trails and paths that are woven through the woods, so if someone wants to hike to breakfast or lunch, they’re in the woods, but they’re going somewhere and there’s a destination.” She adds that for parents like her, it can be easier to coax their children on a walk when a specific place—or reward, like a meal or snack—awaits them at the end.
“In 1999 when I started, we were just a small inn, and we wondered how we were going to get guests to come to Walland, Tennessee. Now we’re one of the top hospitality brands in the country.”
First Appalachia, Now the world
On the culinary side, Blackberry Farm casts a long shadow that could even be described mountainous. In opening the new concept, the team once again leaned into key points of differentiation while also capitalizing on synergies shared between the two properties. Blackberry Farm pulls from the bounty of the Great Smokies and spotlights Appalachian cuisine with dishes like Creamed Corn & Chanterelles, Autumn Squash Soup, Red Wine Glazed Stuffed Quail, and Snake River Flank Steak.
Blackberry Mountain, by comparison, incorporates flavors from much farther afield but still benefits from the existing supply chain. “We still use all the same, great local vendors and farmers and everything that we use at the Farm, but at the Mountain we take a little bit more of a worldly approach to the flavors and applying techniques to the food,” says Josh Feathers, executive chef at Three Sisters, one of the restaurant trio atop Blackberry Mountain.
The menus at Three Sisters, as well as Firetower and Whippoorwill Lounge, change with the seasons but the flavor profiles have no constraints. “We’re a little bit all over the place,” Feathers says of the global influences that range from Italy (as highlighted in a burrata appetizer with radishes and herbed salad) to Ethiopia (roasted cabbage with herbs, citrus, pickled peppers, and dukkah) to Korea (Korean barbecue–glazed duck leg with strawberries and soba noodles) to India (tandoori chicken with saffron-cauliflower rice and pickled currants).
Feathers found his way into the culinary world through the military. He joined the Navy to become a search-and-rescue swimmer, but after developing anemia, moved to the kitchen (the Navy was in need of cooks at the time). After seven years of service—more than half of which was spent in Naples, Italy—Feathers returned to his home state and joined the Blackberry Farm team in the mid-2000s. If cooking on the original property was a culinary homecoming for the chef, leading Three Sisters at Blackberry Mountain is a throwback to his time overseas.
“It required me to remember the experiences that I had while I was in the Navy,” Feathers says. “I had a chance to travel all over Europe and be exposed to a few things.”
Separate Yet Symbiotic
Feathers is also joined at Blackberry Mountain by chef Joel Werner, who leads Firetower, which brings the breakfast and lunch dayparts to Three Sisters’ dinner-only fare. Both Feathers and Werner worked at Blackberry Farm before moving over to the Mountain. It’s yet another example of the two resorts’ symbiotic relationship, one that the team has worked hard to ensure is mutually beneficial.
After all, it’s possible a new property could steal patrons away from the established one. “The business aspect of that is not to cannibalize the guests that are coming to Blackberry Farm but to find a new audience and provide a new experience,” Alexander says.
Less than a year in, it’s too early to say how the numbers will shake out, but thus far Alexander estimates that about half of Blackberry Mountain guests have stayed at Blackberry Farm before and the other half are new to the resorts. Each property has a three-night minimum, but visitors can also choose a special package that includes two nights at one and two nights at the other.
Of the guests who have stayed at both, some prefer the Farm while others favor the Mountain, and still several like the two equally but for different reasons, Alexander says.
The risk of cannibalized sales aside, money is another constraint that dissuades other independent resorts from any sort of expansion. Even when operators manage to clear the financial hurdles, they’re then faced with the challenge of limited resources.
“There are a couple of reasons why I think others may not venture into expansion. One is capital, and the other reason is just bandwidth, the team’s capacity—not capability. At Blackberry, we’re very fortunate to have an incredible, talented leadership team that have been here 10 to 20 years. They understand our vision, our mission. We were able to leverage that to open Blackberry Mountain,” Alexander says. They had been preparing, too, by fostering growth among employees and setting them up for management roles in the future. Even if Blackberry Mountain had never come to be, it’s a savvy investment, especially within an industry that’s riddled by high turnover.
“When we have super-low unemployment like we do … it gets very competitive for employers,” Alexander says. “Pay, in my opinion, is a relatively easy answer. You can increase pay and recruit with higher pay dollars out there, but really, retention is our priority focus. Creating that culture where the team feels inspired to do what we do on a daily basis and is a constant and continuous focus of our leadership team.”
In the largely male-dominated hospitality world, the company has also elevated a number of women to senior roles—a dynamic that Beall says came about organically.
“It’s amazing because it’s not something that we’ve concentrated on, and yet we have a really strong female-led team. Three of our five executive chefs are women, and 50 percent of our senior leadership team are women, so I kind of forget that [hospitality] is male-dominated,” Beall says.
She focuses instead on complementary expertise and strengths. Beall places herself in the more intuitive, creative camp but makes a concerted effort to surround herself with logic-driven counterparts. “There’s such an importance to me of balance. It’s not really about gender; it’s about balancing the personalities, skill sets, and perspectives,” she says. “I really rely on the people on our team who think more black-and-white, and I think they also appreciate my perspective. You need people who can separate themselves and think logically 95 percent of the time, and you need people who are more visionary and think outside the box.”
A Captive Audience
The marriage of logic and vision has set Blackberry Mountain up to become a destination unto itself. Although hotels—especially those in urban environments—are adapting their food-and-beverage programs to attract locals, resorts have remained largely shielded from this shift. Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain do not seek outside business but concentrate instead on the guests. That being said, their restaurants do leave a few spots open for locals when possible. Blackberry Mountain patronage also includes homeowners who live on the grounds. As Feathers points out, Whippoorwill Lounge allows them to take advantage of the resort’s fare but in a more casual, drop-in manner.
A mountain in the Smokies may not have the expansive restaurant scene of a big city or even a trendy town, but that seclusion can cultivate a more intimate bond between the chefs and the guests, yielding truly one-of-a-kind dining experiences.
“Our guests are our captive audience. If you’re staying in some place like New York, you have all these dining options, so odds are you’re not dining all the time at the hotel,” Feathers says. “Between Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain, we’re it. We have our guests three meals a day, every day that they’re here unless they want to drive 45 minutes to an hour to find a sometimes questionable restaurant.”