Few foods go together better in a beach town than burgers and ice cream, Joe and Liza Tremblay figured. So when they opened Bay Burger in Sag Harbor in 2007, they created their own ice cream and sorbet to serve with the burgers. The couple, who were college sweethearts, have built a strong customer base at the restaurant despite spotty and seasonal tourist traffic, cream prices that nearly doubled, and labor shortages that compel them to rent expensive Hamptons housing for summer staff.
They aim to keep their foods additive-free. Joe butchers fresh beef and bakes the buns. For their first six years he also cleaned and disinfected the restaurant so Liza could make ice cream from midnight until 5 a.m., Liza, 35, said. This round-the-clock schedule continued until they were able to lease space for their ice cream factory three doors down.
Although Bay Burger is still their cash cow, their ice cream and sorbet label, Joe & Liza's, is now producing 1,000 gallons a month and selling 40 flavors to groceries and restaurants on the North and South Forks.
What's your hottest ice cream flavor?
The Cookie Jar: It's a vanilla fudge base with chocolate chip cookies, Oreo cookies and there's a whole chocolate chip cookie on top of each pint.
What's the biggest mistake you've had to recover from?
Thinking that the summer weekend people were going to be our bread and butter. It's the locals that show up in a snowstorm in March and on Thanksgiving weekends that keep us in business. And we've learned that local families want the option of having a side of sauteed local spinach, local greens or local corn with their burger. Initially, we closed for four months, but the past few years we've only closed for February.
How do you recruit good seasonal staff?
It's very difficult. Between a restaurant and the ice cream, we start looking for our seasonal staff in February or March. We rent a house for them to live in because it's so difficult to find housing here. So we place ads all over -- Craigslist, university job sites, culinary school job boards -- and then through March and April we're just interviewing people.
What's your advice to others on starting a food business?
Work for somebody else for as long as you can and watch them make every mistake. Learn from them before you go off on your own and do it yourself. It's so much better to learn about what those mistakes are when it's not your baby -- when it's not your money.
What did you do when the price of cream nearly doubled?
It's gone down slightly recently, but we have had to raise the prices on our wholesale pints. But I haven't seen that price increase reflected too much in the retail price. So it seems like the retailers have really been absorbing that price increase so far.
How do you distribute?
We can fit about 1,000 pints of ice cream in our Ford van. You plug it in overnight, it freezes down, you fill it up with ice cream in the morning and you go out on the road.
What's the next step?
We've sort of maxed out on the delivery area we can service ourselves. The next step would be to work with a regional distributor, and they would take over the delivery area outside of the East End so that we could expand. We're in discussions, but no deal is in place.
What's your biggest challenge?
Labor. There's no affordable housing. Every year our staff is coming from further and further away to work here as people get priced out from this area. We definitely didn't budget into our initial business plan that we would be renting a house in the Hamptons for the summer to put people in . . . Coming from New York City, you place an ad and 150 people show up and you have your choice. Out here it's completely different. It's very, very difficult to find people, and once you have them and they're trained, you have to do everything you can to keep them. For the past few years our sous chef has lived with us.
Name: Liza Tremblay, owner/operator of Tremblay & Tremblay Restaurant Group LLC in Sag Harbor
What it does: Produces Joe & Liza's ice cream, sold retail and wholesale on the North and South Forks, and owns Bay Burger Restaurant in Sag Harbor
Employees: 11 full time; 9 part time (all but 4 are seasonal)
Revenue: $1.1 million