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Still-bustling East End inspires new business paths amid pandemic

East End Businesses had to shift gears in their business models as out-of-towners, who came in waves in the early days of the pandemic, appear to be staying for the fall and beyond. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas; Randee Daddona

Crowded East End shopping districts and traffic jams well beyond the traditional Labor Day end of summer are leading a growing contingent of Hamptons caterers, hotels, restaurants and even clothing shops to launch novel new business plans.

From a high-end grocer who’s planning to start food and wine deliveries to a chic clothing store called Chic that’s extending its hours and adding fall inventories, these resourceful East End businesses are doing what it takes to make the most of lingering summer crowds while helping to offset deep pandemic-era losses and new expenses tied to COVID-19.

Many of the businesses normally would be scaling down or preparing to close up shop entirely this time of year, but the fall crowds, particularly on weekends, have made it difficult to walk away.

While there are no official numbers on how much of the typical four-fold population jump that normally packs into the Hamptons each summer has remained behind, data on spiking school enrollments, home sales, changes of address and recent traffic give evidence of a prolonged exodus from Manhattan, particularly by those who can, or must, work remotely. Amagansett’s K-6 school enrollment spiked this year to 135 students from a typical 74, Mattituck-Cutchogue added 46 mostly New York City students, and the Ross School in East Hampton saw enrollment jump to 155 from 116, Newsday has reported.

"There’s still a lot of people out here," said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, adding summer activity for police dispatch and ambulance services has "not subsided."

Opening a restaurant mid-pandemic

For business owners, the population spike is a phenomenon too difficult to pass up — and it’s spawning a level of strategic risk-taking. What else would lead a business owner to open a new restaurant mid-pandemic, at a time most others would be stepping back or closing for the winter?

For Jean Mackenzie of Southampton, the influx of new residents — combined with the desire to keep her operation afloat and her employees working — led her to open the Seasons restaurant in September.

"Thankfully, we have people staying here and they are coming out and they come to restaurants where they feel safe ... and that’s a big plus for us at this time," said Mackenzie.

She also owns and operates the Clamman Seafood Market, which supplies off-the-boat-fresh seafood for retail and wholesale, and her Seasons of Southampton catering business on Prospect Street has well-apportioned indoor and outdoor dining for Hamptons weddings and events. While the retail shop stayed open as an essential business, the catering business cratered to zero in March, as wedding plans booked months or years in advance were cancelled.

"The COVID virus took a big hit out here on all the restaurants and entertainment and events industries," she said. "No one could even open up or do anything until July."

Business ebbed back when catering and restaurants were given the green light to operate outdoors in summer. The 50% capacity rule helped draw back more business. Seasons of Southampton was able to get some business back for slimmed-down weddings.

But the recent influx of residents presented a new opportunity, and a chance to make up for some of the losses, Mackenzie said.

"Normally right after Labor Day we’re like dead," she said. "But a lot of people have stayed out [East], husbands and wives are working remotely. Some of our bigger houses are staying until October."

Converting the catering hall to a restaurant led to the hiring of a new chef and staff with restaurant skills. It’s been a juggling act, operating the restaurant while sometimes conducting simultaneous events. The restaurant is open four days a week, Thursday through Sunday, and there’s a weekend brunch menu from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"We’re struggling a little bit but so far so good," Mackenzie said. "The big test is going to be if we get through the winter. I have a funny feeling people might start returning [to the city] after the holidays."

Either way, Mackenzie said she’s going to keep the restaurant open "as long as I can" through the offseason, and beyond. "It’s not a high-priced restaurant but because I have a seafood market I’m trying to make really great seafood." Dining is indoors and out, where she keeps a bonfire burning and smores on the menu, at least for now. "I’m hoping if we can keep the numbers of illness down and it’s too cold for the bonfire that people will slowly come inside," she said.

Adding hours instead of cutting back

In Westhampton Beach, where recent foot traffic now sometimes resembles July’s, Jaime Sussillo, owner of the woman’s clothing and accessories store called Chic, made the potentially risky decision to roll with the traffic, order more inventory, and keep longer hours. It’s paying off to the point where she expects to keep it rolling until year end, and beyond.

"This year, every time new inventory comes in, it’s gone," Sussillo said. She stays open seven days, when a typical October-November period would see her closed at least two days a week. "People are buying and saying they are staying."

It’s a godsend for a company hard hit by the spring closures. Non-essential retail stores had to close in March, a move that could have sent her business into a spiraling decline. But Sussillo used the time off – half of March, all of April and May--to create a web page to sell her merchandise online. When the typically slow fall season came, she adjusted to the influx of new visitors by keeping the shop open longer than ever, and stocking up at a time when she’d normally put the brakes on new inventory. She plans to continue bringing in new inventory as late as November, two months later than normal.

"It’s definitely a lot busier," said Sussillo, whose sister Shannon Lupis owns a gift shop right next door called Tweed, and is taking advantage as well.

She acknowledged that stocking up on inventory when she’d normally be working to sell off the remains of the summer/fall merchandise is "a little scary," particularly amid fears of a second wave of the COVID pandemic.

But "if it stays busy, I’ll be here," Sussillo said, adding that on balance, her new business plans have allowed her to make up for the spring’s losses.

Success may lead to larger location

Justin DeMarco, owner of Justin’s Chop Shop, a butcher and produce market in Westhampton Beach, also made big adjustments when COVID hit. He was considered an essential business but pondered closing his doors for the safety of his staff, before deciding it was more important to keep his year-round customers with a vital source of food when other big grocery stores were running out.

He put a tent outside, took orders from customers at the door, did the shopping for them and put limits on orders so that everyone could buy. At one point, he moved much of the store’s produce out into the parking lot.

Now that the summer season is over, he’s finding that the seasonal customers are becoming year-round customers, and he’s adjusting hours and inventory levels to accommodate them, as well as his regulars.

"I’m extending the hours for people going back to work," he said. The store is now open six days a week, up from five during the summer.

"It’s definitely a lot busier," he said. His business is double what it was in 2019. But he’s not completely happy about it, knowing the sad realities of the pandemic are driving it, and that many businesses continue to struggle.

"Watching food run out in grocery stores was a major factor in keeping open for my community," said DeMarco, whose success is leading him to plan a move to a larger location in the village.

From catering to takeout

Others that struggled have seen a turn in their fortunes by similarly adapting. John Kowalenko, who operates the Art of Eating catering company with his wife, Cheryl Stair, in Bridgehampton, said the lockdown on events in March crippled his regular business so he started planning and launched a takeout arm. It developed a fast following.

"We started really developing an extensive takeout menu based on what we do for catering," he said. "We’re upscale, our customers are looking for different, better food." The company made those scaled-down offerings for pickup, drive up or delivery at its Bridgehampton location, targeted for smaller-scale catered family meals or dinner parties. It even hosted bands to play in a socially distanced area outside the kitchen headquarters so customers could listen to music while they waited for their food.

The company also began producing wholesale foods to sell at local farm stands and other venues. Potato chips were soon joined by jarred pesto, made after buying large lots of basil leaves from a local grower. That grower’s farm stand eventually sold hundreds of jars of pesto, Kowalenko said.

At the same time, with many of the customers who previously turned to the Art of Eating for catered events now staying in the Hamptons, the business has adapted to bring them smaller catered events, such as dinner parties for fewer guests, to keep its old business hopping.

"More of my clientele who come out only for summer now have children enrolled in schools," Kowalenko said. "They say they are making this their more used residence, that they may go back to the city a little bit. A lot of them are capable of working from home." After the virtual lockdown of March, business is getting to a new comfortable level — and even some of the weddings that had been cancelled are being re-planned with a smaller guest list to stay under the 50-person limit, while offerings are getting more extravagant. "Now we’re seeing people who were [planning on] getting married in the city, come out here and adjust from a 250 to 300-person wedding to something more intimate in their backyard, for up to 50 people," he said.

Delivering the goods

For a popular Hamptons grocer that saw its business spike upwards in the early days of the pandemic, chiefly from new East End residents purchasing outsize amounts of meat and non-perishables, the extension of the summer into fall is providing an opportunity to expand into the delivery business.

Citarella, with high-end grocery stores in Southampton, Bridgehampton and East Hampton, already ships fresh fish across the country for $25 to $50 delivery fee. Setting up home delivery on the East End will involve a fleet of delivery people to move merchandise, which includes cooked food and market-fresh meat, seafood and produce. The plan, said owner Joe Gurrera, is to have the delivery service in operation by Thanksgiving.

Gurrera said his East End business increased "significantly" from March through the summer (while his New York City stores are "taking a little hit"), but buying trends are changing. On the East End, he said, "there’s no more panic buying. People are staying out here and we are going to play it by ear to see how long it happens."

One challenge for Citarella and other East End businesses has been the loss this year of summer staffing through a special visa program that allowed seasonal workers to staff up restaurants, bars, hotels and stores. It forced Gurrera to ask many of his long-time employees to work more overtime to fill the void.

It’s a problem that was even more acute in Montauk, where businesses rely on the summer visa holders to staff restaurants, bars and hotels for the peak summer season, said Montauk Chamber of Commerce executive director Byor Kay Tyler.

"It was a huge, huge problem," she said. "Hotels and restaurants struggled to get enough workers."

Now, she said, businesses are watching with a cautious level of hope as more people remain behind at the summer’s end. Restaurants have adapted with more outdoor seating, and some have completely altered their business models.

From nightspot to spa spot

Among them is The Surf Lodge, a thriving summer nightspot in pre-pandemic times with on-site cottages, which saw its ability to hold packed-house parties largely eliminated by COVID restrictions on gatherings. So it has reinvented itself into a venue for longer-term rentals with spa-like comforts, Tyler said.

"They were in danger of completely closing down for the whole season," she said. Instead, owner Jayma Cardoso "came up with the idea of doing longer rentals in the rooms, self-care packages they’d have on a weekly basis. They changed their business model to at least stay afloat this year," Tyler said.

"The pandemic has been a crushing blow to the hospitality industry," Surf Lodge owner Cardoso said in an email. "It became clear to me that it was important to stay open later than usual this season, not because it makes financial sense (it doesn’t) but to help our guests and to continue playing a roll in our community."

For all the wellness retreat programs, she said, "sitting on the private deck of your room, in a hammock overlooking Fort Pond, goes a long ways in finding balance during the times we live in ... and given the times, I couldn’t think of a better state of being."

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