Island restaurants gear up for holiday season

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Sweet Tomato’s is spruced up for the holidays and ready to welcome its New Year’s crowd.

Have you been eating out a bit more often in the past several months, treating yourself despite the tight economy?

Then you’re in line with most other Americans. Although it seems counter intuitive, despite a sagging economy going on four years, the restaurant industry has experienced less of a downturn than other economic sectors.

Growth in the industry has been steady over the past three years, according to National Restaurant Association Executive Vice President Hudson Riehle. Restaurant jobs have also outpaced other sectors of the economy, he said.

Still, Mr. Riehle doesn’t expect full recovery until 2014.

Shelter Island restaurateurs are marking calendars for the next few weeks of holiday celebrations — both family gatherings and office parties — to help them meet expectations for this season. Those that remain open after summer visitors departed are looking to a busy holiday season to sustain operations at this time of year.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT

Business has been booming at Vine Street Café, where owners Lisa and Terry Harwood were hard-pressed to keep up with the summer traffic. More than a few Islanders and summer visitors complained they couldn’t get a reservation.

“It’s been great,” Ms. Harwood said, while admitting, “The restaurant business is always tough.” The food prices that restaurants pay their suppliers are up and the café is not willing to compromise quality to save money, Ms. Harwood said.

“If you want organic and natural food, it’s expensive,” she added. Still, the Harwoods try to offer some “value meals” that make their restaurant affordable.

On New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve, Vine Street Café will be open, but there will be no prix-fixe meals.

The couple has been challenged in their efforts to create a similar dining experience in Greenport where they opened Blue Canoe a few months ago. Superstorm Sandy had other ideas about a profitable fall season, Ms. Harwood said. Located on the edge of Greenport Harbor near the North Ferry terminal, Blue Canoe flooded during the storm, washing away all the inventory. No sooner had they reopened, they had a power surge that put them in the dark again. But Blue Canoe is now open seven days a week from noon to about 9 or 10 p.m., while Vine Street Café operates Friday through Monday nights from 5 to 9 p.m. On Sundays, there’s a prix-fixe menu.

At 18 Bay, owners Adam Kopels and Elizabeth Ronzetti said they’ve definitely been busier this year, their second on the Island.

Mr. Kopels is inclined to think the industry as a whole is ahead of the curve when it comes to the nation’s economic recovery.

“It’s one of those luxuries, but you have to eat,” Mr. Kopels said. There has been so much austerity in people’s lives, they want to treat themselves to good food, the restaurateur speculated.

While the couple works to keep prices reasonable, Mr. Kopels, like the Harwoods, has seen a rise in prices from suppliers.

The most recent statistics from the National Restaurant Association track what Island eateries are dealing with: an 8-percent spike in overall food prices paid by restaurateurs in 2011. Prices for basic commodities — flour, eggs, beef, veal and pork — are up between 11 and 22 percent this year, according to NRA statistics.

“What do you want to sell to the public? We are committed 100 percent to our local producers,” Mr. Kopels said. “We’re quality snobs,” he added. “We can bring the best of one or two things to the menu.”

FEASTING ON THE HOLIDAYS

Unlike last year, 18 Bay will be open on New Year’s Eve, with an atmosphere more subdued than other restaurants, Mr. Kopels said. If you’re looking for a “civilized place” for your holiday celebration, and “you like good food,” 18 Bay just might be your choice, he said.

The restaurant will close after New Year’s Eve, for January.

Sweet Tomato’s is all dressed up for the holidays, looking much like a Christmas card scene. Owner Jimi Rando was unavailable to discuss his business, but ads indicate he’s open for dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays and for brunch and lunch on Saturdays.

On New Year’s Eve, Sweet Tomato’s will be offering a special menu and also a party that includes free transportation to and from the Grand Avenue restaurant, an open bar and passed hors d’oeuvres.

But as important as that celebration is to Mr. Rando, this Saturday’s “Toast for Toys” is just as important. Mr. Rando is inviting people to join in a local toy drive to benefit children affected by Hurricane Sandy. The event runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Mr. Rando is asking people to bring new, unwrapped toys he’ll exchange for a free glass of wine, beer or a mimosa. Mr. Rando helped organize the Island’s relief efforts to help Sandy victims on Long Beach and Island Park who were devastated by the storm.

Jack Kiffer at the Dory is more cynical than other owners about how the economy has affected business.

“This year has been terrible so far,” Mr. Kiffer said about business. To attract customers, he began a promotion called “Club Dory” on Thursday nights, inviting people to come sit by the fire and watch first-run movies on his giant 8-foot by 8-foot screen while they snack on his bar menu of pizza, chili, chowder and other soups, wraps and hamburger and hotdog sliders.

On Fridays, it’s pasta night between 4 and 7 p.m. He might offer movies other nights if they prove to be popular.

While Mr. Kiffer said the economy hasn’t killed his business, it’s been a bumpy ride. He describes the current year as “on par with any other bad year.”

The Dory will close Christmas Eve, but will be open New Year’s Eve, with the giant-screen TV tuned to Times Square for the countdown to 2013. As for the winter ahead, Mr. Kiffer expects to be open except for a week in January when he might take a vacation, he said.

SALT, the popular eatery located at the Island Boatyard, is open for holiday parties.

COMING BACK

At La Maison Blanche, General Manager Matthew Bell said business came to a halt because of Sandy.

“We took a hit for two weeks,” he said. But now he’s focused on guests who have re-booked, anticipating a busy New Year’s Eve.

“We’re very optimistic,” he said about the recovering economy.

The restaurant won’t be open Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but there’s a four-course dinner planned for New Year’s Eve that will be the restaurant’s finale as management and staff take a six-week hiatus before reopening for Valentine’s Day.

The Islander’s owner Ashley Knight said her place will be closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but she hasn’t yet decided what she’ll do about New Year’s Eve.

“Things are going well,” Ms. Knight said about the restaurant she and Chris Chobor took over from Pat and Steve Lenox in June 2011. This winter, The Islander will be open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Winters are always harder,” Ms. Knight said, but she sees an advantage in the loyalty of regular customers who keep the bright, laid-back spot going even in the off-season.

Similarly, at Clark’s Fish House, Shelley Clark-Rohde has been dependent on local regulars to keep her business alive.

“I’m very happy with how things have been going,” Ms. Clark-Rohde said, offering prix-fixe dinners between 5 and 7 p.m. on Sundays with a choice between a fish special and a “landlubber’s meal.”

Clark’s Fish House won’t be open for Christmas or New Year’s celebrations, Ms. Clark-Rohde said. But her prediction that there are enough locals to keep the restaurant going in the off season is proving to be accurate, she said.

Stars Café owner Lydia Martinez and her husband Pepe are realistic about the seasonality of their business. They’ve been Islanders since 2007, so they’re used to busy summers, a profitable December and then the usual winter struggle when Stars is dependent on support from locals, Ms. Martinez said.

“Every year, we’ve seen growth,” she added. With higher prices for basic commodities, they have tried to maintain prices at the same levels as when Stars Café first opened. The result is less profit, but some is made up by increased volume, she said.

Throughout the month of December, Stars Café is hosting special events, including this Saturday’s Christmas ornament and pottery painting between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. and gingerbread cookie decorating and carol singing on Saturday, December 22 between 1 and 3 p.m.

At Commander Cody’s, business has been a little light on weekdays, said Amanda Hayward, but picks up on weekends, when lobsters and other fresh fish and bay scallops are still big. And Ms. Hayward is busy taking holiday orders for platters of food and her holiday pies and cakes.

New Year’s Eve means the traditional customer appreciation night at Commander Cody’s. Customers are invited to bring their own bottle and snack on food provided by Ms. Hayward. That party begins its countdown about 10 p.m.

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