Shelter Island merchants talk of a booming summer

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO |  Andrew Graffagnino fixes a boat at the Island Boatyard.
Andrew Graffagnino fixes a boat at the Island Boatyard.

They’re not all ready to embrace the possibility that the national economy is showing long-term signs of recovery, but most Shelter Island business owners are boasting about a remarkable summer season.

Words like “fantastic,” “excellent” and “gangbusters” are springing from the lips of business owners who just a year ago were bemoaning that wallets weren’t opening quickly and high gasoline prices meant fewer were trekking to the Island.

Some tipped their hats to lower gasoline prices this summer for helping boost the numbers of visitors to the Island. Others thought it was a matter of penny pinching fatigue: people just weary of having to watch every expenditure. And some thought the long digging out of the 2008 Great Recession was finally reaching solid ground.

Around the country, small business owners by mid-August were reporting concerns about inventory levels that were too high and pessimism about whether the economy was turning around, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.

At the same time, the national survey reported improvement in profit trends and gains in compensation “now solidly in the range typical of an economy with solid growth,” according to the report.

Locally, look for optimism beaming from Keith Bavaro and Ali Bevilacqua of SALT at the Island Boatyard.

The business grapevine has it that the partners are preparing to expand their business to a second venue, also operating at La Maison Blanche.

No confirmation is in yet, but Islanders are buzzing about the popular duo running a bar menu through the off season at La Maison Blanche and then operating next summer at both locations.

La Maison Blanche owner John Sieni is playing it cool. “They might be,” he said about the two restaurateurs coming to his place. “I’ll have to confirm with Keith,” he added, refusing further comment. Ms. Bevilacqua couldn’t be reached for comment.

Overall, SALT’s neighbor, the Island Boatyard, had a solid summer, James Brantuk said. But his boat business is partly in partnership with Mother Nature, so just the threat of a hurricane that never materialized in July discouraged some from coming to Shelter Island.

“You’re rolling the dice on weather,” he said. “We saw more people and we’re definitely going in the right direction.”

He boasted about his most recent hire, Andrew Graffagnino, who worked summers for him and has now returned full time as a marine technician bearing credentials from the New England Institute of Technology in Rhode Island.

“It was out best and busiest summer,” said  Lydia Martinez about her Stars Café where she and husband  Pepe worked hard this year with major renovations. “I’m glad that they paid off,” she said.

The only coffeehouse on the Island, Stars remains open all year long, operating from 6 a.m. To 4 p.m. In the off season every day but Christmas, she said.

If the schedule is grueling, it’s not as hectic in the off season, Ms. Martinez said, nothing she and Pepe actually get to sit down themselves and enjoy a cup of coffee.

And thanks to “great help” who they worked hard to meet the summer demands, it all worked out, she said.

As for other summer businesses, almost everyone struggled at the outset after a prolonged winter that resulted in a late start to the vacation season. But business got a second wind in July and August.

“Incredible,” is how Sweet Tomato’s owner Jimi Rando described his summer. While it was pretty steady all season, it “picked up dramatically” in July and August, he said.

“We’re getting a smarter consumer who enjoys a better quality of life,” Mr. Rando said. “They’ve never been afraid to open their wallets if it’s worth it.”

Mike Anglin at Jack’s Marine said it was tough getting traction in June after a windy May, but by the time July kicked in, it was “an excellent end of the season.”

Mr. Anglin said he’s not sure the overall economy is turning around, but is hopeful that the summer is a harbinger of better days ahead.

There were a lot of new people visiting Shelter Island this summer and people weren’t “as afraid to spend” as they had been in recent years, he said.

The only item he miscalculated in ordering were fans. Cool Island breezes kept people comfortable in far from normal August weather this year.

Joining the bandwagon was Walter Johnson at Bliss’ Department Store: “It was a great summer,” he said. Mr. Johnson described August as “busier than normal,” but said he thinks the economic turnaround started last summer and made business even better this year.

Marie Eiffel, with fingers in three different pies, reports all her businesses “so much busier” this summer than last. At Redding’s people found the food “exceptional,” Ms. Eiffel said. She described her fashion business as “incredible” and said the gift store also thrived.

“All together, an amazing year,” she concluded.

“The weather was perfect so a lot of people were here,” Maria Schultheis said, reporting that Maria’s Kitchen‘s trends were all straight up.

Because she was a little short-handed with staff this summer, Becky Smith at Shelter Island Florist said it was hard to compare last summer to this year. But one thing was certain.“I was busy,” Ms. Smith said.

A sea change in her business is more brides using wedding planners who have their own providers, making that part of the business more competitive than ever. But Ms. Smith had her share of flowers for rehearsal dinners and parties this summer, she said.

As for her best sellers, that’s an easy one: Orchids are always popular.

Grady Riley Gardens owner Gerry Siller described the year as good, while noting that because of weather, business picked up late. But it remained steady throughout the season, he said.

“New and old customers came in throughout the summer looking for custom made pots, interesting perennials or simply to change out some annuals,” Mr. Siller said. He expressed thanks to his staff, friends and customers for their support in what has been a difficult year for him health-wise. He credited Rudy and Robin for holding down the fort at the Garden Center and Nelvin and his brothers for overseeing the lawn maintenance business. Without them, the business would not have flourished, Mr. Siller said.

Ashley Knight at the Islander described her summer business as “great,” even if it was slow getting out of the gate.

“We have a great mix of people and a lot of regular seasonal people we’ve gotten to know well,” she said.
Shelley Clark-Rohde of Clark’s Fish House was singing from the same hymnal as her Island colleagues.

“August was a really good month,” she said, and the summer overall was good enough to make up for a sluggish start.

“Fantastic” was Lisa Murphy’s word for business at both Vine Street Café on Shelter Island and Blue Canoe, just across the water in Greenport.

Maybe because the winter was so rough, visitors were ready to spend and gave both restaurants a strong summer season, she said.

“We wouldn’t have the ability to stay open in the winter without great summers,” she added.

She, too, reported a lot of new faces this summer, while noting it’s not unusual for year-rounders to wait until the off-season to visit the popular Vine Street. Even her parents tend to wait until the off-season, she said.

If June was a little slow, July and August were “like gangbusters,” according to John Riccobano of Bella Vita. He described himself as “very optimistic” about the year ahead, reminding regulars that Bella Vita now delivers.

Kyle’s restaurant was “slow but steady,” according to owner Kyle. But she thinks the previous summer saw more visitors to the Island because the Jersey Shore was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy and many people who usually vacationed there instead headed to the East End.

Amanda Hayward at Commander Cody’s said this summer was “definitely busier than last year” and that was particularly true of August.

There were a lot more people out, especially in August, Kolina Reiter at Bob’s Fish Market and Restaurant reported, and Eagle Deli reported a very good summer with business running at a brisker pace compared to more recent years, owner Orlando Salazar said.

Now in its second year, Table of Content has expanded its products and owner Kimberly Auth said she has a handle on what her customers want. “I think we did fabulously from day one,” she said. The weather was perfect and after a tough winter, customers were ready to come out and spend, she said.

Marika Kaasik at Marika’s Eclectic Boutique definitely saw more traffic this summer and credits beautiful weather.

“The large real estate turnover also played a factor,” Ms. Kaasik said. She hasn’t tallied receipts yet, but said they “appear to be slightly up” from last summer.

At Black Cat Books, Michael Kinsey reported “a really good summer” with a lot more people on the Island and a lot seeking art books and first editions. “The economy is definitely coming back,” Mr. Kinsey said.

A lot more people on the Island was the key to Mary Lou Eichhorn’s “very good summer” at Cornucopia, she said. There was a lot of interest from visitors taking a Shelter Island souvenir home, she said.

One business owner was happy restaurants weren’t always maxed out with patrons. “I’m glad people stayed home and consumed their beverages,” said Billy at Shelter Island Wines & Spirits about his thriving summer business.

But that slow start to the season hurt Jack Kiffer at the Dory.

“You never make it up,” he said. But pessimism is being kept at bay: Mr. Kiffer is hoping for prolonged good fall weather.

So is Jay Damuck at Shelter Island Kayak Tours. He had a generally good summer even if it was a little slow in launching.

Labor Day weekend business was “brisk” and if the weather holds, he’ll be out renting kayaks, paddle boards and offering kayak tours right up through Halloween, he said.