Long before Ali and Keith Bavaro married in October 2015, they had started two successful businesses, weathered a hurricane and bought a house.
“We definitely have made a commitment to happiness,” Ali said. “If something doesn’t make us happy, we are not going to do it.”
They first set eyes on each other in the fall of 2009 at Sweet Tomato’s. Ali was having lunch with her father. As the waiter approached, she remembered thinking, “I want to be friends with that guy.”
Keith remembered, too. “They were at a table in the window,” he said. “There was a step in the dining room and I had to climb it slowly because I made eye contact with Ali and it kind of took my breath away. I had to pull it together.”
The most unlikely thing about that first meeting was that they’d never met before. Keith was 31, Ali was six years younger. They both grew up spending summers on Shelter Island where generations of their families owned homes. Ali remembers rooms full of bunk beds and cousins at her grandparents’ home in the Heights. Keith’s mother says she brought him out for the first time when he was a week old.
In the seven years since they found each other, they’ve made up for lost time, establishing two successful restaurants on Shelter Island, SALT at the Island Boatyard and the Shelter Island Tavern (now owned by Keith’s step-sisters, Suzanne Walsh and Janet Rogler); renovating and getting married in the boathouse/event space at SALT; and buying a home on the Island complete with a chicken coop. Their latest venture together is a restaurant on the Greenport waterfront, set to open this spring, called PORT.
Ali was born, raised and schooled in Massachusetts. She went to Thayer Academy in Braintree and Connecticut College in New London and worked as an editor at Vox magazine in New York. She found her way back to the Island in 2009 after losing her job in the economic slump.
That’s when Ali heard that Julie and Sebastian Bliss were looking for a manager for their restaurant, Planet Bliss. In spite of having little relevant experience, Ali went for an interview and Julie told her, “I don’t know why, but I’m going to give you this job.”
Keith’s idyllic childhood summers on the Island were centered around a house his grandfather bought on Tuthill Drive in the 1940s. When Keith was 15, his world was upended when his father died suddenly of a heart attack.
Keith’s mother, Fran, married Richard Walsh, the owner of the Island Boatyard and Keith worked there as a dockhand and busboy. When necessary, he executed the dreaded pump-out — the dirtiest of dirty jobs at the boatyard — removing septic waste from pleasure craft and hauling it to a dumping area in an open cart. He attended high school in Stony Brook and college at West Virginia Wesleyan.
Keith blamed the stressful lifestyle of his father’s restaurant work for the heart attack that killed himand hated the idea of going into the business himself. In his early 20s, he moved to Hawaii, staying for nine years running a para-sail boat, working at a bar, doing a stint in solar energy and later doing residential lending until the 2008 subprime collapse — the same economic downturn that ended Ali’s plans to work in magazine publishing.
“It was tough times,” Keith said. “I lost everything.”
“But it brought you back here,” Ali said.
In March 2012, Ali and Keith decided to open SALT. They had been dating for about nine months when they signed the contract committing themselves to a 10-year operation. Ali admitted that her father wondered at first about the wisdom of a 10-year commitment to a boyfriend of nine months. “Once he met Keith, he was O.K.,” she said. “Now they are best friends.”
They launched SALT thinking that they could handle the 40 or so meals without much staff. Soon they were turning hundreds of meals a day and had to hire fast. Darren Boyle joined them as sous chef in the middle of the first summer and later became head chef at SALT.
They learned the pattern of a seasonal restaurant business. “We have to start over at the beginning of each season to retrain 78 employees,” Keith said. “At first, no one has enough to do. Then July 4 happens and it’s six weeks of total chaos.”
Ali loves that the Island is a social leveler; a rural, working-class place mixed with the great wealth of New York 100 miles away. “Around the bar at SALT you can spot the richest guy on the Island sitting next to the guy who mows his lawn, sharing a beer and having a conversation.”
Near the end of their first season, Hurricane Sandy left 4 feet of water in the restaurant. Ali and Keith tried to stop the tidal surge with sandbags, but eventually accepted the futility, watching bottles from their bar floating by.
“We fished out a bottle of Jack Daniels, took a hit off it and went home,” Keith said.
By the next morning from every corner of the Island someone pulled up in a truck offering to help. “Fashion designers were scrubbing the toilets,” Ali said, “Matt Kast turned up with a work crew and said, ‘We’ll just get to work on those floors.’”
Without electricity, Ali and Keith brought in food, lit candles and cranked up boom boxes. By the fourth day, when the lights came back on, everyone was dancing.
Keith and Ali’s newest restaurant, PORT, is on a beautiful corner of the Greenport waterfront with a view of the North Ferry and the Island from an outdoor bar by the water. Their plan for PORT is in line with what they do at SALT — family friendly, with an innovative menu. But the stakes are high. At 193 seats, PORT is significantly bigger than SALT.
“It’s very empowering to know that someone has got your back,” Keith said. “We started with nothing. And now we’re growing this thing together.”
What do you always have with you? Ali: A change of clothes. I always work doubles and I spill ketchup on myself. Keith: The liquor-room keys.
Favorite place on Shelter Island? Ali: The front porch of my grandfather’s house in the Heights.
Last time you were elated? Both: When we signed Mike Fortino as our executive chef and Nikki Fortino as general manager for our new restaurant in Greenport.
What exasperates you? Both: Dishonest people.
Best day on Shelter Island? Ali: The Friday night before the fireworks. Everyone is at the Shipwreck and we have a huge fundraiser. The energy is so good. Everyone feels part of it.
Favorite book? Keith: ‘Setting the Table,’ by Danny Meyer. Ali: ‘Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer,’ by Sena Jeter Naslund.
Favorite food? Keith: Peconic Bay scallops. Ali: Mac and cheese.
Most respected elected official? Both: [Former Councilman] Eddie Brown.