When 2nd grade teacher Elizabeth Eklund walked into Whale’s Tale this spring, she was on a mission to arrange a field trip for her class. Owner Erich Inzerillo knew her well and respected her creativity with her students. He rapidly agreed to make the field trip happen.
Looking back on “thank you” notes he received after the students had visited, he admits their messages still make him tear up. To mention just a few:
“Thank you for the best trip ever.”
“Thank you for being so generous to us and letting us have a free round of golf.”
“I can’t wait to have another amazing field trip to the Whale’s Tale.”
It wasn’t just ice cream treats and miniature golf the students enjoyed. Mr. Inzerillo put them to work learning to dip cones in sprinkles, putting out papers for customers and sharing with them what it takes for a small business operator to succeed.
This is Mr. Inzerillo’s 20th year at the Whale’s Tale, a business he started in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, initially working with his sister Heidi Inzerillo, who had worked in the World Trade Center, although she wasn’t in the office that day. While Ms. Inzerillo moved on to other East End jobs and eventually married and became a mother, Mr. Inzerillo has continued to run the business.
Some might envy the life he leads working a few months a year before heading to Florida for winters, but those working months are intense, he said. It means long hours, seven days a week, not simply scooping ice cream and handing out clubs for mini-golf. A day might start with early deliveries of ice cream along with disappointment that some popular flavors failed to arrive. There’s the need to keep pools on the mini-golf course maintained and cleaned. Electrical problems might crop up. Trees on the grounds need trimming. It’s all in a day’s work.
He recalls a busy day with customers when he was so overwhelmed, he called in his mother to come and assist. That same day, the entry door had broken and he needed to fix it, in between serving customers’ needs. Add to that a flood from the bathroom when a toilet got stuffed and wouldn’t flush. Again he said, all in a day’s work.
Machinery breaks and needs to be fixed before his products melt. He can even remember a day when he had to beg Dave Gurney to open up Ace Hardware so he could get parts immediately needed to fix a broken machine.
“I love my customers,” he said, and finds most are out for a good time who are polite and generous. But on one of those days when everything is going wrong and he hasn’t been able to hire enough help, there’s the occasional unhappy customer who tests his patience. “I reluctantly had to raise my prices,” he said about the complaint he has heard from one of those customers.
Then there’s the pandemic that wiped out two months of the summer of 2020.
“It’s not for the meek,” Mr. Inzerillo said about operating a small business.
He came from a family that knew seasonal businesses, operating Flavors ice cream store and a bakery in Greenport, growing up knowing the challenges. It might have been that experience that prompted him earlier to choose another career path. He worked in real estate in New York City and as a stockbroker and even sold couches at one period of his life.
But ultimately, he traded in his business suits for the more relaxed garb of the East End.
Born and raised in Greenport, he loves the family-oriented spirit he finds in that community and on Shelter Island.
Each season, he’s accepted IOUs from customers who arrived with too little money. By the end of the summer, he finds all but a few have been paid. He has bandaged kids’ knees, provides rides for people whose vehicles have failed and graciously reaches out to the community that has enabled his business to thrive on the Island.
“This place has brought so much joy — so many smiling faces,” he said of Whale’s Tale.