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Love on the Rock: Pepe and Lydia, hot off the fax

If you are a regular at Stars Café, you know Lydia and Pepe Martinez well.

Lydia planned and hand-lettered the chalkboard menu on the wall and baked the sugar cookies by the register. Pepe brewed your coffee, baked your scone, and greeted you with his warm smile.

Regulars enter early — even before the sign is flipped from Closed to Open — and they set out the cream and sugar themselves.

But how did Lydia and Pepe meet and make their way to the Island?

The year is 2001, which Lydia Majdišová remembers vividly, since it is the summer before the tragedy of Sept. 11. She’s a college student from Slovakia, traveling to the U.S. for the first time on a J1 work visa with her friend Katherine, whose idea it was to come to the U.S. — instead of Italy — for summer jobs.

Lydia has sent her job application via fax to a coffee shop in Water Mill. Pepe, along with his business partner Jason, owns Hampton Coffee Company and hears the staticky buzz and hiss of the fax machine.

He points to Lydia’s photo on the fax and jokes, “Hire her, I’m going to marry her.” Jason later receives another fax application with a photo of a young woman from Ireland and quips to Pepe, “And I’m going to marry her.”

Weeks later, Pepe picks up Lydia from the Southampton train station to bring her to her “summer digs,” her J1 housing. “I’ll be the one in the white Jeep,” Pepe says. “Pepe and I clicked instantly, like kindred spirits,” Lydia recalls. “He was so kind and friendly. I ended up telling him half my life story on that ride.” Pepe adds, “When I picked up Lydia, it was as if I had just met my best friend.”

Lydia and Pepe worked the 5 o’clock a.m. shifts at Hampton Coffee Company and developed a strong friendship throughout the next two summers. In the fall of 2003, Lydia returned to Slovakia to finish college and traveled to Australia to visit her sister, Lenka.

Lydia and Pepe kept in touch through email and letters. When she returned from her travels, Pepe told Lydia how he felt about her, and so began their romance.

The couple first lived together in Westhampton Beach above Hampton Coffee. “We used to bring our clothes to the laundromat in town. ‘Friends’ was always playing on the TV, and I taught Pepe how to do laundry,” Lydia remembers.

Pepe had two wholesale coffee accounts on Shelter Island that he delivered to: D & B Mini Mart (now Elli’s Country Store) and Stars Market, opened by Cheryl Hannabury in the late 1990’s, and later owned by others, always with the “Stars” name. The couple remembers making deliveries to the Island, meeting new friends, and eating wings at The Dory.

In 2004, Lydia and Pepe welcomed their daughter Emma to the world. The couple had moved to Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, where she remembers, “the fences were high.”

She found it isolating to be at home in Southampton with an infant while Pepe worked long hours. So, she traveled to Slovakia with baby Emma to stay with her family and to satisfy the rules of her tourist visa. Her mom, Viera, helped care for the baby while Lydia taught English part time.

A year later, Pepe was offered the purchase of Stars. He hesitated at first, then finally agreed, and, “We’ve been here ever since,” he said. He and Lydia have run Stars for 19 years now. He gets his energy from being around people and sharing his love of food and hospitality. 

It’s an exciting time for the couple. They’re launching “Stars On Wheels,” the food truck Pepe’s been working hard to restore over the last couple of years that will soon be parked at Wades Beach and feature “great food and iced coffee,” among other specialties.

According to Lydia, “Pepe does all the hard stuff — the fixing, the lifting, the arranging, the helping, all while having a zest for life. I plan the menu and do the marketing and administrative stuff — the fine print. He’s the morning and I’m the afternoon. We are yin and yang, so different and yet magnetically attached.”

In March 2008, the couple’s son Sebastian (Sebi) was born. Two months later, Lydia and Pepe were married in Southampton in a quiet ceremony with their kids and other family members.

Twelve years and four rental houses later, Lydia and Pepe were able to purchase their home near St. Mary’s Church in 2021 from their beloved neighbors Pat and Roni King. “Pat and Roni were so patient with us getting it all together to buy this house, which they built. We still keep in touch and are forever grateful to them,” Lydia said.

The Martinez family celebrating Christmas, from left, Sebi, Emma, Pepe and Lydia. (Courtesy photo)

Lydia was born and raised in Dolny Kubin, Slovakia, while Pepe grew up in Tampico, Mexico, more than 6,000 miles and an ocean apart. “We’ve tried to preserve our native cultures in raising our kids by speaking to them in Slovak and Spanish. Since I was home with the kids, Slovak and English really stuck,” Lydia said. “We played some cultural tug-of-war over me wanting to raise the kids on a strict schedule and Pepe wanting the more carefree ‘fiesta lifestyle’ that he grew up with in Mexico, as in, ‘Go with the flow.’”

Pepe’s Mexican upbringing is reflected in the menu at Stars, which includes favorites such as huevos con chorizo, chilaquiles, and Mexican burritos.

Lydia and Pepe’s daughter Emma is now in her third year at The American University of Paris, where she’s studying psychology and French. Sebi is a sophomore at Shelter Island School, interested in fashion, baseball, and his electric guitar. Pepe has two older daughters, Rebecca and Elizabeth; Rebecca lives on the Island, and Elizabeth lives in the Hamptons.

In contrast to their time living “on the south side,” Lydia and Pepe find the sense of camaraderie and community of Island life sustaining. “From the time Emma entered kindergarten until today, the Island community has given us a sense of belonging,” Lydia said.

When the couple’s kids were young, “date night” meant family Sundays, seeing movies in Mattituck together and eating dinner at Tony’s Asian Fusion. Nowadays, Lydia and Pepe enjoy sushi nights out in Greenport at Sterling Sake followed by a walk around town.

Their advice for young couples? “Have a sense of humor,” Lydia said. “It got us through the good and the bad. We make each other laugh every day, and it makes all the difference.”

The couple’s hopes for their children? “I hope they find their passion, and whatever they decide to do, I hope that it makes them happy. That’s what I dream about,” Lydia said.

As for Lydia and Pepe, they hope “to retire at some point and travel to places we have not yet been.” In addition to her work at Stars, Lydia is the president of the Shelter Island Educational Foundation. She’s happy to give back to the community that has been so good to her children.

Remember the fax application Pepe’s former business partner Jason received from the young Irish woman? It turns out they got married, too.