Westhampton Beach Merchants Hanging On Through 'Double Whammy' Of Challenges - 27 East

Westhampton Beach Merchants Hanging On Through ‘Double Whammy’ Of Challenges

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A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop.

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop.

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop.

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop. DANA SHAW

Owner Justin DeMarco with at the market set up just outside Justin's Chop Shop.

Owner Justin DeMarco with at the market set up just outside Justin's Chop Shop. Courtesy Justin DeMarco

Justin DeMarco at Justin's Chop Shop.

Justin DeMarco at Justin's Chop Shop. Courtesy Justin DeMarco

Justin DeMarco in the outdoor market set up outside Justin's Chop Shop.

Justin DeMarco in the outdoor market set up outside Justin's Chop Shop. Courtesy Justin DeMarco

Justin DeMarco inside Justin's Chop Shop.

Justin DeMarco inside Justin's Chop Shop. Courtesy Justin DeMarco

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop.

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop. DANA SHAW

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop.

A line, with safe social distancing, regularly forms outside Justin's Chop Shop. DANA SHAW

Owner Lynne Jones takes a selfie inside Lynne's Cards and Gifts.

Owner Lynne Jones takes a selfie inside Lynne's Cards and Gifts. Courtesy Lynne Jones

Joseph P. Shaw on Apr 19, 2020

Things were just starting to look up.

Lynne Jones, owner of Lynne’s Cards and Gifts for 31 years, and other Westhampton Beach Village merchants, survived a mild winter that allowed a Main Street renovation project to wrap up on schedule. Traffic and, more importantly, shoppers were returning.

Once Main Street reopened, Ms. Jones had a steady stream of customers, many of them Manhattan residents who came east early this year, seeking refuge — and looking for games and puzzles to keep the family busy.

“There was a huge surge,” she said. “It was very encouraging.”

And then …

Like so many other retailers, Ms. Jones was shuttered when the state declared that her business was not “essential” during the COVID-19 outbreak. She remains open, though only about a half dozen customers a day take advantage of her curbside service. She uses social media, texts, photos and phone calls to set up transactions.

“It’s working, a little bit,” Ms. Jones said with a chuckle — she has a sunny disposition, even in the midst of a stretch that has challenged every business. But none so much those in Westhampton Beach, where the COVID-19 shutdown came directly on the heels of an already challenging environment, with Main Street closed for most of six months for a major renovation.

As is her nature, she remains optimistic. “I haven’t missed a day. I’ve been here every day,” she said, using the time to “reshape” the store, moving things around, paint, completing other work that’s easier to do with no customers in the store. “I’m trying to make the best of it.”

She’s not alone. Other business owners and officials say the future of Westhampton Beach looks particularly bright, despite the current challenges — and, in large part, that’s because of the conditions those merchants endured just a few months earlier, and the changes that project wrought.

‘A Double Whammy’
 

Westhampton Beach Village Trustee Brian Tymann calls himself an informal liaison to the business community. He has been serving in that role since well before the Main Street renovation — to be followed in the near future by a plan to install sewers throughout the downtown — and the six or seven months of tumult.

Today, with COVID-19 changing the way we live and nearly shutting down business life, he notes that Westhampton Beach’s business district looks much the same as other communities. “There’s nothing visibly different from anywhere else,” he said, “except in their bank accounts.”

Because the village merchants already survived a difficult time, which ended just before the lockdown due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“For the businesses, it’s definitely a double whammy,” he said. “We were jumping for joy at how great the weather has been this winter, and saying that we were getting it done much quicker, and all this positive stuff. And some of the businesses finally started to adapt, come up with new things to come up with new business.”

All of that innovation, designed to attract visitors and customers, is “kind of irrelevant” when stores are closed, Mr. Tymann noted. Access is no longer an issue, as it was for months. Today, it’s something graver for a seasonal economy.

“Now we have a whole different concern — the double whammy, plus not knowing what’s going to happen with this, the way it’s going ahead,” he said. Summer — and fall — are going to have to be spectacular successes.

“Memorial Day is what we have our eye on now,” Mr. Tymann said. “If that gets disrupted … I mean, I could picture lots of vacancies on Main Street. I think that would be the real devastation.”

Doing Its Part
 

There’s an irony: A key to that future, both near and long term, is the very project that created the initial stress.

Mayor Maria Moore noted that village officials “empathize” with the merchants, who are closed during a run-up to the most profitable time of the year for most businesses. For now, “we can only hope that people do their part and act responsibly, so we can get through these trying times as soon as possible.”

But the village did work with both the merchants and the contractor to complete the Main Street project as quickly as possible, paving the road in December and following up with new sidewalks over the next two months. Final touches should be finished by May 1.

“So I’m sure it is all the more frustrating for the merchants to now be prevented from experiencing the benefits of their renovated downtown,” Ms. Moore noted.

“It is frustrating, because as a legislative body there’s only so much we can do — but there’s always something we can do,” Mr. Tymann said, adding that village officials have tried to “think outside the box” in brainstorming ideas, including circulating information to the businesses about help that’s available and how to access it, encouraging safe practices, and continuing to urge people to shop locally.

But for retailers like Lynne Jones, he said, it’s a particularly tough time. “When you’re shopping for retail, you want to touch some stuff,” he said. “So that’s going to be challenging.”

But he pointed to his good friend Justin DeMarco and his business on nearby Mill Road, Justin’s Chop Shop, as an example of “a little bit of hope in some people’s eyes, that there’s some good coming out of it.”

Bittersweet Success
 

Mr. DeMarco’s business, which is celebrating its 10th year, has evolved from a butcher shop into something more, a catering business and general market. These days, he’s set up shop outside, in front, giving people a kind of open-air market to shop in.

“I wanted to give my customers a comfortable shopping environment, where they weren’t stressed out, they weren’t panicked,” he said, noting that shopping right now in supermarkets, in close quarters with others, “raises your anxiety levels.”

The response? Justin’s Chop Shop has done remarkably well in difficult times, with cars and people often lined up to shop. “It’s been nonstop,” he said.

The impact on the shop’s catering business, which relies heavily on spring, summer and fall events, is still to be determined: Mr. DeMarco worries about a domino effect of postponed events bunching up at points this summer — if those gatherings happen at all.

And he notes that the Main Street work that was harmful to other businesses affected him less, since it happened during the offseason for his catering side. To offset the slowdown, he added gourmet sandwiches to his menu, a “niche” item that paid off, and added more prepared foods for sale.

But the success has been bittersweet. “I don’t want to be busy for these reasons, these circumstances. It’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” he said. “People are losing their livelihood, and for some of these businesses, it’s been exactly that — it’s been a major gut punch.”

On the other hand, he believes this difficult stretch ultimately will be beneficial for the mom-and-pop local stores.

First, it has reminded him of small business’s strengths. For instance, his good relationship with vendors means his deliveries have been prioritized over chain grocery stores. “It really was a testament to small business,” he said.

But Mr. DeMarco thinks it’s also going to pay off with customers. “I feel like, once we get through this, people are going to recognize how hard we worked to provide services, and it’s really going to come back like gangbusters.”

He cited a litany of local businesses — Village Graphics, Barth’s Pharmacy, Island Surf Shop — who “all supported me when I needed the support of the community. And it’s gotta be paid back. It has to be paid back to these people.”

‘A Daily Challenge’
 

For Elyse Richman, the double whammy was more like a triple whammy.

In addition to all the same challenges over the past nine months, Ms. Richman began the fall with unwelcome news: Her women’s wear shop, Shock, which had just completed its 33rd year in the village, had its building torn down around it. “That was a whammy,” she laughs.

Today, Ms. Richman is running her other two businesses, Baby Shock and Shock Ice Cream, both labeled “essential” by the state, with the odd mixture of social media, phone calls, texted menus and orders, and curbside deliveries, even the occasional delivery, working beside her son, Maxwell.

“The ice cream store, I opened two months early, because I knew all my customers were going to be out here,” she said. “So I got product, we’re making frozen yogurt — we have that in the soft serve machines. So I’m doing business. I’m not doing business, like, normal. I’m just … doing business. Nothing to write home about.”

Looking forward, Ms. Richman plans to reopen Shock in the same space as Baby Shock for a 34th season. “Maybe we’ll have a summer, maybe we won’t. We don’t know.” For now, she said, “I’m just trying to do a little bit of business, make my customers happy.”

Down the street, Ms. Jones said that since Main Street closed last fall, “it has been a daily challenge.” Not just finding and serving customers, but logistically: The constantly changing access to streets in the village meant at least one important order was not delivered by UPS, and instead returned as “undeliverable” — even though the one thing her business has is access, especially with a new rear entrance off the back parking lot on Library Avenue.

“I mean, it was ridiculous — the road was only closed for a couple of hours,” Ms. Jones recalled. “And they were still able to get to the back of the store. But, whatever, the driver must not have known that.”

Among the “layers of challenges” is revenue that fell by some 25 percent all winter — less than some businesses, but still crushing. “When you consider that, when you’re just scraping by in the winter anyway, 25 percent brings you down to survival mode. Or below survival mode,” she said.

With the COVID-19, business is down to “almost nothing”: a half dozen shoppers, some seeking only a photocopy for 20 cents. As a non-essential business, she cannot let anyone in the door — including her four employees, who are all laid off. She has applied for federal aid through the Paycheck Protection Program, hoping to put them back on the payroll if not back to work immediately.

And yet Ms. Jones — as is her nature — is upbeat.

“We should all just make the best of it, and try to see the bright side,” she said. “There’s always a bright side. I think people spending more time with their families is definitely a silver lining for the COVID-19. I mean, there are people spending more time with their kids than they ever did. And there are families finding more ways to get along, and to share time — they’re closer than ever. There’s definitely silver linings to this.”

She expects a quick rebound for the local economy, especially in the village. “I am hopeful. And I’m always optimistic. I think once we get over the hump, and we’re given the green light, I think we’ll be able to take a deep breath and get back to our lives and our businesses.”

Plan For Sewers Was Key
 

Restaurateur David Hersh was attracted to Westhampton Beach for the same reason so many businesses there have faced difficult times: the Main Street renovation, and the plans for new sewers.

The owner of five restaurants, including Rumba and Cowfish in Hampton Bays, closed on a deal to buy Dee Angelo’s Pleasant Ave. Cafe on Main Street this winter, with plans to open a still-to-be-named new eatery on June 1.

Then, two weeks later, the COVID-19 shutdown came.

But Mr. Hersh remains optimistic for a grand opening sometime this summer.

“If anything, it slowed down construction, it’s going to slow down the permitting phase,” he said.

He noted that he plans a renovation only — with plans to do more once the sewers are installed in the village in the near future.

He envisions a year-round “every day neighborhood restaurant,” something “kind of like a smaller version of Cowfish: a little bit more upscale food, but [with a] price point around the same,” less a destination and more of a place where people will dine regularly. He’s currently developing new menu items and plans both lunch and dinner, plus brunch on weekends.

A native of Florida, Mr. Hersh met his wife — the former Rachel Hoda, a Westhampton Beach High School graduate — there, and the couple began both a family and a growing business empire. They opened Rumba 10 years ago, and added Cowfish, just across the mouth of the Shinnecock Canal, two years later. Today, the company owns five restaurants on Long Island and in Florida, and is building on a “fast-casual” brand, Avo Taco. Their Center Moriches-based company now has more than 300 employees.

Mr. and Mrs. Hersh had moved from Florida to New Orleans for a time, but when they had their first child, they decided to move back to her hometown to raise a family — and a business.

“We’ve had our eyes on Westhampton Beach for quite some time,” Mr. Hersh said, adding that they’d investigated several properties before settling on the former Dee Angelo’s site.

The village’s preparations for the future — especially the pending sewer project — was key. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be better for everyone,” he said. “I think Westhampton Beach will be the premier Hampton because of the sewer district.”

He cited all the village’s positives, including the recent Main Street renovation, which came before his arrival but played a role in luring his business there. “It really hurt everybody who put up with all that construction,” he acknowledged. “In the end, I think it’s amazing that the [village] is doing all that they’re doing for the businesses — and in the long run, it’s going to be fine.”

Mr. Hersh believes the sewers will allow a better mix of retail and restaurants in Westhampton Beach — and perhaps a revitalization to rival nearby Patchogue’s, though he warned that it’s necessary to find a balance and not have so many restaurants that they “cannibalize” each other. At the same time, he said, Westhampton Beach starts with a much stronger retail presence than Patchogue did.

‘A Hundred Times Better’
 

That same optimism is shared by other business owners.

“I think a lot of the second-home owners are finding out how absolutely delightful it is out here offseason,” Ms. Jones said. “It doesn’t have to be June to enjoy your house.”

Looking forward, she said, “With Main Street looking so beautiful, I’m very hopeful for a good summer. Once the COVID-19 ebbs enough that people are comfortable coming back out, and once we’re allowed to open, I think we’ll have a good summer.”

She added, “If it ever starts. It’s a little precarious at the moment, a little tenuous, if anyone will be open.”

The success he’s had makes Mr. DeMarco even more hopeful — for all of Westhampton Beach’s merchants. “The response I’ve had from the community gives me goosebumps. They’re saying thank you to me — and I’m saying thank you to them. … It’s a really nice feeling.”

He noted that he recently bought a house in Westhampton Beach after living in Shoreham for 25 years, feeling more of a connection to the village than he ever felt there.

“I think Westhampton Beach is going to be a fantastic community — it’s a fantastic community already,” Mr. DeMarco said. “I wanted to put money back into the community that supported me.

“And the town’s going to be gorgeous,” he added. “And I think we can get it back to what it was — and then a hundred times better.”

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