SHORE THING: Eastville Inn Fails Again
By GEORGE SOUTHERN
April 27, 2015
A little shy of two years ago, Eastville resident and Wave student journalist Sarah Gollibart wrote an article entitled “Eastville Inn Rises Again.” It went on to become one of the Wave’s most-read stories of the year, so I know that a lot of folks are interested in the Eastville Inn.
But after the Inn shut down again on March 24, I started wondering, just what does it take to run a successful restaurant on the lower Eastern Shore? If the Eastville Inn can’t make it, who can – and how?
The Eastville Inn is a good case study because on paper at least it has so much going for it. Start with a historic building (c.1724) in a quaint town. Add proximity to the courthouse and county seat government center. Top it off with a talented chef/owner (Brent Schmidt) who bent over backward to make his venture special and inviting.
So what went wrong? The quick response might be that Chef Schmidt’s nouvelle cuisine wasn’t the local clientele’s cup of tea – either in taste (light), portion (small), or price (high).
But wait a minute – those were some of the same causes attributed to the Eastville Inn’s failure two iterations earlier. Following that shutdown, a local team converted the Inn’s format to kind of an upscale Exmore Diner. But that didn’t work either – the former clientele didn’t like it, and the hoped-for new customers stayed at Yuk’s.
So I’m thinking that the Eastville Inn’s woes are not of its own doing but rather reflective of the whole lower Shore. This is a tough market! Follow me up Route 13 and see what I mean.
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Let’s start with the Bridge-Tunnel restaurant: You can’t beat the view, there’s no competition within miles, but year-‘round operation has traditionally been a struggle, and I recall that it shut down for a while a few years ago. Sunset Grille is in the same boat, enjoying a good but too-short summer season and that’s all.
Moving up the road, how about Sting-Ray’s? They get lots of business, both locals and tourists, but even there, I understand, there are months when it’s tough to meet the payroll.
OK, on to Cape Charles: We already know that the premier restaurant, Aqua, failed, and now, after two years under new ownership, it’s been rebranded as the Oyster Farm. That tells you that even Aqua wasn’t making it, so they’re trying something new.
But what about the Shanty, you say – it’s going great guns, and has even expanded. Well, yes, but the Town of Cape Charles gave the Shanty a sweetheart deal that no competitor enjoys. The town owns the land and provides all the parking, and the Shanty pays a percentage of its income as rent. During the off season when business is slow, the Shanty simply shuts down and saves a bundle. Meanwhile, everyone else (Kelly’s comes to mind) has to pay all their fixed expenses through the long, hard winter.
Rayfield’s is another exception. Although I haven’t seen their books, anyone would assume that their lunch counter makes money. But it has the great advantage of low overhead since the pharmacy operation pays for the building and the light bill.
The Coach House probably does OK as well, assuming the Bay Creek ownership doesn’t require it to support the cost of the building.
Failed in-town restaurants include the Old Firehouse and Harbor Grille, both of which tried to operate year-‘round. A more successful business model seems to be Brown Dog Ice Cream, which is a warm-weather-only operation. And it doesn’t hurt to have an owner who doesn’t depend on her business to support her. That goes as well for the former Kings Creek Inn, which I suspect was operated more as a hobby than a money-maker.
Tim Brown deserves recognition for turning his “Hook U Up” pizza joint into an upscale bistro that often fills the small seating space available. Credit hard work, a tenacious spirit, love of cooking, and a willingness to operate on a shoestring. Some of those same qualities apply to Top China.
Considering what a tough market we have, the biggest surprise is that several new operators are ready to jump in and sink or swim. In town, owner Beth Walker plans a small restaurant as part of the renovated Northampton Hotel at 1 Mason Avenue. Up the street, Mason Avenue Cafe claims to be opening “Spring 2015″ in Hotel Cape Charles. Outside of town, Eyre Baldwin has won approval for a small raw bar/grill at his restored Harvey Building in Oyster, and he’s made noises about opening a similar bistro adjacent to the Cape Charles Yacht Center. And something’s cooking down at Kiptopeke — again on a very small scale.