SHORE THING: Eastville Inn Fails Again

Eastville Inn’s bumpy ride in recent years reflects the difficulty of making a living from running a restaurant on the Eastern Shore.

Wave Columnist

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.


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.




11 Responses to “SHORE THING: Eastville Inn Fails Again”

  1. Andy Zahn on April 27th, 2015 9:22 am

    The food industry is difficult under the best of circumstances. The management prepares for a big crowd, has a large amount of food ready to prepare, and the weather turns bad with very few customers. The more items on the menu the more difficult it becomes to have quality foods on hand and the more difficult the actual cooking becomes.

    The economy is not doing well and taxes plus increases in food prices, electric bills, and all other expenses, labor rates and government edicts, such as Obamacare, etc., putting a choke hold on all businesses. Here on the Eastern Shore a lot of businesses are gone such as the shirt favtory in Parksley, Stevenson Equipment in Tasley, Central Implement in Snow Hill, the big International dealer near Temperenceville and many small eating establishments. Should it get to the point there are no tractor dealers, agriculture may become a thing of the past — and then what?

    The two Virginia counties on the Shore are among the poorest in Virginia and most people can’t afford the high prices that come with really fine dining. For many of us who live here we can’t afford the down payment on a free lunch!

    As to the Eastern Shore being a tourist Mecca, what actually do we offer? A chance to see the soybeans grow? A walk on the boardwalk? Fun things for the kids like amusement rides or parks? Deep sea fishing on party boats at reasonable prices? In resort areas on the coast, such as Ocean City, Virginia Beach, the Jersey Shore, the infrastructure was there first, then came the tourists. If you build it they will come.

  2. Clarice MacGarvey on April 27th, 2015 1:13 pm

    I do think that no matter how excellent a restaurant is, without an adequate pool of potential customers from which to draw, it will be difficult to meet overheads.

    A look at Northampton County shows a small population for the dining out circuit:

    • Population approximately 12,000, with 19% under the age of 18.
    • 6.9% of population is unemployed, with 20.6% living below the poverty line.
    • Taking these figures into account, the estimated MAXIMUM number of potential patrons for a local venue is about 7, 718.

    Yes, there is a seasonal influx of tourists and 2nd home owners; however, I do think the real key to sustainability for restaurants on the shore is opening the gates (i.e the toll booths) to facilitate more traffic flow to the shore from Hampton Roads, and more development — controlled and sustainable, of course — in order to boost population figures, and create job opportunities.

  3. Mike Kuzma on April 27th, 2015 1:49 pm

    Seems like the restaurants OFF of Rt. 13 in towns that have COMMERCE on Rt. 13 are doing well. Hmm, maybe just maybe there is a correlation between STOPPED TRAVELERS and their desire to sightsee, and eat whilst stopped. But hey, we here in Cape Charles DO NOT WANT ANY NEW BUSINESSES cuz they’ll ruin the “character” of the area. Of course, I have long been a proponent of taking ALL Government buildings off of Mason Avenue, using those as income and tax-producing entities, and oh I don’t know, putting all the Municipal offices in say an old school building that could have doubled as a Community Center.

  4. Jim Baugh on April 27th, 2015 8:36 pm

    The Eastville Inn and the community was very lucky to have a chef of Brent’s quality here on the Shore. Hands down, no doubt, he knows his stuff, an excellent chef and good with customers. We went to the Inn several times and just loved the dinners. I mean come on, they were making their own from scratch homemade bread and did it every week! I know of no other place that does this, there may be, but if there is I have not heard of it.

    I talked to the owner a few times about the business there, and it usually came down to traffic — there just is very little. True, Yuk’s seems to do well, but that is a 7-day a week bar restaurant, and we are happy they are there. (We like Yuk’s). In order for the Eastville Inn to move forward, it would have meant some capital investment (most likely) to open up a bar section, expand hours, and let it be known for fine dining, but also a 7 day a week bar and lunch crowed while still having top shelf dinners at a reasonable price. Now, had Eastville been full of foot traffic and the area strongly supported him, different story.

    I have had my own restaurant and I can tell you, like everyone has heard, it is a TOUGH TOUGH business. It is an extremely small margin business and that is the bottom line. All in all I think Brent did an awesome job. Had he started out with both fine dining and a bar crowd, who knows, but that is a big commitment of time and labor plus capitol to do more improvements. With an extremely slow foot traffic area, it just did not make business sense.

    One thing is for sure, where ever Brent is cooking — GO! You won’t be disappointed.

    On a side note, it is called the Eastville INN. The place would do well as an Inn if you could stay there, dine there, etc. But from what I understand it would take some nice-sized capital bucks to renovate the upstairs. Who knows, but, if it could be done, a B & B \ Inn would probably even bring people down from DC as a cool “getaway.” The town of Eastville is incredibly charming, historic, and close to Cape Charles.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with the place.

  5. Andy Zahn on April 27th, 2015 9:05 pm

    It never ceases to amaze that many want the tolls to keep people, money, and prosperity on the other side of the bay. These people don’t realize that folks on the south side of the Bridge-Tunnel don’t need the Eastern Shore, while it is we who need cheap access to the medical and educational facilities on the other side as well as to visit the offices of our state government. Some years back my wife needed surgery for a life-threatening condition. We went to DePaul Hospital, and after a stay of 10 days with an outstanding surgeon, Dr. Chaffe, she returned home with the problem solved. A large expense was the Bridge-Tunnel tolls at $10 per crossing, and with daily visits plus going to the doctor’s office that alone ran about $240 or more. Those who live in Norfolk don’t need to come here for good medical care.

  6. Dana Lascu on April 28th, 2015 10:09 am

    If this restaurant had been in Cape Charles, would its fate have been different? It would have offered weekenders an alternative to the Oyster Farm (Aqua), as they could go on Fridays to one and Saturdays to the other. Tourists and weekenders, after a long schlep to get across the bay, are probably less likely to drive far to a restaurant. We go to restaurants in the neighborhood wherever we live, within walking distance.

  7. Jim Baugh on April 28th, 2015 12:44 pm

    [To Dana Lascu] — I think so, yes. Cape Charles (at least summer months) has a lot of traffic, and it does not extend to Eastville much — some, but not enough to sustain a restaurant. But my guess is that Cape Charles also would have meant high rent\lease, etc., and covering costs is questionable in a seasonal town. In a place like the Eastville Inn, the only way I would do a lease in such a low foot traffic area is as a percentage of the biz that comes in. No guarantee for flat lease payment. The area is too slow to do otherwise. From what I read above, sounds like the Shanty may have cut a deal something like that. Smart biz. Over the past 10 to 15 years, almost all the time I dine within walking, biking, or boating distance. It is just safer and less hassle. Now, I pretty much cook in all the time.

  8. Dana Lascu on April 28th, 2015 3:28 pm

    Jim Baugh, let me know if you ever open a restaurant – I don’t dare to attempt any of the recipes on your website, but everything looks exquisite and yummy. Some of my favorite restaurants are neighborhood holes-in-the-wall with great chefs and no view (the Magpie and Tarrants’ Café in Richmond and Floriana in D.C.); something like that might just work in Cape Charles, offering an alternative to the Oyster Farm.

  9. Robert Panek on April 28th, 2015 7:56 pm

    The alternative already exists — Tim Brown’s bistro dinners.

  10. Jim Baugh on April 28th, 2015 9:37 pm

    [To Dana Lascu] — Thank you and very kind. But I did already open a restaurant, probably not going down that path again but it was a great opportunity to feature recipes from our show and old family favorites as well. It is back breaking small margin work, great respect for those that do it and do so for a long time. As far as our recipes, they really are pretty easy, nothing at all too complicated. We just post what we like to cook and it is fun. We like to go to hole in the wall sorts of places. More so, I look for a scratch kitchen. I never associated a good view with good food. It is nice, but not necessary. Atmosphere I do strive for. Walk into a place with bright florescent lights, I wont even look at the menu. The Basement in the [Richmond Fan District] is my fav deli, looking forward to trying more places on the shore. We just don’t get out much. I love to cook and at the end of the day, we are out in the country on the water and it is a drive to get to anywhere. So the rare times we do go out it is a real treat. Never been to the Shanty, will try this spring or summer. We also want to try Tim’s dinners; Donna says very, very good. Had lunch there once and loved it, posted it on Yelp. But the pizza — well, not getting into that here.

  11. Dana Lascu on April 29th, 2015 6:13 pm

    Must check out Tim Brown’s then — thank you Jim Baugh and Bob Panek for clarifying. The author mentioned it (but in the same paragraph with Top China).