Next Round: Leaving NYC for a Small Town With Restaurateur Adam DunnVinePair
On this episode of the “Next Round” host Adam Teeter chats with Adam Dunn, owner of The Pheasant on Cape Cod, Mass. The Pheasant is a coastal farm-to-table restaurant set inside a historic farmhouse. Dunn details his life before he became a restaurateur — working in the music industry and then for Greenpoint Fish and Lobster. The latter project served as the catalyst for his eventual relocation to Cape Cod.
Dunn explains how relocating to a small town from a big city certainly has its pros and cons. Tune in to hear Dunn explain how he continues to navigate that journey — especially during the ongoing pandemic.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations as additions to our regular special podcast to give you a better idea of what’s going on in the industry during the Covid-19 crisis. This week I’m really lucky to be talking to Adam Dunn, owner of The Pheasant in Cape Cod. Adam, what’s going on?
Adam Dunn: Not much. Enjoying a beautifully sunny day here on Cape Cod.
A: Lovely. I don’t think I’ve interviewed another Adam before, so this is going to be fun. Tell me about The Pheasant and your background, because I know you as the owner of a really amazing restaurant in Brooklyn. Can you take me through your career so we can get a chance to know who you are and then a little bit about The Pheasant?
D: Sure. My background was in the music industry and entertainment originally. Interestingly enough, I was in college and was booking bands, which I knew that’s all I wanted to do. I moved to New York, started working at a bunch of music venues and live music. I thought that was going to be my career for a very long time. Late mornings, late nights. Go to work at 1 p.m., get home at 5 a.m. That kind of thing.
A: You were at Brooklyn Bowl, right?
D: Yeah, I did Pianos out of college. Then, I moved from there to Brooklyn Bowl for a number of years. On the side, I got really interested in food and where my food comes from, sustainability. I didn’t eat meat for 13 years in high school and college. Then, I started playing sports in college, and I was eating a ton of seafood. I knew nothing about where my fish comes from. It seems hypocritical to be very concerned about meat and know nothing about seafood, so I started learning about seafood. Growing up, I came to Cape Cod every summer as a kid and was used to being around seafood. I was living in Williamsburg at the time and there was nowhere to get local seafood or any quality seafood for that matter. This is before Whole Foods and before everything else came in. I had to go to Chelsea Market to get high-quality fish. That is a three-hour round trip, at least. This is crazy. Williamsburg being the food mecca as it is or was, it just seemed crazy. There was a local Italian market that was OK, but you go in, ask the guy where’s that piece of fish from? He’d look at a tag and say it’s imported. That’s all he could tell you. I knew there’s got to be something more to this, somebody’s got to do something. I had this idea that there should be a place where you can get local fish and know where it comes from, and there’s a little counter of chowder or lobster rolls, fish sandwiches. I knew nothing about fish or where to get fish or how to source it. In my music industry days, I had worked with a guy who had mentioned at some point during our conversations that his family had a seafood business. Fast-forward many years later, I know one person who mentioned knowing something about seafood. I bumped into him at a holiday party and said, “we got to talk. I got this crazy idea.” He said his family was one of the largest and oldest seafood wholesalers in New England. They’ve been around for about 130 years in Boston wholesale. This wasn’t a little seafood thing, this is a big-time major seafood distributor. He said you have a concept, I can source us probably the best fish in New York, if not the best fish in the country. We said, “let’s see where this goes.” We started on the side. We’d rent out the backyard of a bar out in Greenpoint or Williamsburg. We throw a party and promote it like a concert. We make fliers, make Instagram accounts, and Facebook events. We branded the hell out of it. Got a friend who designed a really fantastic brand and sold merchandise, hats, shirts, oyster knives, koozies, you name it. We started building some traction, and it started taking over. It climaxed when we took out one of those New York Harbor boats, and a buddy of mine ran concerts on those boats and gave me a deal on a boat. We put 300 people on the boat, open bar, lobster rolls, oysters, ceviche, and we had a DJ named Jonathan Toubin.
A: I love Jonathan Toubin. He did a party of mine because I was in the music industry, too. I think we crossed paths.
D: Oh man, there’s so much here especially to make connections with you.
A: Yeah, I used to do A&R for J Dub.
D: OK, so we definitely crossed.
A: We used to throw parties at Brooklyn Bowl. I think you booked one of my bands there.
D: It gets so fuzzy between the two.
A: It’s crazy — I’m going on a tangent here — but were you there at the same time? Now I just blanked on his name, but the guy who was involved in signing MGMT and stuff.
D: Oh, Will Griggs.
A: Yes, Will Griggs! Were you there at the same time?
D: Yeah, I took over when Will left. Will was there the first two years, I think, of Brooklyn Bowl. Then, he was focusing on his label and various other projects. Then, a buyer and I were involved in Brooklyn Bowl as a consulting partner for booking. I met those guys early on in my Pianos days. I started hanging out with them. When the time came, they said hey, you’ve got this 800 to 1,000-capacity venue in Brooklyn, and he’s a booker. I’ll do that.
A: That’s amazing.
D: Yeah, Jonathan Toubin is where we left off. Jonathan Toubin actually DJ’d my wedding here on Cape Cod. He was our first ask and he said “yeah, I’ll come up and do it.”
A: Very cool. You’re trying to source great seafood, throwing parties.
D: We were throwing parties and we said to each other, “let’s see how far this goes.” At some point, we expected to stop. There’s going to be some barrier and we can’t go any further and let’s see where that is. It never stopped. We just kept going. We kept finding ways around these barriers and managed to put some investors together because we had built a brand. We wanted to show that we had some traction and engagement. We managed to get some friends, family, private investors, random folks that we had come across that were interested. Before we opened up on June 30, 2018, we opened up this little brick-and-mortar fish market counter and raw bar. We did that for a number of years, expanding into wholesale. My partner Vinnie Milburn was the business brains behind the whole thing and grew and built this wholesale machine. That’s really the direction the business started going, it was wholesale. We realized we weren’t going to add more restaurant locations. The amount of debt you incur to open a new brick and mortar in New York was one step forward, two steps back. We were like, “How are we ever going to get out of this?” We decided wholesale was a lot easier to scale. You have to deal with customers and there are some benefits for certain types of personalities. We started going in that direction. Then I hit a point where I really like the customer-facing side. I really like creating experiences. I’m a promoter at heart. Back when I was booking bands, I was trying to find obscure bands and introduce them to people and grow them. I love that feeling of showing somebody something they haven’t seen before and then people are like “holy shit, that was awesome. Where do I get more?” That’s my drive. The wholesale thing, as awesome as it was to be knee-deep in razor clams at 4 in the morning and lugging 80-pound halibut around before dawn in New York City, it was exciting, but it was brutal hours and it wasn’t where my passion was. I was looking for opportunities and my wife and I were looking to start a family. We’re trying to forecast our life in New York. Then, we thought there might be an opportunity somewhere else. We fantasize, like everybody does who lives in New York, about where you would go. Upstate New York, Vermont, Maine. Then, I realized my family has a house in Cape Cod in South Dennis. I knew the Cape really well. I came here for 25 years with my family, so we asked, “What about Cape Cod?” What’s going on up there? We were looking for businesses for sale. We saw that this famous restaurant called the Red Pheasant Inn was for sale. My parents rented a house every summer from across the street from this restaurant.
A: Oh, wow.
D: I don’t know, for 11 or 12 years. That was where every summer my parents and friends of theirs would go out for an anniversary or a birthday and would leave the kids at home. It was a fancy restaurant on Cape Cod, and it had a massive wine list, white tablecloths. However, it was stuffy and dated, and we never wanted to go to the Red Pheasant. I don’t think they let people in under the age of 16.
A: It was supposed to be an adult place.
D: Exactly. We saw it was for sale and was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I think we had just come the summer before and we had walked into the restaurant to have a nice adult dinner. We couldn’t stop thinking about how amazing the floors were. It’s a 250-year-old farmhouse, original wood floors, original post-and-beam. It oozes New England farmhouse vibes. It’s got two working fireplaces. It’s just years, years, and years of firewood into the walls. It’s stunning. It’s a dream place. I remember saying, “Somebody could really do a number with this place.” Anyway, it came up for sale and we couldn’t believe that place was for sale. We kept reading and it said there’s a four-bedroom house attached to it. It’s on an acre and a half. Oh, it’s on a lake. It’s a 10-minute walk to the beach. I know the neighborhood. My parents have a house in the area. This seems like a no-brainer. Let me tell you, money goes a lot further when you leave New York City, as I think everybody knows. It depends on where you go, but we got a lot of bang for the buck.
A: Before we kick it off more, ’cause then I want I to hear about the process — that’s how you wound up on this podcast, right? You actually listened to our Monday podcast episode about restaurateurs and beverage specialists moving to smaller towns, smaller cities to open places, and you reached out. Turns out we had these crazy mutual connections and you got to come on the podcast and talk about it. This is something people are doing. I’d love to use you as a way to show other people who might be thinking about it, what you did, and how you figured it out. The one thing that I wanted to ask you is, did you know other people who had already done this? Who had been restaurateurs in New York City? For example, Prairie Whale in the Berkshires, the way you describe your spot sounds very similar to what it’s like in a very old home. Did you go check out places like that? Did you know people who had done this? What was the thought? What happened when you decided to do this. Did you start doing research, or what research did you do?
D: We probably didn’t do as much research as we should have. We found the building, the property, and the deal was right. We could live there. We could sustain. I think the easiest thing when people do these moves is finding a business and a residence together. It might not sound awesome to be living where you work, but it makes it affordable. If we were just buying the restaurant, it would have been too expensive to buy the restaurant. If you were just buying a house, it would have been too expensive to just buy the house. When you get them together, it’s an incredible deal. The business fee pays for the house, and it’s a self-sustaining system. You can keep the doors open and cover the mortgage or the lease. I think the best thing is to buy in these types of situations because you’re going all-in on this. I’ve seen in other places, what’s worked typically is when you can find that work-live situation. Otherwise, you’d be buying a restaurant and you need quite a bit of cash to do that. Then, you’ve got to figure out where you’re going to live. Sure, sometimes where you are, you can find cheaper housing. What’s tough about the Cape is the housing market is really expensive here. The Cape is such a weird place, because it’s so seasonal and in the off-season has a somewhat rural vibe to it. It’s really quiet and deserted, but the housing prices are crazy because they get such huge money in the summer. The Cape is actually very difficult, unless you’re coming from gobs of money — and good for you if you can make that happen. You need to find this live-work situation. It’s prohibitively expensive to find a business to buy and then to find a house to buy. That’s been the hardest thing. Affordable housing is such a big issue on the Cape because of the weird dynamics of seasonal vacation waterfront homes. Prairie Whale is in Great Barrington, which was definitely an inspiration for sure. I read articles. I read everything I could about people who have done this stuff. None of it accurately describes what it’s going to be like but it’s exciting. It’s romantic. We were reading about Mark. He was involved in Marlow and Sons in the Andrew Tarlow empire in the beginning. Then, they split and went up there to start a farm and then the restaurant. I was like, “This all sounds incredible.” I’m sure the housing market there is not too dissimilar, but I’m sure there are also pockets of much more affordable housing. There’s just a larger space because the Cape is such a limited, narrow strip of land. There’s only one way on, one way off. There isn’t that much inventory. It’s hard to live 40 minutes away.
A: It makes me think of someone who would think about doing this in the Hamptons.
D: Yeah, it’s not nearly that same over-the-top wealth in the same way that the Hamptons can be. However, it definitely has that same one long road all the way to the end. A two-lane highway kind of thing.
A: You’re not going to live 30 minutes away, 40 minutes away. If you need to get to the restaurant, then all of a sudden there’s a traffic jam, basically.
D: Yeah, that’s an issue but there just aren’t that many houses because it’s not 30 miles in every direction. It’s 30 miles north or south, east or west. It just limits how much housing is available in the immediate area.
A: OK, so you buy the place. What was going through your head? Did you know what you wanted to do? Were you going to buy it and take it over? What were the people selling it expecting to happen?
D: The people who sold it to us had owned the restaurant for 40 years. The father ran it for a number of years and the son took over and ran it. It was an institution, a real icon on Cape Cod. I told my parents we’re buying it, they were like “The Red Pheasant?” They couldn’t fathom that we were buying this iconic restaurant. It means a lot to people, a lot of anniversaries, birthdays, special occasions. It was a special-occasion place where people dressed up. It was a nice dinner out in this area, Cape Cod. They were looking to hand this off. I think they were just grateful to get rid of it. Honestly, we felt that toward the end of the business we saw they were 70, and just getting tired. The customers ran the place at the end. They had a regular clientele. I remember I told the chef-owner that we’re going to put this awesome gourmet burger on the menu. He’s like, “Oh, I always wanted to put a burger on the menu and couldn’t.” I never understood what he meant. “Why couldn’t you put a burger on the menu? It’s your restaurant.” Not to get ahead of myself in this conversation, but we had somebody come in when we had first opened and this older gentleman who was wearing a jacket pulled me aside to say, “Are you the owner?” I said “Yeah.” He said, “This is a nice restaurant, you can’t have hamburgers on the menu.” I had this whiplash, this aha moment. I realized that these customers had been with him for 30, 40 years and they had everything dialed in exactly how they wanted it.
A: He wasn’t going to mess with them because they were super-loyal customers.
D: Correct. There are some people that he had met. Oh, man, there’s so much here. Every December, all the towns around the holidays do holiday strolls and people walk through town, restaurants give things away, stores give things away. It’s a meet-and-greet kind of thing. Once we knew we were likely to buy it, we made an offer and it was accepted. I came up to do the stroll because he wanted to introduce me to all the regulars. He wanted to introduce me as the new owner so I came up and met all these people and everybody wanted to meet me and were sizing me up. I remember some people were just terrible. He was like, “Yeah, you don’t want those people. I’m so glad to be getting rid of them.” Oh, thanks, appreciate that. They expected to hand off the restaurant to let us run it. They told us to keep some of the menu items, some of the staples on the menu. Then, maybe you can slowly change them out. Frankly, we had no interest in the old menu. The old menu hadn’t changed in 30, 40 years. It was dated, like French-American, but slowly getting further away from being French. It became a weird menu of wasabi mashed potatoes next to seared duck and just got all over the place.
A: Right. Trendy food items here from the ’90s, mixed with trendy food items here from the ’80s. I know what you’re talking about.
D: We were looking to get rid of that entirely. He said to just be careful. We had learned that two of their items made up about 40 or 50 percent of the menu sales. There was a sole meunière and a seared duck. That was it. That’s all they sold. You can’t run a business like this. If that’s your business, then just open a shack and just sell one item. Don’t open a full-service restaurant with a full menu if you’re only selling two dishes. The logistics and economics of it made no sense. We have to get rid of that, and we have to have a menu that every item is balanced in terms of sales to some degree, at least less than how skewed it is with this current menu. We brought in a chef. We managed to find a chef locally who was really talented, and he wanted nothing to do with the old menu. He was not coming to cook somebody else’s food. We’re like, great, we’re on the same page there. We opened up. The other wrinkle in this whole thing was that Erika, my wife, is pregnant with our first baby. We were told that the due date was July 4th, which, if you know vacation towns in New England, July 4th is a very busy weekend. Easily the busiest weekend of the summer, which therefore is the busiest week of the year. It was also a brand-new restaurant for us. We ended up opening the restaurant on June 1. We had four weeks under us. Then Erika went into labor on July 4th. The baby was born on July 5th. It was insane. I was a zombie the entire year. It was probably the most intense thing we’ve ever done. We were renovating the house and the restaurant. We moved into the rest of the house on May 15, opened the restaurant on June 1, the baby came on July 5th. I don’t recommend it.
A: You’ve re-done the entire place, right?
D: No, it just needed new paint. It was really dark and drab. Everything was mauve, like red. It was just dark and dated. There are lots of tchotchkes everywhere, people bring them gifts I guess. Old Victorian lighting fixtures were hanging from a low ceiling so the whole place had this cavernous feel, but not a good way. It was stuffy so we brightened the whole place up. We added some new tables. We re-did the whole bar area. The bar needed a lot of work. The bones of the place were incredible but it just needed some love. Frankly, a slightly more contemporary approach to the style of a farmhouse, but modernized it a little bit. I think if you were to walk in, you would get what’s going on in here.
A: You basically re-do the place in terms of the menu, etc. What style of cuisine were you going for?
D: The stuff that we had loved in Brooklyn, new American comfort. Our favorite restaurants are these cozy new American spots in Brooklyn with a fantastic wine list and great cocktails. Again, like the Andrew Tarlow empire, Jeffery’s Grocery, this style of rustic, new American, but with great technique and a certain level of casualness at the same time. That was a weird thing for Cape Cod that people didn’t understand that you can have a nice restaurant that’s not fancy. They didn’t get that. People were very upset that we got rid of white tablecloths. We changed out all the glassware. We change out these giant Martini glasses for coupes. People lost their minds. They’re like, “What is this? Where’s my Martini glass?”
A: They’re angry, though.
D: Yeah, they were mad. I’ll tell you, we had people who walked out because we didn’t have a certain type of vodka. That’s all they drank is this one type of vodka and we didn’t have it. They got up and left. Then, they asked us for Limoncello and I didn’t have Limoncello so they left. Cape Cod is a weird place. I love it here, but there’s a weird culture where people overpay for food and underpay for booze. In New York City, there are certain benchmarks, standards for how you price things, and it was inverted on Cape Cod. People are giving away booze and charging stupid money for poor-quality frozen ingredients.
A: Whereas you’re taking the margin where you’re supposed to get it, which is from alcohol.
D: We are serving better-quality food at the same prices as everybody else. Anyway, our drink prices were not quite New York City prices by any means, but were priced according to the ingredients in the drink. There were quality ingredients and cheap cocktails, 12, 13, 14 bucks, but they were measured. They weren’t free-poured. People were really upset that they weren’t getting these giant pours of wine and giant, 6-ounce Martinis. People were angry, and they called us out for being from New York. We had people writing us letters, angry letters, saying they are never coming to our restaurant. For the check presenters, in the beginning, we’re using postcards. We had somebody write us a letter, a really nasty negative letter on one of our postcards with no return address. We were like, “Cool, thanks. I appreciate that.” It was wild. It was hard. The bar food on Cape Cod is very low. It’s been stuck in this ‘80s, ‘90s thing with seafood shacks with low-quality ingredients. It’s touristy, right? It’s getting your money when you can from people you’re never going to see more than once. Everything was stuck in that. Erika and I, coming from New York, we‘re going to be on Cape Cod. We want to create a place that we would eat on a regular basis, not just a special occasion, but a place that you want to go and see your friends. You want to go post up at the bar. You never know who’s going to walk in and be a neighborhood community spot. We thought we were bringing something that was very much needed to the Cape. It was needed. On the other side of this, people who don’t like change. You get older people, especially on Cape Cod there’s a lot of retirees. You get people who think they know everything, and they like it because nothing changes. As soon as you come in and you’re from a place in New York City, they get very upset.
A: It seems as though you thought that you were going to come in and people would say, “Thank you so much, we’ve been waiting for a Brooklyn-style restaurant on Cape Cod.” And they were like “get the fuck out.”
D: That was exactly it. There are so many emotions flying, between the move, the baby, going all-in on every penny. Then, to have somebody essentially spit in your face and not care about any of that. It’s the people who wouldn’t even try it, the people who wouldn’t even sit down and taste it would say, “I can’t read any of these ingredients. I don’t know what any of this is.” They were getting offended because they felt radicchio is a novel concept. You don’t want to make people feel small. They want to know and understand, they don’t want to have to ask questions. We were trying to do something where we were introducing people to new things. That’s the fun of it, right? For my wife and I, that’s why we like dining out, to go to new places and try different things and be excited when the menu changes every time we’re there because there’s something new to try. It’s an experience for us, and we’re dealing with a lot of people who just want the same thing every time. They wanted to count on certain things. On top of that, we throw in a seasonal menu, which changes four times a year and their heads really spin. They would say “Oh, I love that dish, where did it go?” We try to do something different that’s not in season anymore. We burned a lot of these old regulars from this restaurant, hard. Honestly, it was probably the best thing that ever happened.
A: There’s a silver lining here, Adam. Right now, it sounds all doom and gloom. You go to another place and you open the thing. We’ve got to get there.
D: Yeah, we’re going to get there. I’m just trying to say it is hard. It was a roller coaster of emotions. Everybody who’s considering doing this should be prepared for how this can happen.
A: Yeah, you don’t just walk in as a conquering hero.
D: Yeah, exactly. It took us a minute to recover. That first year, we closed for the first winter. We closed for three months because we were so fried emotionally. We asked, “What are we doing?” We stuck it out. That first year we had to go through that fire because the customers that came out the second year were so much more pleasant. They were people who didn’t go initially because they were nervous about this new restaurant. Then they started coming out and the previous restaurant customers, most of them, had left. It was great. All of a sudden, people are commenting on how much younger the guests in the restaurant were. It was a place where we heard that older and younger people used to call The Red Pheasant “The Dead Pheasant” because it was just so stuffy and old. It’s been taking a long time, but people now are like, Oh, it’s not The Red Pheasant anymore. It’s not like that, it’s not stuffy. It’s new owners, it’s young, it’s exciting. Those people had started coming out after these, for lack of a better term, crotchety, angry, disgruntled older customers stopped coming because they felt like this is a cool place to be. Every year since then has gotten better and better. People are more receptive to our menus and ingredient choices, style, and drink menus. The second year, we did a CBD cocktail with a weed leaf garnish dropped on top of the rocks, and people were so excited. People came out. We ran that for 4/20 as a special, and people went nuts. This is clearly a new thing here. Then, fast-forward, we got to Covid, and we were panicking. We were closed for six weeks. We were on vacation in Jamaica when the news started coming out in February about this looming pandemic. I was freaking out and having a hard time settling in on vacation. Then, we came back and it was full-blown. We were supposed to open on March 18 for the season. The governor shut everything down on the 16th, I think it was. It all changed. Then, we decided to push everything outside. We just did picnic tables. I’m really proud of how we set it up. There was all counter-service. We ran food out to you. The menu was much faster, and it was really easy for the kitchen to execute. It was a really fun and high-quality menu. It was casual. Everything’s in takeout containers. High-quality, compostable biodegradable containers, but still takeout containers nonetheless. We also had compostable forks and knives. The wine was all in plastic. It was all cans and bottles. We didn’t do anything by the glass, but it worked really, really well. We had a lot of people who were blown away by the experience. We had families coming out, which is great. The restaurant during normal times is probably not a great place for little kids. Their parents are absolutely our regular customers, and we can introduce them. Also, get people in during the summer that will hopefully continue to come. When things get back to normal, they’ll get babysitters and now they discover this restaurant. We had people who would be on vacation for five days and they were coming three or four nights of their trip because they were so excited about being outside and being safe. Everything was really spacious. We started selling all this natural wine that we were struggling to sell previously. I’ve got old ladies drinking Broc Cellars Love Red cans by the case. It was incredible. The casualness that was forced upon everybody really worked in our favor. It really took the pressure off, because we are still known to a lot of people as this special-occasion restaurant, which is a tag label we’ve been trying to shed. It really changed people. I’ve had customers say “I actually really liked your outdoor vibe better than what the restaurant was previously inside.”
A: I wonder about that. A bunch of people I know, we’re talking about now doing two different things when things go back to normal. For example, we brought on James who owns Popina in Brooklyn. I don’t know if Popina existed before you left.
D: I don’t think so but I’ve been keeping tabs on things.
A: He basically went to counter service and the question now becomes, does he become counter service in one part of his restaurant, or is that a during-the-day thing where he’s counter service and then he converts to sit down at night? There are now customers who love that. They love that they could come at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, get a bottle of wine, eat some of your food, sit out in the backyard and play bocce. Also, it’s going to allow him to come back more easily. We talk about this a lot on the podcast, too. What is it going to look like in terms of service and how many people are going to add to your staff and that kind of stuff? I wonder, have you thought about that, too? Would The Pheasant be casual during the day? Then you go to the traditional sit-down at night but outdoors. It’s still the same kind of counter service, etc. you guys were doing?
D: The problem with space is that we realize it’s not good to do indoor and outdoor at the same time. It’s one or the other. This past summer, while we were doing all the outdoor seating and everything, we were like, “Let’s do lunch. Let’s try lunch because we’re set up. It’s beautiful out. It’s Cape Cod.” We’ve never done lunch before and we were proven right. We don’t do lunch because on Cape Cod, on a sunny day, no one’s eating lunch. They’re all at the beach. Everyone’s at the beach. If you don’t have a waterfront view, you’re not going to get lunch business. There are a couple of places maybe, but most of them have views. Most of them have some connection with the beach or you can walk on from the beach. We tried for the first two months of June and July, offering lunch. It just didn’t happen. You would get a couple of tables. It’s also hard to change people’s perceptions. On the Cape, the biggest issue we have is marketing and communicating to customers, because so many people are tourists. They come out on the weekends, and there’s no way to connect to them. We hit people on Facebook and Instagram with ads or promote ads in Boston, because we want to get them before they come out here because once they’re out here, they’ve already made their plans. They know where they’re going. They’re going to go to all the favorites. You have to get them talking and thinking about it before they even get out here, get it on their radar. It’s hard to suddenly convince people like, “Oh, by the way, the restaurant is now doing lunch.” They’ve never done lunch in the 40 years they’ve been a business. We didn’t see it. The plan for us, and I’m knocking on wood right now, but we’re less than a mile from our local beach, which is a fantastic beach, very family friendly corporation beach. It’s a 10-minute walk, and they have a killer snack bar there. Well, the operator right now is not awesome. It’s pretty generic, mozzarella sticks and a bad burger. It’s just generic, but the space and layout are awesome. There are all these picnic tables on a cliff above the dunes, looking over the beach. It’s a really great setting, and it comes up for bid every two years. We’re going to put in for it for next summer and try to kill that program. That’s how we’ll do lunch. It’s off-site, but it’s less than a mile away. It’s a different style of food. You get people that way and then transition them, “Hey, come off the beach, bring this flyer and come get a cocktail with us at 5 o’clock or 4 o’clock.”
A: That’s awesome.
D: That is what we’re thinking is the transition and the next move is to get lunch because you have a captive audience at the beach.
A: You guys are closed now because this is the worst time to be open in Covid. What are your plans for when you reopen?
D: We were debating for a long time. I was really stressing out about if we’re going to be inside, outside, or if we’re going to do both. I was really concerned that a lot of people are going to want this sense of normalcy and they’re going to want to go back inside. We had a comfortable bar. A lot of regulars and people tell us, “We can’t wait to go back to the bar.” I was thinking, if we don’t go inside, we are going to have a lot of disappointed people, and people want normal. The more we thought about it, there’s just no flow. The building wasn’t designed to do that. The server who is going out with food would have to be sharing the entrance with people coming in. It’s a really long haul from the kitchen. We were talking about putting in new doors and this historic farmhouse cut doors into the side to access outside. It was just getting more and more complicated. We were thinking, all right, we already have all this infrastructure for doing outdoor dining. It’s summer on Cape Cod. Most people are probably going to eat outside. Last summer, everybody had outdoor dining setups, but they were janky. There were a lot of crappy rental tents with cement barricades. Those places are not going to do that again. They’re all going to go back inside because it’s easier for them. We’re set back from the road and we have these lush gardens and it’s very private. There are string lights, and you feel like you’re somewhere else. We’re thinking, “Let’s just stick with outside, we have the model down. We can build upon it and let’s take a chance on being the only game in town doing extensive outdoor seating. We’ve got 20 tables. We can put 120 people outside. It’s substantial. Let’s try that again and own it.” Massachusetts is operating differently than New York, from what I can tell. There’s a reopening, and they lifted the capacity limits in Massachusetts. The only restrictions for indoor dining are six feet apart, but nobody can get vaccines. The governor is saying, “We know the vaccines are taking a long time, everyone needs to be patient. We’re racing against the variants to get everybody vaccinated but we’re excited to reopen restaurants and businesses.” We’ve gone this far, why don’t we wait until more people are vaccinated or restaurant workers are vaccinated? Going inside is somewhat contingent on hope and a prayer that it seems it’s trending in that direction, but I don’t know. What do we know for sure? Outside, it’s safe. It’s Cape Cod in the summer, people like sitting outside, we know we can execute it. Let’s just do it. And we have this rare opportunity where other towns are giving waivers to restaurants to do extensive outdoor dining in areas that they normally wouldn’t let you do outdoor dining. You have to have patios. You have to have all kinds of infrastructure to do it “properly.” They’ve allowed waivers last summer, and I just checked again and they are going to do it again this year. Let’s run with it. Why complicate it? Everybody can feel comfortable. We can continue doing the kid thing. That all being said, we know that transition back inside in the fall next year is going to be rough, because we have to completely reinvent the restaurant. We’re going to close for a couple of weeks and go back inside because it’s just too cold out here, as it is in New York. I’m not looking forward to that, but I think that’s going to be the play. That’s where we’re at right now. We’re on a break right now, but every day all we’re doing is trying to run through scenarios. If we’re not doing anything inside, we have to do outdoor bathrooms. Are people going to respond to that? Are they going to get angry? How do we do this? How is the flow going to work? It’s a lot of what-ifs and unknowns. It’s stressful, but it’s almost easier now that we decide we’re just going to be outside, as opposed to trying to think about half in, half out. That’s the play. I’ve had fun listening to all the podcasts about your predictions and trends. I was listening to the lemonade one. I’m like, “Huh, I should probably look into lemonade.” We’re doing a lot of research and trying to see, trying to glean as much information as we can to try to have the most efficient and best summer we can. On Cape Cod, summer is it. You make 80 percent of your revenue for the year in three months.
A: It’s crazy.
D: We’re hoping that this year will start earlier. Last year, it didn’t really take off until August, because everyone was locked down and they weren’t allowing rentals on the Cape until July. It sputtered along until August, and then took off. This year, as soon as the weather turns, it’s going to be on like a firehose. There are no rental properties on Cape Cod. You can’t find a place to stay. It’s wild. They just announced part of the reopening so now you can have outdoor gatherings of 150 people. And so, all the weddings are back on. All the resorts are booked. It’s going to be bananas. You want to be in the right position to receive all that. There’s not a whole lot of room for error, at least for us. We take it really seriously. We take every review seriously. If somebody doesn’t leave telling us how amazing a time they had, we feel like we failed.
A: It means you’re a good restaurateur.
D: We’re trying to have it all dialed in for this quick hit, and then we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.
A: Well, Adam, this has been an amazing conversation. I feel like I’ve definitely learned a lot about what you’ve been through, which is awesome. Hopefully, everyone who has listened has as well. I think if you are thinking about moving from a city into a smaller town, much of what you say is encouraging to people. I think you’re also a realist, which is great. It’s not going to be easy. You’re not going to go somewhere and be welcomed with open arms. I think your story is a really, really cool one. I really appreciate you sharing it with me.
D: My pleasure. The best takeaway is that the quality of life is incredible. That’s the biggest thing. At the end of the day, on any given day, our son goes to the lake in the morning and goes to the beach in the afternoon, maybe we go fishing. It’s this incredible, magic childhood. We love being here in the winter because it’s so quiet and beautiful. We have so much space, but nothing comes easy. That was our ultimate goal. We will figure out the other part of it. Don’t give up the fight, but just know that it’s definitely not easy.
A: Well, Adam, thanks so much again, I really appreciate it. I wish you the best. I can’t wait to come to The Pheasant sometime. I’ve actually never been to Cape Cod, so I’m going to have to go. People talk about how amazing it is.
D: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Thanks so much for listening to the podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please leave a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits, VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
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