Transformation. It is the hallmark of any chef or restaurant worth their proverbial artisanal sea salt. An ability to take the ingredients before them and make something greater than the sum of the parts. The notion of transforming also speaks to the ability, sometimes need, to change—with the seasons, with the unknown. As we face both the arrival of summer and the ongoing uncertainty of what will be allowed, and exactly when, regarding restaurants and dining here on the East End, hungry eyes are on how safely and quickly the hospitality experience can and must transform.
Change will, of course, mean different things for different venues. At the Southampton Inn, for example, Claude’s Restaurant has evolved into The Great American Picnic Place, where all menu items are currently carry-out and the emphasis is on the environs in which to enjoy a meal as much as it is on the food itself. Claude’s has offered breakfast since quarantines and stay-at-home went into effect, and saw the chance to add to that by offering diners at least a taste of summertime escapes. Sandwiches, burgers, salads, soups, cheese plates, freshly baked sweets—put them in a picnic basket and the world of Southampton Village is your oyster.
“You can take your picnic basket—with rosé or Champagne, fruit smoothies or home-made iced tea—to your favorite table in the beautifully planted courtyard, on the pool patio, the lawns, to your guest room or Agawam Park,” says Southampton Inn owner Dede Gotthelf, who launched the Great American Picnic menus right before Memorial Day weekend. “There is plenty of room to spread out and enjoy your old-fashioned picnic.”
In addition to meals available right there at the Southampton Inn, “we are distributing a list of all open village restaurants,” she says, along with “stores that offer curbside pick-up, and museum virtual and ‘spaced out’ events, like drive-in movies at the Southampton Arts Center.”
As a hotel as well as a restaurant venue, the Southampton Inn has long seen Gotthelf embrace the role of ambassador to not just her establishment, but to the immediate village surroundings and the Hamptons at large. During the past few months, that role has certainly evolved.
“Hotels were designated ‘essential’ in March and, as has been the case for around 50 years, the Southampton Inn remained open year-round,” she says. “It provided accommodation for nurses and fiber optic installers and others—an unusual guest roster but an ‘essential’ one this year.”
Now that what has always been the high season on the East End is here, the unusual has become part of the new normal in the hotel industry. The Hamptons and the North Fork remain as beautiful as ever, without question, so the actual questions, as Gotthelf sees them, come with issues of safety related to the lifting of restrictions and “whether people will feel comfortable about traveling, and how to make them feel safe,” she says. “It is about being sure that all inns and bed-and-breakfasts have a new set of procedures to ensure as much safety and CDC compliance as possible to instill confidence for potential visitors to the Hamptons.”
And therein lies the challenge. In the two months leading up to Memorial Day weekend, “the Southampton Inn experienced hundreds of cancellations,” she says. “All of the corporate groups, family reunions, weddings and galas have been cancelled or postponed to autumn or 2021. All of the international travelers have cancelled. Almost all of the visitors flying in from California, Texas, Florida, etcetera have cancelled or postponed. Historically, these guests comprise around 40% of the annual seasonal bookings at the inn. I do not think that Southampton Village will be hosting them during ‘season‘ 2020.
“On the flip side,” she continues, “many people living within a two-hour driving radius of the East End will likely not fly to exotic far-away international destinations, or book cruises, or hold destination weddings in the Caribbean or Europe. They are inquiring about availability now. And we have seen a large jump in extended-stay requests—the entire month of July, or connecting rooms from now to August 31. As the rental market for houses heats up and inventories are dwindling, hotels and inns seem to be filling the void—and offer housekeeping and pools, tennis, beach shuttles, even landscaping!”
For everyone arriving, the Southampton Inn will look a bit different this year. “Check-in is behind Plexiglas and from six-feet away, behind white stanchions. Guests will be given a beach bag with masks, gloves, a list of take-out eateries and procedures required for safety and health. Masks must be worn on property and are strongly recommended within the Southampton Village business district. All Southampton Inn employees wear masks—albeit with logos—and gloves, practice distancing, take temperatures, and perform a thorough disinfecting cleaning more frequently than in the past in guest rooms as well as all public areas. The pool is open but occupancy is limited to 10 swimmers. Lounge chairs are spaced at least six feet apart, with many chairs placed on the lawns outside the pool gates. Bikes, croquet and tennis rackets will all be disinfected after and prior to guest use.”
With all that in place, an old adage comes to mind. Transformed somewhat, of course. If you build it, how do you get them to come?
“The challenge this year is two-fold,” Gotthelf says. “To get the word out that the inns and hotels are open and able to accommodate, and to let potential visitors know that we provide the cleaning and distancing protocols necessary during this surreal time. Most inns of the Hamptons do not have elevators and long corridors and interconnected HVAC ducts. Southampton Village will likely enforce wearing masks when people are within 6 feet of one another. Hand sanitizers will be placed in strategic places. And as the whole village joins together to create a safe and welcoming environment, I think we will be perceived as a safe and healthy destination for visitors.”
“While perhaps naïve and overly cautiously optimistic,” she continues, “I believe that we will have one of the best years ever—emotionally, spiritually, physically, and hopefully even financially.”