Not many people can say their former landlord was Ina Garten or that they helped save a landmark building, but for Susan Assalti it’s all part of the history of the storefront building she bought from Garten 27 years ago at 103 Main Street in Westhampton Beach, which currently houses five local shops.
It’s true, the original ‘Barefoot Contessa’ store first opened for business in 1978 at 103 Main Street—an anniversary that recently prompted Ina Garten to post a photo and share the memory on her Instagram:
Forty-three years ago today, I started my career in food in this tiny (400 square foot!) specialty food store in Westhampton Beach,” she posted on June 3. “OMG it’s been a crazy and fun ride!!
The first day in the store, we grossed $87 (before expenses!) and we thought it was a disaster. But Friday was Memorial Day weekend (in the Hamptons!) and it turned out to be a very different story. We stayed up cooking and baking all night and I remember thinking how happy I was!
If Ina Garten was happy with her new venture, her growing legion of foodie fans were even happier, as the ‘Barefoot Contessa’ became the gourmet food shop on the East End, thriving at 103 Main Street for 16 years.
Along the way, Ina Garten purchased the building and divided it into five stores, serving as the landlord to various shops, even after she vacated the space where the ‘Barefoot Contessa’ had been.
So how did the Assalti’s get involved? In the 1990s The Assaltis, who always loved being near the water, were renting in Westhampton and constantly “traveling back and forth” from their home in Lattingtown when Susan’s son Lenny Messina became interested in the Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop at 103 Main Street. He purchased the business through a broker and started paying rent to Ina Garten. And that got Susan Assalti thinking.
“I said, ‘You know, it might be a good idea for us to look into this building and see if this is for sale’,” says Assalti, who coowned with her husband David several businesses, including a waterfront restaurant in Bayville and a salon in Locust Valley before the family decided to settle in Remensburg in 2002.
About a year after her son bought Häagen Dazs, Assalti approached the Barefoot Contessa.
“I said to Ina, ‘If you are ever interested in selling the business, please contact me,’ and she said, ‘Oh I am interested,’” recalls Assalti. “It just so happened that at that time she was in negotiations for her East Hampton store. She was living in East Hampton and I think she was glad to be rid of this. I knew that she knew it needed a lot of work.”
The Assalti’s bought the building from Ina Garten in 1994. According to Susan, the storefront window was so bad it was “bowing out” but they bought it anyway because David could fix it.
“That’s what he always did, he renovated old buildings and was very good at it,” says Susan. “I would get involved and decorate and then we would sell them. We love to buy and sell and fix real estate.”
Even though at the time it needed work, the Assalti’s thought 103 Main Street was “the nicest looking building on the block—just beautiful,” says Susan.
Susan also thought it would be a good investment since the family “already had a business in the building.” She was right. Today she estimates their investment has increased in value close to 500%.
Constructed in 1895, the building was purchased by Moses Weixenbaum in 1902 and became Weixenbaum’s Marke. For the most part, it has housed several markets including the Royal Scarlet, Wayans Meat Market, the Westhampton Quogue Market and the Barefoot Contessa.
The 4,000-square-foot building currently houses five shops: Messina Jewelry, Häagen Dazs, Sugar Daddy’s toy store, 103 Bambino’s Pizza, and Mambo Café.
“For the most part everybody gets along,” says Assalti. “That’s very important. When we rent to someone, we let them know the dynamics of the building, that everyone needs to get along.“
The building happens to back up to boats on the canal.
“In summer, people are always pulling up on their boats and grabbing an ice cream or a slice of pizza,” says Assalti. “The nice thing is the town put tables right by the dock so people can grab and sit.”
But it’s the front of the building that drew in the couple.
“We love the tin architecture,” says Susan. “In fixing it, David removed and then put back all of the original tin,” she recalls proudly.
Susan is the buyer and designer of Messina Jewelry and her son Lenny Messina and his wife and partner Nicole Messina own the store. The Messina’s also own Häagen-Dazs and Sugar Daddy’s.
Like any local business owner, she is grateful to be open again and back in business after a difficult year.
“We got through it… We worked with our tenants and our tenants worked with us,” she says. “I am fortunate.”
At Messina, Susan sells “only American-made jewelry … gold, diamonds, silver and some costume jewelry. “I call it affordable luxury,” she says. “I really shop it out and I make sure that it is price points that people can afford.”
The many longtime customers who walk into 103 Main Street “are like family,” says Assalti.
“We have kids that used to shop in the toy store, now they work at Häagen Dazs,” says Assalti. “We have watched these kids grow up and now they have children and their children are shopping in the toy store. It’s terrific.”
In terms of the current state of the village, Assalti says she sees “a great change” and thinks “it is all for the positive.”
“Now that they have done the town over and they’ve improved everything,” she says. “I see it is very family oriented, a lot of people with young children, it’s very safe there, you feel comfortable … the people who came here during COVID, they’re not leaving … the first thing people say is they don’t have to drive another two hours to get to Montauk or East Hampton on that one road. You get off the expressway and you’re here.”
As a longtime business owner and commercial real estate investor, Assalti is optimistic for the future.
“The town is definitely growing,” she says. “We are getting quite a few new businesses … I think next year we are going to get more restaurants once the sewers go in. It’s a big job, it’s huge, but you can thank [Westhampton Beach Mayor] Maria Moore for that…I can’t commend Maria and the board enough. They have done a great job and have done so much for the town.”
And though the Assalti’s like to buy and sell real estate, their investment in 103 Main Street seems to be for the long haul.
“The most gratifying thing is I come in in the morning and I look at the building and I say, ‘I am so blessed to be able to have this and to have the wonderful community I live in and be able to work five minutes from my home,’” says Assalti.
“And that we saved a landmark,” she says with a smile. “That makes me feel good.”
Messina Jewelry, Häagen Dazs, Sugar Daddy’s, 103 Bambino’s Pizza, and Mambo Café are located at 103 Main Street, Westhampton Beach.