Saving the family business in a beach town where money talks

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Gray Gardell-Gross stands behind the bar at the Gig Shack, a restaurant he took over from his parents, in Montauk, NY on August 8, 2022. (Lindsay Morris/The New York Times)

There are plenty of shiny new hotels in Montauk, the beach town at the tip of Long Island’s East End, which has transformed from a rustic village to a chic destination over the past two decades. There’s Marram, a stylish lodge with Frette linens and meditation classes, and Montauk Beach House, which features a new vegan restaurant and half-acre beach club, to name a few. .

Then there’s Daunt’s Albatross, a no-frills 1950s motel, right in the middle of it all. Leo Daunt, the motel’s 29-year-old general manager, is determined to ensure it remains relevant and independent in this country of big development projects. After all, the legacy of the family business is at stake.

As jet-setters and influencers continue to flock to Montauk, deep-pocketed investors have pounced, offering longtime mom-and-pop boutiques millions of dollars for their properties. Last spring, Liar’s Saloon, a beloved watering hole that once offered $1 beers, reportedly sold for millions.

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But a small group of millennials with ties to the area, including Daunt, are taking over their family businesses and updating them to ensure they stick around for at least one more generation. The idea is that as long as they are in charge, their families will not be tempted to sell.

Daunt’s Albatross dates back to 1977, when it was purchased and renamed by Rich Daunt, grandfather of Daunt, a retired Nassau County police officer. “They had a bungalow, but they needed a bigger space to house all their friends when they visited,” Leo Daunt said of his grandparents’ prescient real estate and business move.

The motel quickly became a home for the Daunt family.

“I remember me and my siblings and cousins ​​running around, jumping into the pool,” Daunt said. “We have guests who have seen me grow year after year.”

His plan was to become a history teacher. But when Daunt returned to Montauk after graduating from college, he realized that the Albatross was not keeping up with new developments around town.

“In 2014, we didn’t even have a website. There was no online reservation system and everything was done by fax,” he said. “It hadn’t been renovated for a long time. It absolutely needed new bedding, soundproofing.

Daunt became increasingly committed to the Albatross and officially took it over in 2018. Three years later, he hired Home Studios, the Brooklyn-based design firm behind the Spaniard, a sleek gastropub in the West Village, and Elsa, an art deco cocktail bar flourishes in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, to oversee a complete renovation. Soon the courtyard had bonfire pits and the guest rooms sported period furniture and flagstone floors. In May, Daunt took over Bird on the Roof, a restaurant across the street, turning it into an all-day brunch spot.

“Properties in Montauk are worth a fortune right now,” Daunt said. “But it was more important for all of us to continue the family tradition.”

It’s something longtime visitors to Montauk, some stunned by the influx of young revelers, appreciate.

“I don’t want to go to one of those motels where I’m just a number, and there’s nothing personal, and nobody knows me,” said Maureen Benckwit, a 72-year-old retiree who lives in Massapequa and has visited Daunt’s Albatross every year since 1983, including during the pandemic. “I would be devastated if this place changed hands. I don’t know if I would continue my tradition of coming to Montauk if this place changed.”

She’s even ok with the modern updates to the place. “I always put aside the age of the accommodation because everything else was fine, but now Leo has done a fantastic job.”

One of Daunt’s childhood friends is Alexis Engstrom, 30, a former surf instructor who has lived in Montauk all his life, except for a year in Hawaii. She grew up working at Montauk T-Shirts, a store her mother owned.

“I worked there before I could even speak properly,” Engstrom said. “When I was 5 years old, I was already folding clothes.”

When her mother, Kathleen, 64, started talking about downsizing, Engstrom immediately knew she wanted to take over the shop. “It was a rite of passage,” she said. “You learn the ways and take over when your parents are tired.”

For years, she had seen other stores nearby completely change their appearance and focus when new owners, not native to the area, took them over. “I know change is inevitable, but I don’t want any designer boutiques coming to Montauk anytime soon. If you want to do that, go to East Hampton,” she said.

Kathleen Engstrom doesn’t know what she would have done if her daughter hadn’t intervened. “Montauk is incredibly busy, and I can’t do everything physically or mentally on my own anymore,” she said. “To bring in your own blood, not everyone has that.”

She believes her daughter is making essential changes. “She’s more aware of the colors of the season, the styles,” she said, pointing to the Montauk crop tops that had become a top seller since her daughter took over.

When Gray Gardell-Gross was in sixth grade, her family moved to Montauk from Manhattan after 9/11. “We lived right next to the downtown twin towers and I was at school a block away,” he said.

In 2005, her parents opened Gig Shack, a comfort food place. “I was the head chef when I was 19,” Gardell-Gross said.

When his parents told him they were ready to move on, they were pleasantly surprised to learn that Gardell-Gross was considering taking him back. “It kind of came out of nowhere,” he recalls. “They were super supportive.”

Unlike Alexis Engstrom, Gardell-Gross didn’t exactly jump at the chance without some soul-searching first. “How long can you work the cooking line?” he remembered thinking. After all, he had other interests. At the start of the pandemic, he attempted to start a wholesale business selling duck confit and chicken wings.

But eventually Gardell-Gross, now 32, took over Gig Shack on the advice of his friend Daunt. “He made me realize that I had a lot of ideas on how to run the place.”

He recruited his friends to build a Moroccan-style tiled arch through the dining room, installed central air conditioning, and hired musicians to play six nights a week in the summer.

“I wanted him to have new energy,” he said, adding that he was happy with his decision to take over the family business. “I’m not going anywhere.”

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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