[caption id="attachment_221713" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Fish On used the extra time on its hands to update its bar area to a contemporary lounge. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SODEL CONCEPTS[/caption]
If you haven’t been to Fish On in Lewes for some time, you’re in for a surprise. The previously cramped bar area is now a contemporary lounge with booths, and you can no longer see people networking in the expanded banquet area.
Outside, the beautifully landscaped patio has private booths, a cozy fire pit and pergolas that provide shade.
The renovations are par for the course for owner SoDel Concepts. “Every five years, a restaurant gets ‘touched,’” explained Mike Dickinson, vice president of the Rehoboth Beach-based hospitality group.
“Sometimes that means it is completely redone,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a fresh coat of paint and new tables. It depends on what’s needed from a customer standpoint, from a business standpoint and what the design world is telling us.”
Beach restaurants have an advantage that their northern counterparts do not: They can close during the off-season without losing a chunk of business. As a result, they can present a fresh face to summer tourists looking for cutting-edge cuisine and novel ambiance.
The case for change
SoDel Concepts is in line with industry recommendations. According to the National Restaurant Association, it’s typical for restaurants to do a renovation every five to seven years.
Sooner is often better than later at the beach. In resort towns, restaurants take a beating, and wear and tear quickly becomes evident. It’s not a good look since tourists are expecting perfection.
In winter, Indigo in downtown Rehoboth Beach closed for nearly a month for indoor and outdoor painting and the installation of new carpet, tiles and a service bar. Raghu Kumar and his father opened the Indian restaurant in 2018 — it is the area’s first — and it was time for a refresh.
A building’s age can prompt the need for frequent improvements, and there is no shortage of old restaurants at the beach. For instance, Matt’s Fish Camp in Lewes is in a structure that once housed Lazy Susan’s and Tijuana Taxi — in other words, it has been around for some time. Recent projects included a new kitchen floor.
After purchasing One Coastal in Fenwick Island, which is also in an old building, Matthew Kern and his wife, Karen, spent a month painting the inside and redecorating before the February opening.
In Lewes, Megan Kee inherited a host of potential problems. Bramble & Brine at The Buttery is in a circa-1894 mansion. In addition to paint and paper, she refinished the Lewes restaurant’s floors, renovated bathrooms and restored the Victorian’s woodwork.
It’s worth noting that Kee is leasing the space from Big Fish Restaurant Group’s owners. In the hospitality world, the tenants primarily pay for repairs and renovations.
Keeping up with the times
Kee’s and Kern’s changes reflect the new ownership. But even a restaurant with the same owner needs an update to stay relevant. Décor — like fashion — goes in and out of style. Thanks to Pinterest and Instagram, this happens more frequently, and tourists are savvy.
SoDel Concepts takes its style cue from its new restaurants, particularly if they are the second or third locations of an existing concept. After Harvest Tide Steakhouse opened a second location in Bethany Beach, owner Danio Somoza wanted to upgrade the first in Lewes. “The Bethany locations looks more elegant,” he said.
He plans to add a patio in Lewes and will make some interior changes. In the future, he may rebuild the restaurant on the site.
Likewise, Matt’s Fish Camp in Fenwick Island, which opened in 2021, is more “on trend” than its two siblings, Dickinson acknowledged. “So, you backfill the other two to keep them similar. We don’t want them to be identical, but we want them to have a similar feel.”
The first Matt’s Fish Camp in Bethany Beach closed for more than two weeks in winter. “We rethought the entire aesthetic,” Dickinson said. “There’s all new furniture, new booths, and we redid the floors.”
Workers also redid the HVAC in the building, which has housed Matt’s Fish Camp since 2011 and was the Seaside Grill before that time.
[caption id="attachment_221714" align="alignleft" width="300"] At SiP Eats & Treats Café in the Tanger Outlets, the expanded space to add energy drinks, fruit whips and more retail. | PHOTO COURTESY OF SIP EATS & TREATS[/caption]
Improving the experience
The Bethany Matt’s Fish Camp has an open kitchen that is now more functional. For instance, overhead shelves now hang from the ceiling to offer usable room underneath. Improvements like these reflect changes to increase efficiency.
Others are in response to industry trends; for example, consider the move to outdoor dining during the pandemic.
“It forced us to dedicate resources to outdoor areas,” Dickinson agreed. “What we did at Fish On was substantial, which worked out well for us.”
Bethany Blues in Lewes is enhancing its outdoor area as part of a three-phase renovation that includes a dining room overhaul. However, one of the most noticeable changes is the addition of Bethany Blues Express, a quick-service concept, at one end of the existing building.
“All of our carryout and online ordering goes through there,” explained Jessica Nathan, director of operations. “There is dine-in seating for people, but it’s not a full-service experience.” It will also have a grab-and-go case.
The leadership team had the idea for the express element for some time, but when the pandemic hit — and takeout soared — they moved the plan forward.
At the original Bethany Blues in Bethany Beach, an expanded kitchen handles the increase in carryout without the dedicated concept or “bells and whistles,” said Zac Warner, director of operations.
The Lewes site is also getting a lounge in an underused back area that will feature craft bourbon at a dedicated bar.
Similarly, The Fox Hole in Milton added overstuffed chairs and a socializing area when it began featuring brunch. “We added high-speed internet so customers could come and sit,” owner Kristen Latham said.
At her concept SiP Eats & Treats Café in the Tanger Outlets, she expanded the space to add energy drinks, fruit whips and more retail.
With an eye on the waning surges, these operators clearly hope post-pandemic customers will stop and stay — inside or out.