As far as Gabrielle Walsh is concerned, she’s running an entirely new restaurant at Stone Creek Inn — even though the menu is exactly the same.
It’s the front of the house that has transformed.
Instead of overseeing the historic East Quogue dining room as general manager and wine director, Ms. Walsh has parked herself outside the restaurant and inside Silly Eats, a circa-1950s Chevrolet Grumman Olson van that has typically sat at Silly Lily Fishing Station in East Moriches — until now.
For the last month, the seafood-centric mobile — a near three-year partnership between the two eateries — has fused its street fare with the inn’s fine dining, offering a drive-through, mashed-up menu that ranges from high-end rack of lamb and salmon to beach-friendly tacos and lobster rolls, all available by truck-side pickup.
“The first day we were open, I had five tacos because I’m not used to eating the food truck food. They’re quite delicious,” Ms. Walsh recalled with a laugh. “Once we got past the first week, which was definitely a bit stressful, it was actually fun.”
To comply with the New York State shutdown, restaurants across the East End abruptly shifted from dine-in to take-out only starting March 16, helping to curb the spread of COVID-19 while, simultaneously, absorbing massive losses in revenue. But for those with seasonal food trucks in storage, local restaurateurs were presented with an interesting opportunity, and quickly started up their engines.
For Stone Creek Inn, it was only a matter of three days, thanks to co-owner Elaine DiGiacomo.
“It hadn’t even occurred to us, it was all Elaine,” Ms. Walsh said. “The day that we all met at the restaurant, as soon as we found out we had to close that Monday, Elaine was like, ‘We’re getting the truck, it’s coming tomorrow.’ It was her idea. We were gonna just do takeout, like everyone else was doing, but the truck has really brought the visual aspect, too. So many people drive by and then just pull in to see what’s happening. You can’t miss the truck sitting out there.”
The Plaza Cafe adopted a similar strategy at first, according to executive chef and owner Doug Gulija, but closed up shop soon after — electing to offer the food truck menu, known for its tacos and tuna nachos, as curbside pickup at the Southampton establishment, along with the regular menu.
“Some people make fun of me, saying that I’m one of the only guys in town with a truck, and they’d probably let me go wherever I want right now, with what’s going on,” Mr. Gulija said. “I don’t know. I don’t feel good about that. Money is not more important than people’s lives.”
The decision to close dawned on him as he was loading up for a day of cooking at Coopers Beach. It was the infancy of the novel coronavirus, and what it would ultimately mean for the East End, and even still, the chef found himself extremely angry at the crowds gathering there — and then at himself for his hypocrisy and the role he was playing in encouraging their behavior.
“I just said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m pissed off because people aren’t really taking this serious, and yet here I go to make the almighty dollar and not standing by my principles,’” he said. “So I parked it and it’s been closed ever since.
“There’s no way to control it, and I don’t want to tell people what to do. It’s a free country,” he continued. “One day, we had 15 people out here, thinking it was Fourth of July weekend, and I’m going, ‘This isn’t right.’ And, you know, the few people that were wearing masks were getting mad at the people that weren’t, and then I’m like the referee. And I’m going, ‘Man, I’ve got enough to deal with right now.’”
In Hampton Bays, chefs and partners Colette Connor and Pamela Wolfert experienced a similar conundrum at their restaurant, The Inn Spot on the Bay. So they got creative with their food truck.
“When we first opened, people were coming up to the window, which we love,” Ms. Connor said. “We love our customers. Half the time, they hug us or kiss us, they want to touch us, but now we all have to stay 6 feet away. So, we created a conveyor belt that goes from the window of the food truck to their car. It’s a new world. They can literally drive up, or walk up, and pick up. It’s been interesting, it’s been fun, it’s been a big change — but we’re adapting.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s been fun, but …” Ms. Wolfert interjected, the women bursting into laughter. “It’s been interesting, for sure.”
“It’s been interesting,” her partner agreed.
The 10-foot-long, stainless steel ramp, outfitted with rollers, is attached to the food truck window, with the opposite end propped up by a weighted sawhorse. When a customer pulls up, one of the chefs sends a bus bucket down the ramp with the pickup order inside, waiting for the driver to pull out their food before tugging it back up with a rope and disinfecting it before the next order.
“It’s working well. People get a kick out of it, it’s funny — it looks funny, too!” Ms. Wolfert said. “But you do what you have to do in these times, you know? We just happened to have the stuff in the garage and figured, let’s put this to use.”
The food truck menu is coming hot off the line, explained the chefs, but the restaurant is also serving prepared meals and soups that can be reheated at home, almost entirely changing their business model in the process.
“It’s been incredibly difficult,” Ms. Connor said.
“Yeah, we’re working five times as hard as we normally would, because it’s just the two of us,” Ms. Wolfert said. “We’re doing everything from peeling every potato and carrot to all the cooking and the cleanup, as well as trying to maintain an online presence with our online store, so people can order conveniently and pay online. We’re working much harder and, of course, the business isn’t what you would get from our sit-down restaurant.”
“We’re like everybody else,” her partner added. “We’re looking to the future. Nobody has the crystal ball. We’d all like to figure out what’s happening, but I think at the end of the day, we’re all coming to the realization that the restaurant business as we have known it is going to change. It’s just not going to be the same, and we’re going to have to adapt. What direction that goes in, I don’t know, but Pam and I, we’ve been doing this for a long time and we can pivot on one foot — but it’s kind of hard when you don’t see the ground underneath your feet.”
Despite so much uncertainty, Ms. Walsh does anticipate Silly Eats will return to its home at the Silly Lily Fishing Station for Memorial Day Weekend. But the East Quogue restaurant already has a backup plan in place: a bar car to keep business flowing.
“Each week is busier for us, and the support has been outstanding,” she said. “But of course, we missed out on Easter and this coming Sunday would be the second Restaurant Week we’ve missed out on, which is crazy. And now we have Mother’s Day coming up. March was always a quieter month of the year, but then April starts to pick up a little bit.
“It’s definitely not what it normally would be, but we’re all surprised by how busy it has been, and we’re very grateful for that,” she added. “It keeps us busy, especially at 6 o’clock, when everyone’s hungry. It starts to feel like work again.”
Every day for the past month, Ms. Walsh has made time to read the following words from Dean Acheson: “The manner in which one endures what must be endured is more important than the thing that must be endured.”
She carries that into her shifts manning the food truck, she said, as a daily reminder to embrace life with a positive mental attitude.
“If you let everything overtake you, then it becomes overwhelming and emotional and you can’t handle it,” she said. “But you just have to take each day at a time and you push forward. We keep on truckin’!”
As published in the Southampton Press