Michael Lieberman has taken over ownership of the Mememsha deli on Basin Road at an interesting — not to say daunting — time.
With fuel prices spiking, the number of boats moored at the harbor town were down in the preseason months and food costs were up. Mr. Lieberman has found himself swallowing some of the costs since buying the place in February.
“Especially with the sandwiches, it’s hard to raise the price per plate even though the costs have gone up,” he said one afternoon earlier this week, sitting on one of the benches in front of the deli shortly after closing up.
Added to the mix is the yet unknown fate of the Home Port restaurant around the corner. Owners Will and Madeline Holtham have had the flagship seafood restaurant on the market periodically for the past decade and have offered the property to the town of Chilmark for a reduced price of $2 million. Town voters will decide on the sale, and on the selectmen’s recommendations to turn the property into public space, at a meeting in September.
“The [deli’s] simple menu has allowed us to not get run over by the present economic situation. The truth is, the place needed extensive renovation,” he said. The sandwich refrigerator and toasters were broken, four storage refrigerators were either dead or semi-functioning, and the front garden was “like a pitch and putt.”
It was a substantial investment and two months of work starting in February when Mr. Lieberman took over ownership from Christopher Soulagnet. Mr. Lieberman was able to keep costs down doing most of the work alone. “The cooking and the building is no problem,” he said.
Mr. Lieberman was warned that staffing for two or three very busy months per year is tough, which was one more incentive to keep things simple.
“When I was a kid, Marijane Poole had the place and used to have four, five, six people all running around back there,” he said. “Now, having six people in the kitchen wouldn’t be economically feasible.”
He calls his fare American standard: jumbo angus hot dogs, prepared New York style with sauerkraut and mustard, pepper and sweet sausage sandwiches, Louisiana style po’ boys. He uses a waffle iron to make grilled cheese sandwiches.
Later, he plans to stay open in the evening and offer a dining alternative to the seafood spots around the harbor.
“A small eclectic dinner service, with Italian sausages, prosciutto, maybe sushi,” he said.
But much is dependent on what happens with the Home Port.
“It’s added some tension to the issue, because if they close down then we’re going to have so many more people looking for chicken and lobster. My concept that there’s room for something more offbeat wouldn’t necessarily foot the bill,” he said, “If the Home Port closes it would be a whole different ball game.”
Born in New York city, Mr. Lieberman, 33, spent time in Oxford, England before attending high school in Maryland. He spent his first summer on the Vineyard as a 17-year-old. Starting as a busboy in down-Island kitchens he graduated to sous-chef and soon to cook and has worked as a chef at Home Port, Le Grenier and the Tisbury Inn (where Zephrus is now located.) He settled into a routine of cooking and working construction in Providence, R.I. through the winter and the Island for the summer months. He moved to the Island in 1998 and worked as a full-time chef.
Regardless of expansion plans, Mr. Lieberman is confident of the deli’s viability.
“Summer people need it, you know they’re at the beach and they get hungry you know,” he said. “It’s pretty basic. Something other than seafood you know there’s sort of a need for it, you know one or two places that don’t just do the fried clams or the lobsters. I think it works. When people come here it’s just, you know, make good sandwiches. It’s all the place needs to do.”
Marijane W. Poole who managed the business for 16 years starting in 1982, introduced a series of sandwiches named after Vineyard-affiliated celebrities. But over the past several years the deli has lost the recipes and is down to 15 or so offerings, so Mr. Lieberman has been left bewildered by people who have come to demand a Richard Dreyfuss or a Carly Simon Marijane.
“Summer people, what they like about the Vineyard is the memory they carry with them when they go back to wherever they live,” he said, “when businesses develop it affects their concept of the Vineyard as being about conservation. I’m the same way,” he said.
For Mr. Lieberman, who opened under the new name Helman’s Menemsha Deli — a dual reference to a boat captain and the mayonnaise — because he thought it was funny, the laid-back mood of Basin Road is appealing.
“Most people here are up for a good laugh,” he said. “Sometimes they just start grabbing stuff and they’ll order 10 to 12 sandwiches at 8:30 a.m. That’s pretty great. It’s nice to know that you’re helping someone out with their day plans. They’ll get the good parking spot, their favorite spot on the beach. Not that I really know what that’s like.”
His own schedule, he said, is not as open.
“This will be the twelfth summer of cooking six or seven days a week and the last bunch of summers I tended to do day and night shifts, you know. Usually I have a day or two a summer on the beach,” he said.