For Tybee businesses and other groups who deal with the brutal swings of seasonal business, it’s all about the plan and commitment.
“We have to deal with a tough off-season and a very busy high season,” explains Diane Kaufman, who has owned Mermaid Cottages, a vacation rental company on Tybee Island, since 2001. “Success, to me, means having a well-balanced life, while taking care of my customers.” Kaufman is among a number of local business owners who navigate the high and low seasons on Tybee Island.
Kaufman moved from Washington, D.C., to Tybee Island in 2001 because she purposefully wanted to live in a small town after the 9/11 attacks. She opened Mermaid Cottages on Tybee, a boutique business that specializes in renting quaint homes to Tybee visitors. Kaufman says that her small business is by design. “It’s a very distinctive brand. I have historic homes and cottages and because most of the homes are smaller, I have a longer season,” she says.
Local business owners on Tybee say the island has 100 days of summer, stretching from Memorial Day to Labor Day. “We work hard to have a lot of spring and summer business,” Kaufman says.
She says Mermaid Cottages is busy longer, stretching from March and St. Patrick’s Day and reaching through Pirate Fest in October.
Kaufman describes success as living a balanced lifestyle and making sure her four different groups of customers are happy. “These groups include my homeowners; my guests; my team, the people who work for me; and my community, the people of Tybee,” says Kaufman.
Satisfaction is the measure
Measuring the happiness is different in each of the four quadrants, says Kaufman.
“For example, a homeowner’s success is going to be: Am I accomplishing my financial goals and is my home being taken care of the way they want? My guests’ goals are, are they having a great Tybee experience? Is the house clean? Is the house the way they thought it was going to be? Is the island welcoming and a place they want to spend their time and money?” Kaufman says she doesn’t see her guests at tourists, but rather as visitors at her home and guests on her property.
“With my team, I want them to feel part of something that’s bigger than just a job; I don’t have employees, I have a team,” says Kaufman. “And the local community, do they think the houses look nice and are well kept? Also, am I giving back to my community through financial support and volunteer work, like helping to clean up the beach?”
Kaufman adds that in order to be successful in life, one must be an organizer and a planner. “True market success is what you do to bring people in during the off season.” Kaufman is a member of Visit Savannah, the destination marketing organization for the Savannah-area tourism industry. “Visit Savannah works hard at finding high valued guests who want to spend money on Tybee. The organization is constantly coming up with great, creative ways to market Tybee. If you’re not a member of this organization as a business owner, then you’re making a mistake.”
Restaurateurs listen, find own course
Sarah and Kurtis Schumm are also Tybean business owners, who met on Tybee, got married, and opened Tybee Island Social Club in 2010 and their more upscale restaurant, Tybee Island Fish Camp, in 2014. When asked about how they’ve been successful, Kurtis responds, “We weren’t confined by anybody else’s notions. We were very do-it-yourself and we listen to people’s opinions and thoughts. We let our restaurants take their own organic course.”
“Yes, and to be successful, you have to have poise and thick skin and believe in yourself and your mission,” adds Sarah.
Kurtis says that when he and his wife opened Social Club, they originally thought it was going to be a walk-up taco stand with a bar. “But that’s not what vacationers wanted,” he says. “They wanted to have a waiter and full-service restaurant. Within three months, our whole business model changed! The summer crowd told us what they wanted and we followed.”
After launching the first restaurant successfully, the Schumms opened Fish Camp, a more intimate space set in a 1950s cottage. The Schumms explain that their staff is very important and they brought some of their key players from Social Club over to Fish Camp. Social has 50 employees, while Fish Camp has 12.
“For us, all we’ve known is seasonality. We look forward to the summer because it’s really intense and the volume is intense,” says Kurtis. “But it’s nice to have the off-season to balance out the chaos.”
The couple agrees that being successful means several things, including providing a great product, pricing accordingly, creating a positive ambiance for guests, and understanding the volume and seasonality of the food. “There’s an art to this,” says Kurtis, who recently prepared a dinner for the James Beard Foundation at the Savannah Food & Wine Festival. Kurtis provides a new menu each day Fish Camp is open (Wednesday-Sunday; dinner only) based on fresh and available ingredients.
Two of the Schumm’s restaurants are open year-round. “To feel out the economic vibe on the island, we’ll check with our friends at the vacation rental companies to see if they’re booked during the off-season to see what kind of volume we should prep for,” says Kurtis.
“There’s a lot of joy and pride in providing a service to the community,” adds Sarah. “People choose to celebrate with us- we’re their favorite! And this is what we aim for. The backside is the most grueling part of things; the behind-the-scenes is the most challenging, like the staffing challenges, tax challenges, and overhead. No one knows what we’re up against.”
The simple approach can work
Sugar Shack is another restaurant on Tybee, a casual breakfast and lunch spot and ice cream parlor. The Grosse Family, who opened Sugar Shack on Tybee in 1971 and have been operating it ever since, opt to take a simpler approach to business success.
“We’re up front. A lot of places are overly cheerful to a point of absurdity, and people pick up on that and it can upset them,” says Steven Grosse, manager of Sugar Shack, whose grandmother, Mary Grosse, opened the restaurant. “We treat our customers as you would normally treat people. We don’t have that plasticity; we treat people fairly. That’s one of the key elements to our success: courtesy.”
Gross continues “Success, for us, is an evolving word; when we started it was about getting my uncle and father through college. Then it became about helping my grandparents pay the mortgage. Now it’s about operating a business that brings in more money than we spend and creating a good name for ourselves. We want to make a business for our children that’s a bigger and more profitable venture than how we found it.”
Sugar Shack’s primary focus for the last 30 of their 46 years, has been on their Jersey ice cream, Jersey being the type of cow it comes from. “We’ve had the same ice cream since we started scooping. We found a good product in the ice cream. We’ve gotten enough great reception — not good, great — and we don’t tinker with that. We have the same distributors; we’re not trying to change. We’ve built on it, bringing in better flavors. If people enjoy certain flavors, we’ll bring in more of that. We have a long memory here so we have a great track record of things that work and things that don’t.”
Sugar Shack also focuses on its burgers. “We haven’t changed our burgers much either. We always serve the same quality of beef in five ounce and 10 ounce patties. It’s not the most complicated thing in the world but a good burger doesn’t need to be complicated,” he says.
Grosse also believes family commitment matters. “We all work really hard and bust our butt every day! It’s a family business. The people who work here don’t work for the summer,” he says. “We measure our work time in decades. It takes commitment and we compensate our employees very well.”
Another family-run business on Tybee is High Tide Surf Shop, which was launched by The Malin Family 30 years ago.
“There are competitors everywhere, but I do my own thing and try not to worry about it too much. I stay hands-on and offer good service,” says Tim Malin, the son in the family who runs Board Loft, the offshoot of High Tide. “I’ll match anybody’s prices. And we offer hands-on personal service: we’ll do repairs, work with a company’s warranties, and that’s what keeps our customers coming back.”
Sarah Schumm of Fish Camp and Social Club thinks the keys to navigating the seasons are quality and experience. “Are people satisfied? Is our product consistent? Is it beautiful? We’re here to be tour guides. It breeds loyalty and keeps people coming back. We live, work, and play here,” says Sarah. “We’re invested in it wholly.”