The seasonal salsa

Island businesses move to the beat of a seasonal economy.

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Dan Sauer, chef and owner of 7a in West Tisbury, specializes in surprising sandwiches, and knows how to staff for the variable Vineyard seasons. — File photo by Michael Cummo

Here we are at the edge of autumn, and the ebb and flow of Island life for businesses is entering its official shoulder season. While there’s a definite drop in business come Labor Day, more and more business owners see a longer season.

It’s one thing to staff for the often nonstop business of high summer. But how do you manage a staff for shoulder seasons, or off-seasons, that can present a trickle of customers one day, and lines out the door the next?

Mike Santoro, who owns three Oak Bluffs restaurants — the Lookout Tavern and Fishbones Bar and Grille, both seasonal, and the year-round Ocean View — has spent 24 years here; he knows his way around the Island calendar.

“When I first started in 1993,” Mr. Santoro said, “colleges didn’t go back until after Labor Day, so it wasn’t much of an issue. Nowadays, I look for college kids who have already graduated, who might not have a job coming up and will stay through fall. There’s still great money to be made through December.

“Especially the past 10 years, the Island has gotten more busy as it’s gotten more popular,” Mr. Santoro said of the Vineyard in the off, or shoulder, seasons. “Hats off to the Chamber of Commerce and the Oak Bluffs Association. We’ve seen a huge influx of international tourists. Both organizations have done a great job promoting Oak Bluffs with websites and advertising.”

Mr. Santoro also said that the booming wedding industry has become a shot in the arm, or at least the shoulder (season), for other Island businesses.

“I was at Tilton Rental the other day, and I believe they told me they have 150 weddings through the end of October,” Mr. Santoro said. “That’s huge for weekend business. They get here Thursday, and they’re looking for a place to stay, to eat and drink, until the wedding day.”

Many business owners rely on not only seasonal employees but also dedicated longtime, year-round workers to see them through the busiest time of year and the unpredictable shoulder seasons.

Susan Goldstein has owned and operated the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven since 1985, along with her husband Sherman. The Goldsteins’ son and daughter both work at the family business. The family has made a commitment to stay open in the off-season, even though, she said, January, February, and March “may not be in the black.” She said the staff includes several longtime employees (one — Bud Raymond — just retired after 32 years), and likens it to “an Island family farm” in the way they adjust to unpredictable staffing demands.

“If something’s happening, there’s a phone call, and one of us comes in,” she said. “Whoever is available, that’s who comes in.”

While some employers try to maintain full-time, year-round employees, others depend on students with a J-1 visa from a variety of foreign countries. Typically, the J-1 students return to school later than college students in the U.S.

In Edgartown, a place to get a good iced coffee, a quick sushi takeout lunch, or a really nice fresh cut of beef is Edgartown Meat and Fish, in the Triangle. The line gets long in July and August, but they’re open year-round. Sean Ready has been at the helm at the restaurant and market since 2011. His mother owns two similar businesses in Shelburne and Williston, Vt., so he understands the workings of a successful market.

“We start bringing in extra help as soon as it starts getting busier in April and May,” he said. “College kids are great; they get here earlier than the J-1 students, but unfortunately they leave a lot earlier.”

One of the problems that comes with a seasonal business, Mr. Ready said, is the training process. Normally, he explained, he’d like to have at least two to four weeks to train employees. Because of the seasonal nature of his Island business, that can get cut down to a two- or three-day process.

Since 2011, Dan Sauer and his wife Wenonah have been dreaming up delicious sandwiches — the Liz Lemon or the Asparagus Melt — at 7a restaurant, next to Alley’s in West Tisbury. They stay open as close to year-round as they can, Mr. Sauer said:

“We close just the last couple of weeks of February and into March, about three weeks.”

The secret to keeping the popular up-Island spot open is a blend of dependable year-round employees and J-1 students — during the summer season.

“I always have a good core group, but this time of year is particularly challenging,” Mr. Sauer admitted. “The college kids are on their way out, J-1 workers are around for a bit longer, but it’s a scramble to keep it all together.”

The whole dance of the shoulder season is just part of being in a seasonal economy, Mr. Sauer said.

“It’s part of doing business in a seasonal place. You can’t let it make its way to the customer. They don’t care that two college kids left this week; they want great service,” he said.