The Homeport, a staple of many Menemsha summers for the past 92 years, was back after a two-year hiatus, just in time for the flood of Fourth of July visitors.
The restaurant property was recently purchased by Seth Woods and Eric Berke for $2.6 million from Bob and Sarah Nixon, and the business was sold for another $500,000 to Woods and Berke, with the commitment that it would remain a restaurant. The Nixons purchased the restaurant in 2009, but had not opened for the past couple of seasons in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and staffing issues.
“We, like everyone, have experienced the effects of the labor shortage caused by COVID,” Sarah Nixon told The Times. “There were no foreign workers, so like everyone on the Island, we had the same issues. It was a COVID-forced closure.”
It was the purchase of Homeport in 2009 from Will Holtham that spared the building from the wrecking ball, as the town planned to raze it and put in a parking lot.
“We just didn’t think it made sense for our town,” Sarah Nixon said. “Homeport was an economic spoke in our town.”
After another season on the sidelines in 2021, Seth Woods and Eric Berke, two seasonal Vineyarders who didn’t like seeing the restaurant shuttered, asked about buying the restaurant.
“We were approached at the end of last summer by Seth and Eric. They said, ‘We’d like to think about taking over the helm.’ We met and said, This is interesting,” Nixon recalled. “It was a perfect match. They wanted to continue what we started. They wanted to save this treasured institution and run it as a restaurant. They loved it as much as we did.”
Woods, a seasonal resident of Aquinnah, is a well-known Boston restaurateur, and is the founder of the Aquitaine Restaurant Group, which has had as many as seven restaurants, but after two closed and a split with a partner, is down to three neighborhood restaurants.
Berke is also a seasonal resident of Aquinnah. “We are so excited to carry on the Homeport’s traditions, especially its important role as a first work experience for many an Island teenager,” Berke said in a press release. “Seth and I are committed for the long term, and look forward to helping make many Homeport memories for generations.”
Nixon said she and Bob were patrons of the Homeport long before they owned it. She began coming to the Vineyard on her grandparents’ boat. Bob Nixon came to the Vineyard as a teenager. When they owned the restaurant, their own children worked at it, doing everything from shucking oysters to unloading and processing squid.
They have great memories of their 12 years of ownership, including that summer in 2011 when five sets of identical twins worked at the restaurant.
Like the Nixons, both Woods’ and Berke’s families have a deep, multi-decade relationship with the Island and Menemsha, and are seeking to preserve the working fishing port’s character by continuing the Homeport’s storied tradition.
Woods, who was taking a break from pounding nails for the restaurant’s oyster bar decking when he took a call from The Times, sounded excited about his latest venture. “It’s been wonderful so far. It will only get better and better,” said Woods, who has been coming to the Island for 30 years, and has owned a house for 25. “When I saw this, I was like, Man, the Homeport, so many memories. I’m loving bringing her back.”
The pandemic caused Woods to reflect on his career. “COVID was a time for me, as it was for a lot of people, a time to re-evaluate what’s important and what they want to do with the next block of their lives,” he said. “For me, I said, I don’t want to do anything I don’t want to do, because I don’t have to.”
The Homeport is a passion. “I’m not done. I’ve got a lot to say creatively and culinarily. When I saw this closed for the amount of time it was, I thought to myself, I never wanted to open a place up here. I didn’t want to ruin my serenity. My business is hard … I just stay and go to the beach, fish and boat, grill with the family.”
But the Homeport was different. It was an opportunity to continue a tradition and to expand on it. Don’t worry, lobster and scallop fans, you’ll still have the Homeport staples. But don’t be surprised when the chef in Woods takes a dish or two to a different level.
“We’re not doing anything precious. Locally grown and regionally sourced and paying attention to the craft of it, maybe not necessarily the artistry,” he said. “Keeping it solid, bold flavors, and focusing on the ingredients.”
The business numbers are a challenge. Woods is used to having alcohol sales to help the bottom line. Chilmark is still a dry town, so it’s BYOB. “Hopefully, someday, maybe that will change. That’s up to Chilmark … I’m not counting on that,” Woods said. “I ran my numbers on what we could possibly do here, and it’s difficult. Alcohol is anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of normal restaurant sales, and is a big part of the gross sales. Chilmark has been dry for a long time.”
But Homeport has already surprised him. He thought they would have to remain a takeout-only restaurant this season, but they’ve already gone from takeout to abbreviated service, to full service. And Woods has hinted at the idea that Homeport could become a year-round restaurant up-Island.
“That is the ultimate goal. There’s nothing up here, and there has to be something up here. If I’m here for a week, you can only read so many books, take so many walks on the beach; you need to have a place to go out on a Friday night,” he said. “Maybe it’s a dream, but that’s where it starts. I like to do things that haven’t been done.”