This past winter, winds of change blew through the Terrace Tavern “compound” in Beach Haven Terrace with the transfer of ownership from one generation to the next.
The tavern, known for its famous pink flamingo, opened 31 years ago; the Delaware Avenue Oyster House and Bar, two years ago. Now longtime owners Steve and Cassie Eisenberg are retiring, having sold the business to Steve’s daughter Toby Sweeney and her husband, Michael, a beloved bartender at the Old Causeway Steak and Oyster House in Manahawkin for the last three years.
“The transition so far has been phenomenal,” Toby Sweeney said in March. The whole process took about three months.
“The timing was right for everybody,” Mike Sweeney said.
Toby had spent the previous nine years working in sales for tech company MobileCause, which makes fundraising software for nonprofits, while raising their two little boys. Her college education is in history and theater; her work experience is in foodservice and hospitality, business, technology and sales.
Monday, April 3, was Mike’s final shift at the OC, where owners Melanie Magaziner and Bob Nugent said a few words of appreciation and wished him well. Guests enjoyed a spread of party foods, and many rounds of shots were raised in his honor. Sweeney said he owes a lot to the Magaziners and Nugents for setting an example of success.
The property comprising the Terrace Tavern and Delaware Avenue Oyster House, which occupies most of a block in Beach Haven Terrace, went on the market last June. Last fall, Toby had lunch with an old friend, and by talking up the opportunity without an inkling of buying it herself, she inadvertently sold herself on it.
For the Sweeneys, with their combined total of decades of experience in the business, owning their own bar and restaurant together is a dream come true. They already know they make a great team. “If you can manage raising kids together,” a business is no sweat, Toby said. They feel they’re in prime position at this point in their lives for this venture they call Sweeney Enterprises. Mike said he sees the venture as an opportunity to continue the success of the businesses, to keep it in the family, and to better his own family’s future.
“We’ve grown up a lot,” Toby said. “Our maturity, wants and needs have changed.”
They plan to follow the vision and passion well established by her parents and to make it what they themselves would want as customers. The goal for the customer experience is consistency – to the extent that every visit, be it the first or thousandth, is held to the same standard.
The overall vision includes opening, a few years from now, a third bar in the building behind the Terrace Tavern (currently used for storage) and quite possibly calling it Sweeney’s Pub. “But first we gotta sell some beers,” Toby said. The Eisenbergs acquired the building behind the tavern about 18 years ago, from the previous owner, whose last name was Parker, who had used it as a garage to store his boats – a wild coincidence, given the Magaziners’ newly opened Parker’s Garage.
Chef Steve Haggert stays on for his third summer in the kitchen. Other familiar faces on the service staff and behind the bars return as well. The right staff is key, Mike said, along with good food and good service.
The Oyster House will enter Chowderfest this year, according to Toby, who is always thinking full steam ahead.
Toby “doesn’t know the term ‘pump the brakes,’” her husband lovingly chided.
Inside the Oyster House, guests will notice some new touches in the form of some very old things.
“I really wanted to make it feel like a tradition when you walk in,” Toby explained, “so we went to the (New Jersey) Maritime Museum (which was Melanie Magaziner’s idea) and found a lot of funky, authentic stuff.” A plaque to honor and thank the museum will hang on the wall. Museum founder and curator Deborah Whitcraft “was so gracious and over-the-top helpful,” Mike said. Among the treasures on loan are 200-year-old Jacobs ladders from shipwreck dives, old shucking knives and clam rakes, and a ship’s wheel anchored to the wall above the bar.
Integrating local history is critical, Toby said, as is harnessing the essence of LBI devotion and tourism. Tenets of their business strategy are to preserve the Island identity and to push local, community-based ideas, Mike said.
Between the two entities, themes blend vintage vibes, recent and long-ago history and the richness of tradition, while meeting today’s customers at the state-of-the-art level.
Toby’s mother painted the original seagull logo. She wants to celebrate the family history in the evolution of the design elements – hence the new chalk-art timeline installation by Cheryl Syminink. Mike’s father, a retired artist, designed the menus.
The menu at the tavern will move more toward plate-sharing and tapas-style dining while keeping signature items intact. The Oyster House has a new drink menu in honor of the Island’s six towns: The Cedars, gin and grapefruit; the Ship Bottom Bloody, made with cucumber vodka and a crab claw garnish; Surf City Sangria (white); The LBT, vodka, lemonade, blueberry basil simple syrup; the Queen City cocktail, vodka, elderberry and almond; and the Old Barney, an old-fashioned.
In the midst of designing the drink menu, Mike had said he was enjoying taking creative license with the recipes. “I find myself looking at Pinterest way too much,” he said, culling inspiration.
Steve Eisenberg said he is overwhelmed with excitement for the Sweeneys, calling it “a great change.” The legacy continues, he said. Customers can expect the same level of quality with some more-contemporary ideas, which is necessary.
“I have no ego when it comes to this stuff,” he said. “I’ve had a great ride. I look at the future, not the past.”
After 50 years in the restaurant business, now he’s ready to do more fishing, travel, take up piano lessons, improve his yoga practice and finish his Ph.D. in political science; he’s also developing a curriculum for high school students to learn job interview and resume writing skills.
Eisenberg said he’s happy to help the “kids” through the transition and has total faith in their knowledge and their hands-on, team approach. They have the get-up-and-go, as well as the morals, principles and communication skills to succeed, he said. “It couldn’t be a smoother situation.”
The way Toby put the whole thing together, the proposal, the SBA loan, “she really blindsided me,” Eisenberg said proudly. “If you could see how she organized and meandered her way through a labyrinth. Her people skills and confidence make her an excellent leader.”
Eisenberg praised the pair’s partnership. Now, he said, they’re “putting their ass on the line.”
Part of their journey will be to make their own mistakes, Dad said – but given their background, they won’t be irreparable mistakes. “My daughter knows what’s made it successful.” She washed dishes as a kid. The work ethic is solid.
“I’m still like ‘pinch me’ to make sure it’s real,” Mike said. “I can’t wrap my head around it until I’m actually behind the bar.” He added he’s eager to put their unique spin on it – to dive in and “do it for myself for a change.”
As with anything new, he’s a bit nervous about the responsibility of it all, hoping it will be successful, but he’s confident in the loyalty of his following, built among regulars over many years, and “a lot of good, strong support from the community.” He’s also confident in his business partner and wife. “It’s something we’re both passionate about.”
As a couple, he said, “we’re at an all-time high.”