Hook’d: The Back Story

The controversy over Hook’d’s management of the Compo Beach and Longshore concession stands, and the golf course halfway house, is not half-baked.

I’m old enough to remember when the contract came up for approval, way back in the spring of 2020.

A few months earlier, Joey Romeo and the town had ben unable to agree on terms of the lease for the food service he’d run at Compo for over 30 years, plus the 2 Longshore operations. (Click here for the first “06880” story; click here for Joey’s statement to his customers.)

Joey Romeo, in a typical pose.

On March 31, 2020, I posted a story about the upcoming approval of a new concessionaire: Upsilon Entertainment Group of Larchmont, New York (click here to read).

The piece drew 33 comments. Readers wondered about the bid process, and the decision not to choose a local vendor. Both King’s Kitchen and Norwalk’s Sunset Grille — connected to Westport via ownership of Jr’s Deli — were interested, but not considered.

The money quote came from Jay Walshon. He wrote:

A modicum of internet “research” finds that Upsilon Entertainment Group, registered in 2017, is “Permanently Closed”. Principal is Itai Shoffman. Address is 4 Durham Rd, Larchmont, NY.

Upsilon Ventures, Principal is also Itai Shoffman, registered address 4 Durham Rd, Larchmont, NY, is also “Permanently Closed”.

Real estate usage and event management. No evidence of retail restaurant experience, restaurant history, food reviews, menu, pricing, financials, etc.

4 Durham Rd, Larchmont appears to be a family colonial home rather than being a corporate building or established business entity.

The word on the street is that this company was chosen over local ones because this Larchmont company offered the Town more money for the concession contract – perhaps even $25,000 more. Tried and true local restauranteurs with proven track records may have been turned down on this basis….

This concession is no small thing. Compo is arguably Westport’s most precious crown jewel, beloved and utilized by virtually every Westport resident, parent and their children. If we are to be hostage to this singular provider, WE should make that decision.

For so long we have incessantly heard business leaders admonish us to support local, buy local, choose local. Here we have a major opportunity to do just that and instead we look to Larchmont NY??? Really?

The shuttered beach concession. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

Three weeks later, Upsilon passed muster by the Planning & Zoning Commission (acting in its land use capacity) as the concessionaire. (Click here for the full story.) I wrote:

(Parks & Recreation Department director Jen) Fava said that 3 groups were interviewed by a committee of representatives from the RTM, Parks & Rec Department, Parks & Rec Commission, and Department of Public Works.

They selected Upsilon for a variety of reasons. One was (that it offered the) highest fees (which top out at $120,000 a year or 12% of gross revenues, whichever is higher, in the final year of the 5-year contract). An opt-in clause covers 2 additional 5-year terms.

Fava said the committee was enthusiastic about Upsilon’s previous experience, which included operations at New York’s Bryant Park, Prospect Park and Hudson River Park.

The menu would include “typical beach food,” plus “healthier options like smoothies and salads.” They would offer special food nights, like Italian cuisine, and events like cheese tastings.

The company will use biodegradable packaging, and will compost materials. They committed to hire local staffs, and sell Connecticut-based products.

“They’re very professional,” the Parks & Rec director said. “They want to be partners with us, and involved in the community.”

The Board of Finance and Board of Selectmen later okayed the contract.

Westporters waited eagerly for the concession stand’s return.

There were 23 comments on that April 24, 2020 story. Added to questions about the bid process and lack of a local vendor were concerns about the menu and promises made.

Peter Blau revisited the worries about the operators themselves:

It’s worth looking at the company’s website, as well. They are not a restaurant or food service company, but a “Project development, marketing, hospitality, and production firm specializing in public-private partnerships and the use of public spaces and real estate for iconic attractions, sponsor activations, events, consumer engagement, temporary retail, and other revenue generating opportunities.”

In other words, they specialize in making deals with deep pocket entities, no doubt with a very sophisticated marketing pitch, but when it comes to making the burgers, they hire that out to someone else.

How it’s possible to get a better deal by hiring an event marketing company as the middleman between the town and the actual food service escapes me.

2020 was a tough year for any business — especially a new one. COVID had just hit, when the contract was signed. With fears about indoor dining high, the concession stand did not open; instead, a food truck late in the summer served a limited crowd of beach-goers.

Hook’d finally opened last May.

The rest is history.

Employees posed in May 2021, ready to serve. (Photos/Dan Woog)

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32 responses to “Hook’d: The Back Story

  1. If hooked does not do their job, what provisions are there in the agreement which allows the town to tell them to get hooked somewhere else? And let’s go back to the local vendors and local suppliers who know the town and care about the residence. And everyone who approved this agreement without going further into the fact that they were not a food company should resign from their offices.

  2. The overall management of Compo Beach by Jen Fava and the Rec Department seems to be largely absentee. Aside from the concessions issue, there is no rules enforcement – loud radios, big tents and no enforcement of the glass bottle, let alone alcohol restrictions. We had the “pleasure” of sharing the beach yesterday afternoon (July 4th) with a group of teens who set up a beer pong table and had a great time drinking, yelling and blasting tunes about 25 yards from lifeguard stand #4. I was fine with everything but the “music.” And it’s not just the day trippers, this all took place on the resident side of the beach.

  3. Alan Schanzer

    Can we bite them out? A townwide strike and a rebellion or is that too aggressive? I live at Compo and won’t eat there. My kids hate it. It’s terrible.

  4. Committees are notoriously bad buyers and dealmakers. Look at all the corporate boards that have hired, and covered-up for, crooked CEOs. The same goes for local government boards when it comes to choosing vendors, or hiring executives.

    The solution, as I see it, is to have a town-wide procurement (or staffing) professional handle the selection and vetting process, and just give the committee a yay or nay.

    • If you have an issue with Westport’s Park & Recs committee, you’d be well served to stay on point. As a longtime CEO and board member at several companies, I can assure you the vast majority of these bodies are very upstanding, ethical groups. Perhaps you’ve had a personal experience to the contrary, but I wouldn’t make blanket statements that disparage a great many honorable people without a fact set – one you clearly do not have.

  5. Pull the contract and lets start over. Regarding the beach..we counted 25 cars with NY plates dropping off lots of people at Compo yesterday between 11 and 3. I thought town police were monitoring the drop off scene?

    • Is that all? Yesterday I was at Burying Hill when people were walking over from Sherwood Island Park and camping, BBQing, and picnicking at Burying Hill. No security guard at the entrance booth at 6PM. Hmmm … This town for all its self-congratulatory accolades is getting out of control. Not to mention parking and traffic which is apocalyptic.

    • The drop-off point is exactly that: a drop-off point. Anyone is allowed on the beach, and can be dropped off there.

  6. Barbara Kellrman

    You’re right, Dan. Compo Beach is a crown jewel if not the crown jewel of Westport. If the outrageous problems related to procuring food and drink at the beach trigger a larger and more urgent conversation about protecting the beach in every aspect it will have been worth it. You are to be applauded for sticking with this story. Every one of us who cares about the town cares about the beach. So, I would respectfully request that you stay on it!

  7. Mrs. Tooker, what’s going on?

  8. Michael Calise

    Look around Compo and see how much it has changed. More signs. more development. less opportunity to enjoy as a natural beach. Its being turned into a city park. The concession has always been run by local’s. The do it our way or disappear commission has been in control for too long. Most recently our entrance with our flagpole and flag in a centerpiece island has been trashed with a large electronic sign. Incredibly disrespectful!!.All done with our tax money.

  9. John McCarthy

    Would love to hear from the town here, in the comments, why the RFP for the beach & Longshore concessions is not included in this page which you get to from the town’s website link under Financial Transparency: https://www.westportct.gov/government/departments-a-z/finance-department/town-bid-results

    By selectively putting up bid & rfp results it brings into question why certain results are not on the town web site. Makes a mockery of Financial Transparency. Can someone from town hall explain?

  10. I second a thumbs down on the electronic sign. Eyesore.

  11. I have been researching the history of National Park concessions, and I believe there is a lesson to be learned in that saga. In 1916, When the National Park Service took charge of Yosemite and the embryonic group of Parks, the Curry family had been building its premiere location, Camp Curry in the heart of the Yosemite Valley for going on 20 years. The Curry Camping Company, and its successor the Yosemite Park And Curry Company, was the model of National Park concessioner business until it was sold by the Curry/Tressider families to an international real estate investment company in the 1970’s.

    That sale was the beginning of a long, steady slide from one diversified company to another, each worse than the one before, delivering poorer and poorer service and stewardship, right down to the present day. By far the worst of these piteas have been the last 2: Delaware North, which among other travesties held the the long standing names of Park landmarks – Curry VIllage, Awhanee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge etc – hostage to its 100 million dolar trademark claims.

    Just when we thought nothing could be worse, the Park service awarded the present contract to the apocolyptic Aramark, which has outdone Delare North in every department of travesty and chicanery imaginable. IN the first week of its operation, its chief officer in the Park posted video of himself driving golf balls into Ahwahnee Meadow, with Half Dome in athe background, behavior which would get you or me fined up to 10,000 and probably jail time.

    The difference between Curry Company of 1916 and the Aramark’s of today is having or not having a local stake in the quality of stewardship. Local. Stake. Something they care about. something that depends on knowing who and what they are taking care of. I hope you don’t have to be old enough to remember Chubby Lane to understand this, but if you aren’t and don’t know who he – and his Family – were and are to Town, then shame on you an check it out.

    And if you don’t know who Aramark is, check that out, too. As one very unhappy server at Yosemite Village’s top eatery remarked to me – unsolicited – “they run prisons!”

    It is neither xenophobic nor parochial to iinsist on a conceesioner have a local stake in the town’s premiere public facility: it is a vital business management value.

  12. Michael Isaacs

    All the whining.,,

    Bring your own food and drinks to the beach. Isn’t that more relaxing anyway? Your kid can’t wait a few hours to have an ice cream bar? I don’t go to the beach but I do play golf. 99% of golfers don’t even think about stopping at the halfway house. Nobody wants to eat after 9 holes; you want to continue playing. So let the two halfway house and the dopey named Hook’d go belly up.

  13. Ellen Dale Naftalin

    My mother (who took me and my friends to the beach every summer day in her convertable’55 Chevy Belair) would say this deal the town made falls into that age-old catagory of penny wise and pound foolish. Sounds to me like the $25,000 extra and the $120,000 a year or 12% of the gross revenues with a 5 year contract and an opt-in for another 5 years, is not very much. These people got a real deal. Let’s hope they get their act together. When it was Chubby’s and I was a kid it was part of the beach ethos.. Not for lobster rolls but for a popsicle. Just sayin’.

  14. While my 2020 discovery regarding Upsilon required a modicum of research, it takes none to understand the foundation of Michael Calise’s above accurate observation: More development, more concrete, more signage and million dollar toilets. When direction is provided by someone whose background snd comfort zone is Westchester and Long Island NY, piece by piece you transform a charming Southern New England Town with a special unique character into Westchester and Long Island NY. Doesn’t take rocket science to figure THAT one out.

  15. Quite honestly, something really smells here. Makes me wish that I was still doing investigations for the WPD. I would have loved digging into this one. As they say “follow the money”..

  16. Is there a written explanation from the Parks & Rec as to why this vendor was selected over the others? If not, that’s a great process to implement – written decisions with accompanying supporting facts & docs for public record. Does the current agreement allow the town to terminate without penalty? There should always be some service-level metrics that are easily quantified and tracked for such an instance as we have now. I’m sure Parks & Recs did their best but the committee is, unfortunately, appointees so the make-up and caliber of its members is a bit of mystery other than they are connected to those elected to Westport office who ultimately appoint their “confidants”.

    • Agree with the three posts above. Something does smell, and it goes beyond money. Clearly looks like local food vendors were given the 23-skidoo in 2020, despite their proven performance, in favor of a dubious out-of-town ‘operator’. Now the same town body has commissioned a Canadian company to issue and further analyze a bogus survey, for the purpose of steering the overall future development of Longshore park. Yet another exercise in futility by Parks & Rec. Why’d they have to reach across the border for this ?

  17. Who is it that thinks that the beach needs more signs? Every blasted week more signs appear. Please, on your drive in next time, just count all the signs that obscure the views of why you go to the beach in the first place.

    It’s been obvious for years, that the leadership of the Rec department must be changed. No other shoreline community anywhere, abuses it’s visual beauty the way the Westport Recreation Department does.

  18. Josie Shields

    Thanks as always, Dan, for your “back stories.”

  19. Janine Scotti

    So I am late to the party but went yesterday on a slow cloudy day.
    Nice kids working. But I went back inside after looking for a table to share with them my best restaurant tip, when you aren’t busy you should be cleaning. The flooring of the “restaurant” was dirty, not with sand but with food and paper debris. The tables and concrete outside are disgusting. There are no materials outside for a guest to cleanup after themselves that I noticed. Whose job is it to clean (power wash) regularly? Town or restaurant?
    And whose job is it to do it all day long? I was embarrassed as a resident and disgusted as a mom. ( and former restauranteur and cleaning business owner). Next letter, rec office and restaurant management!

  20. Robert Harrington

    We need change here and a better solution.

    Those that approved this solution should stand forward and be accountable. All we hear is silence.

    There is SO much potential here.

    Compo is a great asset and we saw how amazing this place is on the PAL 4th July fireworks night.

    However this concession is not what it can and should be.

    Taxpayers also spent a million dollars on toilets at Compo and yet they close before sunset daily and we’re not even open for the fireworks ! Who can defend that?

    Westport is great but we need to to do a better job here.

    Thanks Dan for staying on the case.

    • Parks & Rec is the worst performing department in Town government and probably the only under-performing one. Zero Confidence.

  21. Dermot Meuchner

    Oh oh boy, now the CEO’s are pissed. This is another first world dust up over a concession that was awarded because of a few dollars. Why not ask the owner of this grifting business and get his response? Never happen.

  22. Carl A. Swanson '66

    When they built the new “halfway house” at Longshore at the 10th tee, spending near $300K on a new structure, I expected a super duper new menu. Nope. Same ole hot dogs as the “trailer” which stood for decades after the original burned down. Never understood that. I believe it was privately funded in a kind gesture but they stiffed the contractors who wanted free greens fees. WTF is going on? I might add that they could make a nice profit if they sold coffee/muffins near the first tee.

  23. If only there were a town government that could swing into action.

  24. Ciara Webster

    Out of control and outrageous !!!!!!!!
    Told you so to the town said 10000 times !!!!! We begged !!! We investigated ! We knew something was seriously amiss !
    And sure enough we also knew this day would come !
    Kudos to Sal Liccione ! THE ONLY RTM MEMBER. Who bothered to tirelessly fix this before it happened…
    It’s beyond aggravating to say I told you so ! But it’s 100000% true !!!!!
    We knew it !

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