Restrictions are lifting and the temperatures are starting to warm; let the pilgrimages to the Fire Island Pines begin! With rentals are stacked up and shares at a record low, the Pines is poised for a stunning summer, where you can truly make your Fire Island experience, what you want it to be. While the legendary Sip-N-Twirl, the always perfect Pines Pizza and the eclectic retail store CAMP are all open, what the rest of the summer holds is somewhat unforeseen. One thing is for certain; the drag queens will be on hand! I caught up with Kenneth Sullivan, Resort Director of the Pines to chat about the challenges faced both this year and last, what he thinks Summer of 2021 might look like, and why everyone’s Fire Island experience can be as magical as the island itself.
Michael Cook: Sitting down for Table Tea on Fire Island and the unexpected summer last year was like nothing we ever saw. How are you feeling for the Summer of 2021?
Kenny Sullivan: Heading into 2021, I am a lot more optimistic than I was this time last year. This time last year, we were nowhere near open, had no idea what was opening and if we were even opening. I think the ambiguity now is what more we can open with vaccines going up, infections going down. There is still a lot up in there air, but it is still early; there is a lot that can happen between now and the Fourth of July.
MC: It is so surreal that for the first time, so many of us are wishing for this particular timeframe between now and Memorial Day to actually go a bit slower to give things a time to open up…
KS: What is interesting about shares on the island this year is that inventory is very low, many homeowners are seeing their homes and not renting them out. They are acclimating to working from home on Fire Island. Second, with the shortage of those homes, people who did not get the chance to come out last year are looking to come out and those who were here want that exact experience. The freedom to walk on the beach, see a Table Tea, or catch a drag show. All of the things that in New York City they could not do, but because we are on Long Island, they could.
MC: Table Tea is a stroke of genius to be able to serve the community during the pandemic, even with the challenges that probably came with it. How did you embrace the change, but deal with the challenges?
KS: You know it was a couple of things. First, we totally understood and sympathized that wanting to get up, dance and be social at Low Tea is the hallmark of Low Tea; that is what you go for. The ability to change course and make it a Table Tea was something that was vital in keeping the business open and giving the customer something to do. Yes it was challenging; when you mix people who are drinking and being social, coupled with demanding that they have their mask on when they stand, it gets a little challenging. We had a really great turnout, we had really great customers and I think what made it so successful is that we were offering something that really was not available anywhere else. I don’t remember what New York City was doing at the time, but you had a drag queen performing, a drag queen checking your temperature, there is a DJ playing, and you are being served drinks; it was the best that we could do and customers were grateful for just that.
Similarly, we were grateful to be able to do it with the regulations changing every week. It was a hassle not just for us, but for the entertainers and the customers. On Fire Island, people are creatures of habit. You go to Tea at seven o clock, you go to the Sip-N-Twirl at 8 o’clock, you go home and have dinner, then you come out to the nightclub. With COVID, everything was thrown up into the air and we were not sure what was going to be successful or what people were going to come to, or if they were going to come. We are very grateful to everyone that came out and everyone that followed the rules. We had no COVID issues last year with our staff and the turnout was just great, we were really grateful for that.
MC: For someone that would head out to Fire Island right now, what is there to offer customers or for people to do?
KS: Well right now, today the Sip-N-Twirl is open. We are still in the early stage of the season, so it is still Table Tea at the Sip-N-Twirl. We just opened Pines Bistro, our Mediterranean Restaurant, which is a community staple, and we are super exited about that. We are also opening up the pizza place, just opened last weekend. We also have CAMP, our hardware and floral shop. We are selling a lot of orchids, and people who are just opening their houses for the season are buying their mulch, hardware, planting stuff and we are really pushing that store because people are looking to do things around the house like their landscaping and gardening. And this is the store right in the middle of town for them.
MC: So many people during quarantine truly discovered their inner horticulturalist or woodworker. What do you think it was about quarantined that inspired that?
KS: I think that going from a small apartment without any landscaping in the city to a bigger home that requires landscaping, like me, people pick up television shows. I remember I was watching The Great British Baking Show and all of a sudden I thought I was a master break maker (laughs)! I think that rather than having a normal landscape designer come in, people have time on their hands, are working from home, they decide to pick it up. There is a store right in the middle of town that will help us and deliver the products, we can order anything we want that might not be in the store and have it delivered, it does not get easier to start something than that.
MC: What is the Pines Pavilion’s plan this year; that is summer for so many people and that is the question on so many people’s minds.
KS: I would define that as the million dollar question. We are just not sure yet. The Pavilion is the most legendary building in The Pines, there is fantastic talent that has come and played the Pavilion, comedians, actors, DJ’s and singers. There is nothing that we want more than to completely activate that building right away, we are just at the mercy of the laws instituted by the State. Whether they are going to allow indoor dancing this summer, but I am very optimistic. Optimism won’t increase the vaccinations and the opening, but I will say that the moment we are given the green light, we will activate that building right away.
MC: Do you think that the cleaning protocols that you implemented last summer worked so well that they could almost be a template for other businesses and that you might be utilizing them going forward?
KS: When COVID happened, the owner of the company, PJ McAteer, was very articulate to all of us to say how cleaning practices had to go on. This was before we knew the transmission rate of contact vs. airborne illness and that is something that we are going forward with. A lot of cleaning staff is instituting the COVID cleaning policy as the actual cleaning policy, and it works. It is better, we all feel better about it, and safer. A lot of the nature of what we are as a food and beverage establishment, the behind the scenes will absolutely stay in place. Front of house, when it comes to dancing, socializing, and things like that I think that there is an urge to get back to what “normalcy” was.
Being social, bringing your whole house to Low Tea, flirting with the bartender, meeting someone new, going to house parties, things like that. I feel as though some things are adaptable, and others, whether they are better for the business or not, people are just yearning for a case of what it used to be like. I think it is going to be bringing that gap of what we can adopt going forward that makes sense, to what we have in place currently that we have to abide by.
MC: Is there anything that you have been able to start planning already that will contribute to people having a feeling of “normalcy”?
KS: The only hesitation that we are at right now is that we are still at the guidelines that we ended with right now, although things are incrementally opening up, with things like the curfew. That is a step in the right direction. I think being at the mercy of the rules from the Governor’s office, that is what is guiding us. It is so hard in April to say what we are going to do in July, considering everything that has been able to happen in January from April. I think we can anticipate more, but confirming anything now would be anything more than a hopeful prediction. Things like Memorial Day and Fourth of July, we pulled it off last year and we will pull it off this year, but what it looks like today, I don’t know.
MC: What do you miss the most about real life on Fire Island for yourself?
KS: I think that working here can be a double edged sword at times . The same things you are missing like big crowds, are the things that you miss personally. You miss people having fun and socializing. Fire Island was never meant to be this ‘sit down and have a cocktail’ kind of place. The Pines was built on for me, socializing, interactions, and that and that has been limited by the COVID restrictions. I miss that, but I am optimistic that we are getting to a better place. Not fast enough, but we are getting there. I think that is some of the disappointment also, they want the drinking and the partying that Fire Island offers, but it is not the Fire Island that they are used to, and I understand that. I think last year people were more adverse to cooking dinner at home and socializing at home. This year I think it will be a slow chip away at that mindset and people will be more inclined to go out to the restaurant for dinner for example, especially those that are more comfortable being vaccinated.
MC: Emerging out of the pandemic, what do you think is a lesson that you have learned that you will take the into new “normal”?
Kenny: It is complicated because lessons, while you are adapting to new rules, are sort of a complicated reality. You are just changing things just to survive. The lessons you learn are that if someone on the island wants to go out and abide by the rules and have a great time, they are going to. For some people, that is not what Fire Island is, and that is okay too. What I have learned is that Fire Island Pines is what you make of it. If you want to come out and sit at a gay bar and have a great drag show, that is your version. If you want to come and walk on the beach and walk your dog or take a jog on the boardwalk, that is your version. If you want to have low key lights at home or have a house party and cook dinner, have cocktails and play card games, that is your Fire Island. It’s not just the partying and the debauchery and socializing; that is a major part of it, but not the only part of it. I think that is what a lot of people have learned, and it is really multi-fold. I think a lot of homeowners are keeping their houses, and I think this is whey rentals have skyrocketed before the season has even started. It is helping us learn our customer base better and make the experience a little bit more customized.
For more information, check out Fire Island Pines website