At noon Sunday, Joe Romeo faced a challenge.
With the temperature hovering in the low 80s, a sun-basked sky, no humidity and a high tide -- ideal beach conditions -- customers poured into the Joey's by the Shore restaurant that he owns at Compo Beach. Minutes later, dozens of patrons filled his approximately 2,500-square-foot establishment.
But the line kept moving because Romeo kept moving. Acting as the link between his staff in the front of house and their colleagues in the kitchen, Romeo shuttled back and forth to bring out orders. The younger customers -- the ones who could barely see over the counter -- favored chicken nuggets, hot dogs, burgers and fries. Their parents and grandparents tended to opt for lower-calorie fare such as turkey wraps and garden salads.
But the midday rush did not unhinge Romeo and his crew. Unlike staff at other fast-food restaurants, they did not bark commands or gesticulate melodramatically at each other. Instead, they kept up a quiet, steady bustle and swiftly served up trays full of lunchtime fuel.
"It's all about communication between the front of the house and the back of the house," Romeo said. "Having been down here for so long, you kind of know what to expect. I know it's not going to be like that for the rest of the day. That experience helps you keep things in perspective."
Romeo is not just an experienced restaurateur at Compo Beach; he is a mainstay. After 24 years, Romeo has built Joey's into one of the most recognizable restaurants in Westport, if not Fairfield County. During that time, Joey's has grown from a straightforward fast-food joint into a more diversified operation.
At the same time, Romeo keeps a close watch over his other two businesses on the Westport waterfront -- a food trailer at the Longshore Club Park golf course and a concession at the Longshore Pavilion.
Service will continue at least through the 2017 season, after the Board of Selectmen unanimously approved last week new five-year leases for Romeo's three establishments. That endorsement reflects town officials' continuing confidence in Romeo's management.
"Joe Romeo has been tremendous partner to the town, and we're looking forward to continuing that partnership," said Stuart McCarthy, Westport's parks and recreation director. "His customer service is second to none and that reflects very well on the town."
A BEACH LIFE
Romeo comes from a waterfront dining dynasty. Raised in Greenwich, he spent his summers as a youth working at the beach concessions run by his father, Joe, and mother, Chickie, at Cummings Beach and Cove Island in Stamford, and at his uncle Don's establishment at Tod's Point in Greenwich.
By 25, Romeo was ready to run his own business. After signing on as the town's first tenant in its brick building at Compo Beach, he opened Joey's by the Shore in 1988.
"I saw that there was a lot of potential here, especially if the weather was good," he said.
Romeo's establishment would soon build a loyal following, hearkening back to the popularity of the Chubby Lane's concession, which operated at the beach from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s.
"He took everything to a new level, and it's been a great thing for Westport," said Skip Lane, a nephew of Chubby Lane and a Compo Beach neighborhood resident. "He's customer-oriented and Westport-oriented. He's just an all-around good operator."
Buoyed by the success of Joey's, Romeo expanded in 1997 by opening his concessions at the old Longshore golf course halfway house and the Longshore Pavilion.
NEW ON THE MENU
Since its opening, Joey's has evolved from a traditional fast-food restaurant into a more sophisticated establishment that offers eclectic and healthier fare. During the last five years, Romeo has introduced new options such as lobster rolls, turkey wraps and gazpacho soup.
"I think our customer base has evolved, and their expectations have grown," Romeo said. "We've grown with them."
Last year, he teamed up with Forte Gelato to introduce the Westport-based company's gelato at Joey's.
"Joey's is a hub of family activity in Westport," said Adrian Pace, founder and chief executive officer of Forte Gelato. "This was a great place to get our footing in Westport."
Romeo has further diversified Joey's offerings by expanding into merchandise.
"If somebody has a company in Westport or this area, we try to get their products in here," Romeo said. "We really do like to have local businesses sell their stuff there."
Romeo has also forged close ties with Compo Beach neighborhood residents such as Totney Benson, the co-founder and co-owner of the Westport-based Onion Hill Designs. Joey's sells Onion Hill T-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, notecards and Christmas cards, a business relationship that dates to the late 1990s.
"Joey's is a great outlet for me to distribute my products," Benson said. "He gets a lot of traffic down here. But it's less of a working relationship and more of a friendship."
MDSolarSciences, a Norwalk-based sun protection, skin care and skin cancer prevention company, joined the roster of products sold at Joey's this year. Scott Friedman, MDSolarSciences' vice president of sales, who proposed to Romeo that he carry MDSolarSciences sunscreen, was already familiar with the beachfront establishment. He and his family have been coming to Joey's since they moved to Westport in 2004.
"Since so many people take advantage of the beach and Joey's, it's a nice venue for our customers to get our products," Friedman said. "It's going very well. There's a lot of demand. We're both looking for happy customers, and if people use our products they can enjoy the atmosphere at the beach even longer."
With his businesses signed up at Compo Beach and Longshore through 2017, Romeo is planning for the next five years. Within the next few weeks, he is scheduled to relocate his golf course concession to Longshore's new halfway house, a replacement for its predecessor, which burned down in 2003. Romeo's establishment in the new building will operate like a "mini Joey's," he said.
At Joey's, meanwhile, he is a preparing for a new round of capital improvements, which will include the installation of new skylights and a window that for the first time will give patrons a wide view of the water from the restaurant's interior.
Assuming that his restaurant continues to thrive, Romeo hopes to maintain his waterfront vantage point beyond 2017.
"I love the water, I love the beach, I love the people down here," he added while gazing at the Sound from Joey's on a recent Friday. "Where else would I go?"
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