Joey's is a 'Shore' thing for summers at Compo Beach

If Compo Beach is the epicenter of summer recreational activities in Westport, then Joey's by the Shore has a front-row seat.

Set along the beach's boardwalk for nearly a quarter-century, its customers are a faithful bunch. Many return as adults after having their first seaside sampling of Joey's cuisine as youngsters. But over the years, Joey's has also grown and matured.

Once just a concession stand, owner Joe Romeo says that no longer is an apt description for his enterprise.

"I consider it more of a restaurant at the beach," he said. The menu, which once consisted of a handful of items, such as hot dogs and hamburgers, now includes, among other fare, a lobster roll, fried scallops and a portabella-and-mozzarella wrap.

A customer suggested the portabella-and-mozzarella wrap a few years back.

"We did that and it went over well," said Romeo. Also, the couple who suggested it, he noted, "has a reason to come back" to Compo, besides fun in the sun.

Cashier Kelly Petropulos, 26, said people love the menu choices at Joey's, as well as the customer service.

"We're willing to make whatever they want," she said.

When weather is accommodating, Joey's can open for the season as early as late March/early April and remain open into November.

Romeo relies on nice weather to pay the bills. Mother Nature can sometimes be cruel, but over the years "it's evened out."

"We've had some awful years where it rained every weekend, and we've had some years where almost every weekend was nice," he said. "The key is to be patient because there have been some very frustrating summers."

Sunny days with steady business are needed to help Romeo cover the expense of his lease with the town, which costs $77,694 a year. Romeo's current lease expires at the end of 2012, but he will have an option to renew for five years, according to town Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy.

Last weekend was an example of how weather -- and forecasts -- can affect a business so reliant on warm, clear skies. All-day thunderstorms had been forecast for Sunday, and so people made other plans, according to Romeo. While it rained in the morning, the sun came out by 11 a.m. and skies stayed bright.

"People came down, but it was nothing like a normal Sunday," Romeo said.

Through it all, Romeo, who once found and returned a wedding ring to a man who had lost it 17 years earlier, finds a way to stay afloat. Weekdays at the beach aren't nearly as busy as weekends, yet the hours of his operation remain the same -- 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Joey's always does best during the month of June, he said, though if there were one week in the summer Romeo would hate to lose to bad weather, "it would be the week of the Fourth of July."

In addition to food, Joey's also sells milk shakes, root beer floats, fruit smoothies, ice cream, funnel cake, mozzarella sticks, children's beach toys, towels and hats, "Westport" and "Compo Girl" T-shirts, and a range of candies. From candy buttons to Air Heads, sunflower seeds to Nerds, Joey's has it all. There's also typically harder to find candy, such as Turkish Taffy, available in banana and chocolate.

Of all the candy and food one can pick from, 12-year-old Kait Smithson, a seventh-grader at Coleytown Middle School, said she loves the Air Heads and chicken nuggets the most.

For 13-year-old Damia Frias, Joey's "famous" fries are tops in her book. She is not alone. The fries are a top seller, according to Romeo.

Eighteen-year-old Skye Davis, who often takes children for whom she babysits to Compo, usually can't visit the beach without ordering a batch of fries. "They're really crunchy on the outside. They're just delicious," she said.

Asked why the fries are such a hit, Romeo said, "I think it's the coating on them. Our oil. They're just light enough and crisp."

A little hesitant to divulge his frying secrets, Romeo disclosed that the potatoes are fried in a blend of corn and canola oil.

Other fried fare like fish-and-chips is also popular with the beach crowd, but when it comes down to it, "our bread and butter, no pun intended," said Romeo, "is the hot dogs and hamburgers."

Davis, who had a burger Monday afternoon, agreed it's the real deal.

Lines can get long at Joey's by the Shore, but despite the wait, everyone is pretty patient, according to Petropulos, "because they know what they're getting is quality."