All summer long, people passed by Speonk station to ask when they would open Little Gull, lunch at the place that was once a local institution, the Trackside Cafe.
The cafe, on the east side of North Phillips Avenue, across from Long Island Rail Road station on the west side of the road, has been a popular spot in the community for decades, and Chef Will Pendergast looks forward to continuing his work. tradition of breakfast and lunch served in what was once the station waiting room.
Renovated and refurbished, the cafe is welcoming, with iron-bottomed tables topped with faux marble in front of wooden benches and a long, handmade wooden counter for those who stop for a quick bite. An array of plants adds a clean green to both the quaint porch and the interior of the building.
Mr. Pendergast and his wife, Johanna, carried out most of the renovations to the building. Even the kids, Phineas, 12, Van, 9, and Doone, 4, took action: Van designed the Little Gull logo and the restaurant’s Instagram features a photo of Doone’s painting.
âIt was fun – all these kids painted, we had friends from out of town, the family came to help us. We built all the planters ourselves, âsaid Pendergast.
Ms Pendergast herself hung the wallpaper in the washroom, with its unusually high ceilings, with the help of friends who handed her coins to her as she stood on “a very large ladder.”
âIt was very scary,â she admitted.
The whole undertaking has been both frightening and exhilarating for the couple. Now a resident of Remsenburg, Mr Pendergast said he has had an eye on the site since he first saw it.
He grew up in Massachusetts and Ms. Pendergast grew up in Southampton. The couple met in New York City and moved east about seven years ago. When they first arrived, they were driving and looking around, and the coffee caught their attention.
âWe saw this place and it was always open,â Mr. Pendergast said, âand I said,â Oh my God, this is just a dream. It’s really special. And I think everyone feels that. Everyone who is driving is so excited that it opens again. In fact, I had an eye on it for a long time.
âIt was pretty amazing when this happened,â recalled Ms. Pendergast. Friends saw the request for proposals and sent a text message. âWe were so excited. That it was even possible, âshe said.
The building is owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, so potential tenants must participate in a competitive process to be eligible to lease the building.
âI made a proposal,â Pendergast said, and he was called to New York for talks. âIt was a very long processâ¦ most restaurants don’t start out that way. “
A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York, he knows what he is talking about. Mr. Pendergast has worked in numerous establishments, first in Manhattan and Brooklyn, then in the East End. He worked in the kitchen at the Dock in Montauk, but the commute was exhausting. He worked at Catena’s in Southampton and most recently was a private chef. The last path provided him with the flexibility he needed to get Little Gull off the ground.
Although he has run kitchens before, the chef is new to challenges like payroll or sourcing equipment. He was able to find “liquidation brokers,” who tracked down excellent equipment in businesses that closed.
“Our broker told us the story of each restaurant [the equipment] was coming. He does it to be interesting, but it was still a little heartbreaking for me, âPendergast said. “Someone else’s grief was my …”
âNo luck,â Ms. Pendergast said.
Bringing the historic building into compliance presented another set of challenges, Pendergast explained. Health service and disability accessibility compliance “have become a real challenge, this place was obviously not built to accommodate a restaurant,” he said.
Because the building is so old, there has also been a long process with the historical society, “which is good,” Pendergast said, stressing that he did not want to change the character of the structure.
The replacement of a ruined fireplace was the cause of a prolonged examination, noted Ms Pendergast, adding: “There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen.”
Speaking of the kitchen, Mr Pendergast explained that according to MTA rules, the cafe must open for breakfast every weekday at 6 a.m. and on weekends at 9 a.m. While he would like to offer dinner service at some point, the size of the building limits what the family can do.
âFor starters, Little Gull’s menu will follow a style of lunch offerings, but a bit steep on the fare,â Ms. Pendergast said. It’s silly not to take advantage of the bounty of local produce, so seasonal produce will be showcased, she said.
âMy favorite food is any type of sandwich, and I think any type of sandwich is measured on its bread, and we’re going to make our own breadâ¦ I think that will set us apart a bit,â Mr. Pendergast said. .
With a quaint outdoor space on the porch and a cozy interior, the cafe can seat up to two dozen diners.
The Trackside Cafe was originally opened in the station by Dell Donovan in 1958, then was taken over by restaurateur and real estate agent Robert Nidzyn in 2003 after being closed for two years. The cafe closed in 2017 after Mr. Nidzyn’s death.
According to the City of Southampton Historical Resources Report, the depot – a wooden building heated by a suction cup stove – was completed in 1901. An earlier structure had been struck by lightning and burned down that summer.
At first, the couple hoped to open Little Gull this summer, but, said Pendergast, “we are so late”. The duo focused on the long game and decided to take their time.
âWe want to do it right,â Ms. Pendergast said.
Mr. Pendergast acknowledged that there may be an expectation from the community in the hope of continuity. âIt might not be exactly the same,â he said, referring to the Trackside Cafe. âI’ll do it my way. But it’s always going to be a lunch, and it’s always going to be run by a local family.