Revamped Damark’s Is Open

Grandson of market owners adds new twist
Bruce Damark and Michiko Damark in front of the wood-fired oven in their new and improved 11,000-square-foot Damark’s Deli on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton. Durell Godfrey

In 1949, Mary and Joe Damark opened a small market in the front of their house on Three Mile Harbor Road. “You would sit at their kitchen table, and you could see the customers in the store,” recalled Bruce Damark, the couple’s grandson and the owner, with his wife, Michiko, of the now super-sized Damark’s Deli, which had a grand opening on Friday.

Mr. Damark took time this week to reminisce  in an office on the lower level of the more than 11,000-square-foot market, which contains a pizza oven, a lobster tank, two kitchens, an expansive display case for prepared foods, a dining area, wire shelving filled with snacks, condiments, and sundries, and a farm stand’s worth of fresh produce.

During the summer while growing up, Mr. Damark used to work in the deli, which was later run by his parents. Even then, he said he had ambitious plans for the family business. “I remember cooking egg sandwiches in the kitchen after college, and I would talk to my brother about expanding.”  

The dream persisted after he and Michiko bought the market in 2001, and a plan to transform the formerly cramped space into a megastore started to come together in 2009. The East Hampton Town Planning Board approved a site plan that included a second-floor apartment, in 2012.

“When we got a price for how much it would cost to build, we said that’s going to be too expensive, so let’s cut the apartment off, raise the ceiling. Let’s push it out a little more, and do this and do that,” Mr. Damark said, explaining the current configuration. The main floor is a 5,400-square-foot, loft-like space with a triple-high ceiling that lends an air of grandeur. 

As for the exterior, which some social media savants have compared to the White House and Buckingham Palace, Mr. Damark said he was inspired by both Sag Harbor’s architecture and wanting the building to serve notice that you are entering Springs. “Let’s make something that makes a mark,” he said. 

Construction began in October 2017 when his grandparents’ house was torn down to make room for the new store. “The house was so old, you couldn’t add on to it,” said Mr. Damark, who got emotional while discussing the demolition. 

On the day he reopened the deli, he wrote a Facebook post saying, “Don’t think our family won’t miss grandma and grandpa’s house. It wasn’t easy taking a bulldozer to the place we would [go] after school, eat Yodels and milk, and watch the Three Stooges on WPIX, and work summers as kids. The fact of the matter was that the building was shot.”

With demolition complete, the goal was to open the market in nine months.  However, Mr. Damark said a series of snafus, involving subcontractors, the Suffolk County Water Authority, and the PSEG utility, kept delaying progress. “First it was supposed to open on, like, Memorial Day, then Fourth of July, and it just went on and on and on,” he said. 

He and Michiko were “obsessive and hands-on” about getting all the details right, he said. “We went back and forth figuring out the footage between the pastry case and the coffee counter, and made painstaking decisions about the chairs and tables.” 

They also curated what the market would sell, seeking to appeal to a wide cross section of people.

“We looked at the stuff that Whole Foods, Provisions, and Wild by Nature carry,” he said. “That’s the kind of direction we wanted to go in. Plus we wanted to have the regular egg sandwiches, and you gotta do some down-and-dirty macaroni and cheese.” 

About 80 percent of the deli’s menu now was on the former one, he said, but people hadn’t stopped in before the renovation to see what was available, apparently put off by the previous parking lot‚ a sliver of asphalt from which drivers were forced to back into Three Mile Harbor Road traffic. “They didn’t want to take their life in their hands,” he said. A more ample, L-shaped lot is now along the back of the building.

In addition to sandwiches and standard deli fare — along with coleslaw and potato salad made from his grandmother’s recipes, Mr. Damark opted for a “take-no-prisoners” approach to the store’s offerings. He said that was why he put in the pizza oven and has stocked up on gourmet products and high-end prepared dishes, such as garlic and herb-crusted filet mignon. “Our underlying theme is ‘a little something for everyone,’ ” he said. 

Even though the new mix includes some fancy foods, he said prices are still reasonable. “I don’t want people coming in and going, ‘Oh, man, I’m not coming here. This place is too expensive.’ We don’t want to alienate the blue-collar community. They’re going to be the ones to carry us in the winter.”

On the day before opening, Mr. Damark said he and his wife were up late handwriting price cards. After three hours’ sleep, he said he welcomed their first customer and treated her to free coffee. 

As people continued to flow in over the following days, it dawned on him, he said, that the years of planning had finally paid off. “When the customers were in the store and buying pizzas, and you see the pizzas coming out of the oven, it was like, ‘Holy shit, man, this really worked out.’ ” 

Conversations with several patrons, many of whom seemed to be studying the market as if it were the Taj Mahal, made it clear they were impressed. “It’s more than I ever expected it to be,” said East Hampton Town Justice Lisa R. Rana, a Springs resident, who stopped in early the first day and excitedly pointed out the lobster tank. “I’m so glad they were able to do it, and they did it right.”

Mr. Damark said there were still some kinks to work out, such as cash register glitches and the system used to send orders to the kitchen.

But they haven’t stopped him from planning for the future. He expects to offer catering by summer, he’s looking into delivery options, and he eventually wants to add Asian dishes to the menu, firing up a five-wok stove he installed. 

Mr. Damark said his grandparents would be thrilled that he had transformed the market into a far more expansive enterprise than the one they started in 1949. “They were entrepreneurs so they would say, ‘Go for it man. Why didn’t you do it sooner?’ ” 

And even with all the changes, he said it still feels like the market he remembers from childhood. “I know it sounds really corny, but in the old deli I always felt like I was in my grandmother’s house, and that I can never shake.”

In addition to the pizza oven, the store has a lobster tank, two kitchens, an expansive display case for prepared foods, a dining area, wire shelving filled with snacks, condiments, and sundries, and a farm stand’s worth of fresh produce. Durell Godfrey