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Never Get Rid of the Boar’s Head

Thu, 11/16/2023 - 10:14
Dave Winthrop is back at Brent’s General Store in Amagansett after a year away, and he’s looking to make some changes.
Christopher Gangemi

If there’s one thing Dave Winthrop learned from working at Brent’s General Store in Amagansett for 35 years, it’s that you just don’t get rid of Boar’s Head cold cuts. This was an undeniable truth, something that’s simply not questioned. To do so courts disaster.

And so, when he left Brent’s in the summer of 2022 after it was taken over by new ownership, he’d visit and wonder, “Why’d they get rid of Boar’s Head? That, right there, is lunacy,” he said. He had taken a job just down the road at Bostwick’s Seafood Market. (“I was over there standing behind the counter, selling fish.”) The lines at Brent’s were dwindling, the parking lot was less full. Much of the old staff departed when he left. The place had changed, and business wasn’t going well.

So, when Adam Potter, the new owner, got in touch with Mr. Winthrop after the end of the season this year and asked him to return, he was happy to listen.

“I’m thrilled to be trusted with this historic institution and couldn’t be more excited to bring Dave back as general manager,” Mr. Potter said in a text.

“After 35 years here and 15 months off, it feels like where I belong,” Mr. Winthrop said from his office above the deli, accessed by a precariously steep and narrow set of stairs. Downstairs, the song “Rio” by Duran Duran blasted, much louder than what you’d think would be acceptable. He was wearing a white oxford shirt adorned with the Brent’s logo over his left breast; he’s a lifer.

“I told them, I need to be able to make some changes. It seemed like there was a concentration on making more of a convenience store than a deli. I need to make it look more like the old store, for the locals. I don’t like the coffee urns. I like glass coffee pots. Psychologically, I want to make people feel like they’re coming to the old Brent’s.” And of course, Boar’s Head is back.

“If you’re in the deli business in New York, Boar’s Head is not optional. I don’t know who made that decision; I don’t care. If you’re not a New Yorker, a Long Islander, maybe you wouldn’t know that. I certainly know that.” Another change he was hoping to make by the spring? The salad case. “I want more salad cases and more salads. The entire 35 years we were he re there was 14 feet of salad cases and five feet of a meat case.” (At present, there is an eight-foot salad case and then a wood facade in front of the sandwich preparation counter.) “I want that again. It’s going to take a little time, it’s an expensive thing to do. But it’s my vision of what makes the store like the old store, more like a deli and less like just a convenience store.” Mr. Winthrop is also trying to bring back old staffers. (The deli employs over 20 people, and more in the summer.)

Brent’s has been in the same location since the 1930s (“sort of a landmark,” said Mr. Winthrop) and was named for Brent Bennett, who owned the store in the 1960s. A decade later, it was taken over by his son Walter, and Walter’s wife, Dot. “Everybody still called it Brent’s,” said Mr. Winthrop. When he arrived in 1987, after it was bought by Artie Seekamp, Dot Bennett still worked in the store. She stayed until the new millennium.

Mr. Seekamp brought Mr. Winthrop out to be a cook in the late 1980s. Mr. Winthrop pointed to a thick six-inch scar on his forearm, which allows him to remember the exact date the store opened, July 10, 1987. “The night before we were going to open, I thought it was a good idea to go for a motorcycle ride. I have a titanium plate and some screws in here. First three days we were open I was in the hospital. Artie didn’t even visit me or call me, he was so mad.”

“Business was terrible the first couple of years. We didn’t know if we were going to make it.” It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that business started taking off. “Mostly with the working guys. There’s lots of upscale places to eat out here, not so much with the trade parade guys. We did very well with them for 30 years. Ultimately what we sell here has always been up to the customers.”

For example, in the last year it has started selling acai bowls and smoothies. “It’s not all black and white. Some things they’re doing now are good,” said Mr. Winthrop. And coming soon are low-priced, grab-and-go family dinners with help from Melissa O’Donnell, a Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning chef who sat across from Mr. Winthrop.

“I’m really here just to empower Melina, she’s a really good cook,” said Ms. O’Donnell, referring to Melina Agustin, who has worked at the store for over a decade. “You can come in and grab a roast chicken and two sides: ribs, fried chicken, shepherds, and pot pies. We’ll roll out that business more as we get people back into the store. Comfort foods are the Brent’s staples.” The target prices for a dinner for four are relatively low. Ms. O’Donnell says a whole roast chicken with two sides will feed four and costs $36. Roasted pork loin will be $38. All made to order. “Order by 3 p.m. and pick it up by 5 p.m.,” she said.

“We’ve always been a three-meal deli,” said Mr. Winthrop. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’m not a magician, but I said I will do what I can to fix what I see and we’ll see how it goes.”

Brent’s opens at 5:30 a.m., six days a week, at 6 a.m. on Sundays. Monday through Thursday it stays open until 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 10, and Sunday until 8.

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