When news broke last week that three New Yorkers had dropped $17 million for Fire Island Pines' strip of commercial property — including the Hotel Ciel, the Blue Whale restaurant, and the Pavilion nightclub — you could almost hear a collective gasp of anxiety. Would a straight meat-market bar set up shop in the queer enclave? Will happy hour replace high tea? Are the new owners gay?
No, no, and partially, say the three buyers (pictured above from left): 36-year-old investor Matthew Blesso, 26-year-old real estate investor Seth Weissman, and 48-year-old journalist Andrew Kirtzman. The men talked to The Advocate about the future of Fire Island Pines, and there's no need to worry, unless you love jalapeno poppers.
The Advocate: What kind of changes can people expect?
Andrew Kirtzman: We’re determined to preserve all the popular institutions. People feel passionately about the routine there, and you’d be crazy to mess with it. The low tea, middle tea, high tea — the Pines runs on ritual. All the teas are sacrosanct. We’re really just concerning ourselves with the properties that have became unpopular in recent years.
For instance, we own the biggest restaurant in the Pines, the Blue Whale. It’s been sparsely patronized in recent years. We’re doing a turnaround, we’ve hired restaurant operators who run two restaurants called Almond — one in the Hamptons, one in Manhattan. They both have gay followings, and we hired them to turn around our restaurants. With the Blue Whale, there will be a greater menu, management, and more professionalism.
Seth Weissman: We also plan to restore some of the previous traditions. For example, we have a 9,000-square-foot pool deck that for the last six or seven years has been used to house gym equipment and laundry. When John Whyte owned the property, he had elaborate pool parties and fashion shows on that deck — we’re going to bring that back. We have extensive plans to landscape the deck and bring in beautiful pool furniture as well as provide food and beverage service out there, which is really bringing back a tradition of the past.
Also, the Pavilion is one of the most famous gay dance clubs in the world. We’re going to be making some structural improvements and technical improvements to the sound and light systems.
Michael Musto told us he was worried prices might go up. Can you address that?
Weissman: We have no plans to increase drink prices. In fact, we have plans to lower prices at several of our venues, including the hotel and gym. We’re looking to increase the volume and the demand. Historically, people haven’t really eaten at the Blue Whale because of the quality of food and service, and by bringing in people who were incredibly successful in the restaurant business we hope to create a dining experience that encourages people to eat breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner [at a place] they’re not eating now. And it’s not dependent on increasing drink prices at all.
Matthew Blesso: I think there’s a real misperception. People see the price we’re paying [for the properties] and they eyeball that and it sounds like a lot of money — and it is — but they don’t realize the expense of what a large operation this is, and people not familiar with the operation and the numbers assume the only way we can pay for this is to jack up prices and that this is a really aggressive buy on our behalf.
We actually don’t think it’s an aggressive buy at all — we could not do a thing and make a really good return on our investment. So we’re not relying on raising prices. We’re not, however, looking to just do what they’ve been doing all along. We see a safe investment, but one that has tremendous opportunity to make these spaces better by doing things like renovating and offering services that don’t currently exist, like the pool deck and getting people to actually stay in the hotel. No one has really been staying there the last couple of years. We are looking to grow the revenues of the project, but we don’t have to do that by raising the price of a cocktail.
What kind of food will there be at the Blue Whale?
Weissman: The New York Times mischaracterized [the food] — Almond will be running all the food and beverages, but it’s not going to be that French bistro, brasserie-type menu. Currently, there is a buffalo wings, chicken fingers, jalapeno popper kind of menu. It will be more of a well-executed, fresh seafood menu, one that takes advantage of what’s in season, whether that’s fresh local tomatoes or soft-shell crab; a menu that reflects the casual chic nature of the Pines. It’s not a heavy or too formal dining experience.
Kirtzman: We’re going to protect the character of the Pines and improve the areas that have been unpopular. I’ve spent almost every summer of my life on Fire Island. I’m a Pines homeowner, before that I was a share. I understand the sensibilities of the place and I understand an outsider without an understanding of the Pines could come in with some outside vision and ruin the place. That’s not going to happen.
Who’s gay and who’s not?
Kirtzman: I’m gay and Seth is gay. Matt is straight, with a gay haircut. Matt is like a very artsy, kind of hip, downtown guy. He’s beyond comfortable in a project like this.
You guys have spent a lot time on the island, is that right?
Weissman: Andrew has been there for decades, and I’ve been going out there for the last several years as a renter. Actually, our homes are located right next to each other. Matt has spent many summers there.
You started looking at the properties before they were on the market. Why?
Weissman: We saw a really tremendous opportunity for the properties. First, we feel we’re getting a phenomenally attractive price. Actually, we had two appraisals done by major firms that both came in at a significantly [higher price than] the purchase price. There seemed several opportunities to grow the business with the hotel, the pool deck, and putting in good restaurants. Further, we’re all passionate about the Pines. It’s a business and an investment, but it’s near and dear to each of us, and we all have a personal history with Fire Island.
Kirtzman: One thing the previous owners did that was terrific was they renovated a lot of the properties and brought in a whole generation of young gays to the community. In recent years there’s been a flood of new shares and visitors to the Pines, and it’s been terrific. One other thing we’re doing this summer — we have plans to renovate the hotel this winter — but for this summer, we brought in a manager of the hotel who worked at hotels in Beverly Hills. People will immediately notice an upgrade in the quality and service of the Hotel Ciel, which has been widely disliked over the past few years. It won’t be transformed until next summer, but this summer you’re going to notice a difference from the moment you step in a hotel room. The biggest difference is that they’re no longer charging crazy high prices for those rooms. In fact, we’re going to dramatically lower the prices.
We’re cutting the hotel room rates by at least a third. Last year the average room rate was almost $400 a night, and we’re looking to bring that number down to the mid-$200 range. One of the things we’re going to do for this season before we begin the redevelopment of the hotel in the fall is to reach out to people who want an affordable long weekend experience. Right now most of the rooms in the hotel share a bathroom; it’s two bedrooms to a bathroom. Instead of marketing that as a single room with a shared bathroom, we’re going to encourage groups of friends to take the rooms as a two-bedroom suite to lower the prices.
Are there aesthetic changes coming to the outside of the properties?
Blesso: The properties right now, you recognize the great business they’re doing is a result of them having a captive audience of people who have nowhere else to go. We feel our customers have been taken for granted to some extent. The people of the Pines deserve much better than that. So we’re doing some cosmetic renovations and some major renovations. Our big challenge now is how much work can we get done before the summer. We’re working out plans now to house construction workers in our hotel so they can be there all the time and working feverishly to get these things done for the summer.
We’re also taking a holistic approach with the properties. Right now they don’t have much relationship to each other and much relationship to the landscape and natural environment of Fire Island. It kind of looks like someone mowed down a small portion of the island where the properties are and plopped these boxes down. We’re sustainable developers, and we try to bring sustainability to all our projects. We’re certainly doing that here. We’re going to bring back a lot of trees that are indigenous to Fire Island. We’re also going to do a great deal more of indigenous landscaping to make the space look nicer, and we’ve done a lot of master planning just to think bigger picture and to work on things like pedestrian flow from one property to another. We want the properties to be more aesthetically harmonious, so we’ll have some recurring design elements from one property to the other.
Kirtzman: One thing we’re aware of, the Pines is not the Hamptons, it’s not St. Barts, it’s looser, it’s sexier. People don’t want a W in the middle of their community. We’re going to create a place that feels like Fire Island, and in fact we’ve been spending a lot of time sponsoring dinners for renters and homeowners and grilling them about what they want and don’t want. I think people are going to be very happy with what they see because it’s going to reflect what they want.