End of an Era: Louis Giordano Leaves Eatery on State Road

By C.K. WOLFSON

After receiving this year's Tisbury Businessman of the Year award - timed like a certificate of graduation - Louis Giordano has announced his decision to stop operating the State Road take-out food business that bears his name. He is making plans to enter the Island job market. He has leased the Louis' building, and turned over the name and the recipes to former Black Dog chef Douglas Hewson, effective May 1.

It was 1982, just about at the end of the beginning, when Louis Giordano moved to Vineyard Haven.

People were still finding houses to rent, leaving car keys in the ignition, and recognizing, if not knowing, each other. Shirley's Hardware was where CB Stark is now, Cronig's was at the end of Main street, Vineyard Dry Goods was in the middle of the block, the Steamship Authority was little more than a shack with a bench and ticket counter and the Tisbury Inn was owned by Stuart and Marcia Haley. With a handshake contract, Mr. Giordano came to run the seasonal Tisbury Inn Cafe.

"I can remember before [the Cafe] opened, I sat in the the old Tisbury Inn at the front window and maybe a dozen cars would drive by before 9 o'clock in the morning. Other than that, there was nothing going on on Main street in the middle of winter."

There is a precision about him - every event accompanied with a date, a natural tidiness that makes his sentences sound as if they've been composed before being spoken. You can almost hear the dots over his I's.

The first summer he worked on the Vineyard he recalls wearing a shirt, tie and jacket the entire summer. It took three seasons for him to switch to golf shirts. "So it took a while for me to learn how things were done on the Island," he laughs.

"In the real world, when something doesn't come in your order, you can get it delivered later that day. That

doesn't happen here. It took me years to say, ‘Oh. Okay. Well, then, I'll get it on Friday.' "

That the Tisbury Inn Cafe became popularly known as Louis' was not as much for his ubiquitous presence as it was because of the personal manner in which he hosted the meals. Although his background was corporate (he had been the food manager for C.A. Muir company restaurants around the country), his delivery was pure Island.

There were the first-time summer visitors from Connecticut who, in July of that first year, sat over lunch in the cafe discussing how to get to a friend's house in West Tisbury without a car. Without being asked, he simply handed them the keys to his own car - it was a Saab then - and, with no admonitions, sent them on their way.

The 57-year-old Michigan native sees nothing special about that (and so many other stories like it), probably because, in the course of his more than 20 years as an Island businessman and restaurateur, he has repeated such actions so many times.

Well-known for his contributions and support for Island organizations and events, Mr. Giordano, who survived prostate cancer in 1999, served on the boards of Hospice of Martha's Vineyard, the Vineyard Playhouse and AIDS Alliance of Martha's Vineyard, in addition to working on the Red Stocking Fund and the Tisbury Street Fair. Whether a group, formal or informal, needed chairs, utensils or cookies, "Ask Louis" was the usual response. Mr. Giordano says he inherited his generous instincts from his father, owner of a lumber company in Rochester, N.Y.: "If you can do something for people, do it."

In 1998 he closed the popular, family-style dining room at Louis' and converted it solely to take-out. In retrospect, he admits it may not have been a good financial decision; keeping the restaurant open seasonally might have been the wiser choice.

"What I did not look at - what I realized later - is that the majority of the profit was brought in from the dining end during the four summer months, even though volume-wise, the greater total dollar sales was take out. But that's not where the profit was being made," he says, and adds his anthem, "Everything happens the way it's supposed to happen. I have no regrets at all.

"I'm not a person who asks for help. It's one of my characteristic flaws. In my subconscious somewhere along the way I've told myself, ‘Listen. You've survived on your own all these years; you'll continue to survive on your own, for better or for worse . . .' Perhaps if I had discussed my thinking. But then I had spent about $50,000 to move the take-out into the back room, so I wasn't about to go back right away."

This past August, Michael Bonk, his manager since 1985, decided to leave and try something new. "This was a sign," says Mr. Giordano. "Now I am truly free to go ahead and start considering other things."

It would seem that Mr. Giordano's changes have been more subtle that the Island's.

"When I first started on Main street, kids could make enough money in the summertime to take some money to school and pay for their housing. As we became more popular, everyone was getting more money for the housing." He pauses. "I'm not telling you anything you don't already know - but it's from that simplicity back in 1982 to today, when the kids that come here to work don't need to work - the majority at least."

He explains that students in the current summer labor market are rooming in family-owned homes; they don't need summer income to pay for college, and end up leaving before the end of August because they're taking a trip. Individuality can't exist today, he believes, because of the cost of living, the difference in the summer labor market, and the focus on profit motive.

He has heard people complain about the difference between things as they were and things as they are. "In order to have more options, the businessperson who supplies those options needs the customer base to support those options . . . Islanders are not supplying that base, so they have to listen to the voice that allows them to stay in business."

Matter of factly, he predicts the rumblings and shifts in priorities between Islanders and seasonal visitors will continue for the next five years. As a businessman, he understands the fiscal

realities of focusing on the seasonal community - a fact of Vineyard life. Islanders should be prepared to compromise, he says. "Change can be tempered, but change will ultimately win out. It's very evident when you look at Tisbury Inn. I mean, it's right there in your face."

He has no complaints, this man who seems to have an uncanny ability to remember every name and face of those who've crossed his path; this man who once gave a drop-in visitor (the same person to whom he lent his car a couple of years before) his own prescription glasses so she could drive back to Connecticut after her glasses were lost on the beach.

And he is grateful to the Island community for its support and to his longtime employees: Michael Bonk, 18 years; Bradford Moore, 13 years; Coreen deBetencourt, 12 years; Merisa Estrella and Vanny Pessoni.

"For the last six years it's been strongly in the back of my mind - It's time," he says. "I brought Louis' to a point, and I don't want to do it anymore. I've done it for enough years. All right? I'm ready for something new. And that's another flaw in my character - that I've never been the type to postpone gratification. I think if I were able to postpone gratification, I would be a doctor."

He hasn't decided what he'll do. He will find a job this summer - maybe in a bank or as a dining room manager - nothing that might compete with Doug Hewson's success - and nothing that carries the burden of six-nights-a-week responsibility.

"I don't feel as if I'm ending at all - maybe this phase is ending, but I don't feel I'm ending at all."