The Coastal Sussex Interview – Steve “Monty” Montgomery

by Dave on June 5, 2009

As first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, May 7, 2009:

COASTAL SUSSEX WEEKLY: It’s the 50th anniversary for the Starboard, and you’ve been around for almost half of that. It’s got to be a really cool feeling. What’s it been like?

STEVE MONTGOMERY: I’m one of many people who feel like a proud father in that place only because I’ve been with it for so long. It’s just exciting, not for me but for the patrons who all have a story of the Starboard. I’ve already had in a month and a half people coming out of the woodwork who hired me 25 years ago to work the door, people who bartended there well before I was there, 40 years ago. There’s just excitement that this one place is such a big part of so many people’s lives.

CSW:  When I interviewed Bill Lee, he said that in the local bars and restaurants, a generation is four years, and then that group of kids moves on. Do you see that, and what’s it like now with every one of those groups coming back for the 50th year?

SM: It’s hard for me for the kids that are there now who are my full-time staff and the closest people in my life now, my close friends, because I’m working with them every day, to explain to them that when someone comes in who was that same person to me 15 years ago, they don’t care. They say, “Man, that was the old Starboard,” like they think this is the new Starboard. It hasn’t changed. It’s the same place it always was. People say the customers are getting younger, but nope, people just get older and move on, and a new crowd comes in.

CSW: Do you see each year the same mix of personalities in the staff who all come together and have that sort of bond?

SM: It’s almost like a football team sort of chemistry. You’ve got so many different types of personalities and they do come together as a tight-knit family very quickly in that establishment. I don’t know if the word “clique” is right, but all the years I’ve been there the people who work at the Starboard always hang out together and treat each other like a family. It’s kinda neat.

CSW: What about different years? Is there a bond between people who might not know each other, but both did the same job 10 years apart?

SM: Oh, yeah. They do. And we’re going to exploit that a bit for the 50th anniversary when we celebrate it on October 3rd. On that Friday we’re going to have a big party for all former staff of the Starboard. Anybody. We’re going to use all the tools we can to try and locate as many as we can.

CSW: Tell me some of the stories you’ve had from people coming back so far during the 50th anniversary that have surprised even you.

SM: The funny parts to me are people trying to figure out the history, where the bar was at the beginning, how it looked, was the kitchen here, was the kitchen there, everybody’s got a story. They all don’t seem to pull together, though.

The guy that built this place (the new Bethany Blues in Lewes) built the first bar in the Starboard 50 years ago. It’s still there today. It’s been shaved down and recoated a few times. It’s called the Ant’ny bar for some guy 50 years ago. That bar has moved three or four times in 50 years. He knows all the stories.

I feel like when I came into the Starboard in 1987, Chip Hearn’s first or second year, that was kind of the changing of the Starboard from a 100% local’s bar, saloon, wild west, motorcycle bar into more of a tourist-friendly bar. Chip was the guy who really that changed the image. When we came in, we took all of the great things Chip did and exploited them to a new level where it’s a big name, probably the biggest name in Dewey Beach right now.

CSW: Are you taking advantage of the opportunity to get down some of the history?

SM: I’ve hired a couple of people to collect pictures and write stories. We have a nice logo for the 50th. Everybody wants a piece of the 50th. It’s great.

CSW: You’ve been around the Starboard a long time. What changes have you seen both in the Starboard and in Dewey itself?

SM: Dewey used to be a three-day-a-week town. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and gone. Nothing went on during the weekdays. Dewey has changed in the last 10-20 years into a complete family town half of the week and a fun, recreational party town on the weekends. And I don’t see anybody who’s ashamed, people don’t like that word “party town” a lot, but I don’t see anybody in that town who’s ashamed of the fun that people have in Dewey Beach. They like the well-roundedness of it, as do I as a bar owner. We want it to be kid-friendly, family-friendly, fun. We want rentals to be good. We want hotels to be filled. There’s a lot more going on in Dewey on the weekdays now, a lot more families coming for the weekdays. Whereas on the weekends, it still fills in to maximum capacity. The beaches are packed, the bars are filled, the restaurants are filled. The town itself in general is filled. There isn’t a parking spot to be found in the whole town. That part has not changed.

It’s funny how much it has changed, though. I remember nothing going on in that town 15 years ago Monday through Thursday. Every bar that was open in town had one dollar everything on Thursday night. The Waterfront had $1 drinks, the Rudder had 25-cent drafts. Anything to get people into Dewey during the week. That’s not an issue now.

As far as the Starboard, I don’t think it’s changed a whole lot. From when we took over, the last 11 years, we’ve changed things slowly. Nobody wants to change what it is. We’ve upgraded the foundation, the building. The cosmetic stuff. I told someone once, “It’s hard to spend a quarter-million dollars on this place and keep it looking like a dive.” It’s the truth. We spend a lot of money on upgrades every year, because the building’s old and it was never built so solid to begin with. When we took over, half of the pipes drained right on the sand under the floor. That’s all changed.

The people who come now are the same people that showed up 20 years ago. The Bloody Mary bar is still there. It’s still the place to go on Sunday. It’s the place to go when it rains, and it’s been that way since before my time. As the owner and as the ‘coach’ of the people that work for us there, we’re always trying to tell our staff that it’s our job to re-train the new people that this is a new crowd, this is how things are, this is the daytime party spot, this is the breakfast spot, this is the home away from home in Dewey Beach.

CSW: It really is a home for people.

SM: I hear this all the time from people that they go to other places in Dewey Beach to hear a band. Take our competition, all great bars, great places, but they’re busy when they have a good band. If there’s no band there, they’re not open. The Starboard is a place where everybody comes for ‘home.’ If they’re going to see a band at the Bottle & Cork, they start at the Starboard, have a few drinks, have a crab cake, go to the Cork, see the concert, and then come back to the Starboard after the concert.

CSW: Changing gears now, what was the impetus to put the new Bethany Blues here in Lewes?

SM: Year-round business. Single-handedly for year-round business. Bethany Blues in Bethany is extremely successful, but it truly is just a three-month-a-year town. Other than Saturday nights, year-round, there’s not anyone in Bethany. They have a population of 500-600, and most of those people live on the other side of the highway.

Friends of ours owned this land, great lot, great location. Messed around with a couple of different ideas, different ways to expand Bethany Blues with catering, because we’ve done some of that. All of a sudden, we just said, “Hey, let’s just go for the home run.”

We know that everybody loves the restaurant in Bethany and hate coming all the way down from up here. Talking to some of the people who are doing the developing and they were saying that all of the development was going up here between 24 and Lewes. We just had to make the numbers work, because we knew it would be filled and so far, it’s been filled. We can only hope that it continues. People have been overwhelmingly positive.

CSW: It’s filled a void around here, too.

SM: People do ribs around here, and I’m sure they’re done their way and they’re good and all, but we do ribs and barbecue. We’ve won the Delaware State Rib Championship twice. We’ve won the Maryland State Chicken Championship twice. We compete. There’s always 10 guys from Texas there who do this for a living. There’s always tough judges, but we’ve always done well at those things. It’s helped us put a little recognition to our name.

So many people kept asking and asking us to put one up here, to franchise, to put one in Bethesda, Maryland, so it was almost like we were doing our customers a favor – now we’re businesspeople trying to make the right business decision – but that was the primary thing. We felt like the year-round business here could support it.

CSW: What’s next? After the 50th, I know you’re not the type to sit still. So what’s next for you?

SM: Honestly, there’s nothing major on the horizon other than this establishment in Lewes. It’ll be our first off-season to go through, and the off-season is a different animal.

We’ve been very lucky to enjoy the new restaurant hype in April and May, when everyone’s been excited and the restaurant’s been filled seven days a week since we opened. We did that on purpose, so we can roll into June, July and August where you assume you’ll be fairly busy.

In September, you get some of the locals back as the crowds go away. When we get into October, that’s when we’ll get into some new programs, new menu ideas for this place.

We want to maximize this building. It’s big, it’ beautiful and it’s in the right location. There are so many more things we can do once football season starts, with the roaring fireplace. So that’s going to be it, keeping this place on a roll throughout the winter.

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