Summer in Fair Haven
Little Sodus Bay in Fair Haven. Main Street at the end of the bay running horizontally; Pleasant Beach Hotel is on the left with the docks. Photo courtesy of Kyle Meddaugh.

Summer in Fair Haven

Adaptability, natural beauty, community spirit brighten summer in this Cayuga County village

By Tim Nekritz
nekritz@gmail.com

Many local establishments — including a re-opened Pleasant Beach Hotel, Brandon’s Pub, Turtle Cove Marina, Little Sodus Inn and the Cidery — are taking advantage of their outdoor areas to keep the live music flowing throughout the village.

Overview of the village of Fair Haven. Photo courtesy of Kyle Meddaugh.
Overview of the village of Fair Haven. Photo courtesy of Kyle Meddaugh.

When you’re a small village that counts on tourism traffic to infuse your economy, a pandemic and related restrictions stretching into peak season means you need to get creative.

For Fair Haven, its lakeside location and small-town charms remain a draw to summer residents and tourists alike. However, losing its biggest annual attraction — the July 4 celebration’s signature fireworks and many related activities — means plenty of adjustment for this charming village a few miles west of Oswego County.

The understandable restrictions in the first phases of COVID-19 meant that the spring season ramp-up was either altered or off-limits for businesses in this town with a population of 720. But some saw an opportunity to change offerings and way of doing business to keep their operations going.

The Hardware Cafe and General Store, a Main Street staple, adapted to take-out meals.

“We thought it was important to keep as many people employed as possible and to provide as much food as we could,” said Susan Lemon, who co-owns the cafe with her husband Larry. “Our employees were amazing — they kept the place going every day non-stop. It was difficult at times when they were there alone and didn’t see anyone for hours. But they kept busy preparing meals that were ordered in advance.”

The cafe found success when they started family-sized portions of comfort food like chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese, as “orders kept coming in and kept our staff busy,” Lemon said. Nonetheless, their sales were down around 40% from the previous year, although they had some reduced payroll and food expenses.

The Sterling Cidery adapted with to-go growlers and fresh baked breads and pastries for two hours each on Fridays and Saturdays during the spring.

“While greater utilization of our licensed kitchen had been the part of our operational plan all along, the limited revenue from take-out only was the push we needed to get this offering going,” said Jana House, who co-owns the cidery with her husband Brandon Furber, and her sister Lesley Gould with husband Craig Arnold. They briefly closed over the winter to greatly expand indoor seating in their taproom, but the pandemic limited their ability to welcome patrons to the renovated space.

Over on the West Bay, the Colloca Estate Winery adjusted to take-out meals for the public, but stayed busy with the usual seasonal tasks — like cultivating more than 13,000-plus vines by hand — plus a larger project of finishing construction on a new events center addition to their kitchen.

“It’s been a real fun project,” owner Chris Colloca said of the space that includes a geothermal system for radiant heat. “It provides a really nice warmth, for events and weddings through the year.”

Especially in a challenging year, being able to incorporate more weddings and events is good “not only for us, but for all of Fair Haven,” Colloca said. “We have a wedding for 200 people, 100 couples from out of town, those people have to stay somewhere, and they have to eat somewhere.”

Kyle Meddaugh, the proprietor of OnePhoto photography services and a downtown shop run with wife Marnie, said while March and April tend to be slow months, May was a challenge. “Not being able to open our shop on Main Street, not being able to book family photo sessions, weddings rescheduling, it all just really started to have an impact on the business’s bottom line, as there was still the usual cost-of-doing-business bills to pay,” he said.

But Fair Haven also offers beautiful subjects and community opportunities any time of year. “I focused on my landscape photography — at least the natural beauty of Fair Haven wasn’t affected by the pandemic,” Meddaugh said. “And we were able to use our shop to offer free mask giveaways, with my wife making nearly 1,000 face coverings over the last few months to help serve the community.”

For regular fishing and recreational tourism, selling product and filling rooms has been a challenge, said Rick Shambo of Screwy Louie’s Sport Shop and Country Cabins.

Shambo estimated business has been off 30 to 40%, with cabin rentals canceled without a large July 4 celebration and no Sterling Renaissance Festival running in 2020. Fishing charters are down because of unemployment and financial strain of customers, while a “lack of campers at the state park account for almost half our summer revenue,” he noted.

“I expect the summer to be quiet and a continuation of what is happening now,” Shambo added. “If it wasn’t the flooding in 2017 and 2019 it’s now this.”

Even when shops were closed down earlier this spring, Fair Haven businesses could still find ways to contribute to the community. Outside the OnePhoto store on Main Street, anybody could pick up one of the nearly 1,000 free face coverings Marnie Meddaugh made to help those in need.
Even when shops were closed down earlier this spring, Fair Haven businesses could still find ways to contribute to the community. Outside the OnePhoto store on Main Street, anybody could pick up one of the nearly 1,000 free face coverings Marnie Meddaugh made to help those in need.

Phasing in

In this village without chain stores, the transitions to the second and third phases of reopening helped many businesses transition, even if owners did not always get a lot of advance notice to adjust. But being able to accommodate patrons indoors has been a big boost, especially with good weather for outdoor seating as well.

“So far things have been going well,” said Lemon, the co-owner of The Hardware Cafe and General Store. “Business is better than expected — although we’ve had to decrease our inside seating capacity by 50%, we’ve been able to increase our outside seating capacity. The weather’s been beautiful and our new awnings make it desirable for people to sit outside.”

And while they have many patrons happy “to sit and watch life go by on Main Street,” Lemon said the cafe has taken on additional overhead costs with disposable items such as menus and condiments, with gloves and masks for staff plus hand sanitizers and paper towels.

The cafe needed to hire more staff since the outdoor seating means a longer run to the kitchen and more cleaning and sanitizing tasks are required. “But we have kept our extended hours [open every day from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.] and our business is doing well — seems to be getting steadily better as more people come out. If the trend continues we should do just fine,” Lemon said.

As for the cidery, warmer weather allowed “for greater utilization of our little-known-about but ample rear yard,” House said. “To maximize utilization of this outdoor space, we have invested in several open-sided tent structures that are anchored down to be left up for the season, along with tables and seating; again at appropriate distancing.”

Many local establishments — including a re-opened Pleasant Beach Hotel, Brandon’s Pub, Turtle Cove Marina, Little Sodus Inn and the Cidery — are taking advantage of their outdoor areas to keep the live music flowing throughout the village.

Colloca discovered people are more than ready for the return of live music; on a nice Friday night in June, the winery hosted a band with a cover charge, and they had to close off admission at 6:30 p.m. to stay within distancing regulations.

New and newer businesses — such as the Stick and Rudder pub and the Main Street Barber Shop — continue to broaden the village’s appeal for residents and visitors alike.

Positive attitudes

The owner Colloca Estate Winery, Chris Colloca, said having 103 acres on West Bay will help with maintaining distancing for those looking for wine, food and entertainment. Photo courtesy of Kyle Meddaugh/OnePhoto
The owner Colloca Estate Winery, Chris Colloca, said having 103 acres on West Bay will help with maintaining distancing for those looking for wine, food and entertainment. Photo courtesy of Kyle Meddaugh/OnePhoto

Despite the cancellation of the July fireworks and the festival’s related village offerings like rides and a carnival, various business owners still saw people coming out for remaining traditions like a boat parade and a village-wide garage sale.

Many people launch their own fireworks before the big show, and “without the main event fireworks, I think people are stepping up and doing it more,” Colloca said. “And you’ll still have the Ring of Fire, where people will light up flares around the bay.”

And while the cancellation of the Renaissance Faire and postponement of weddings will decrease tourism somewhat, Lemon thinks some inherent advantages of Fair Haven will help sustain it.

“A lot of people come to Fair Haven to visit family — they have family traditions of meeting up at the lake,” she said. “I think these people will still come. There are also a lot of people that come for the beauty of the area and lake activities — and I believe they will continue to come here. I think people will view this as a safe place to come as a getaway — we have had very few incidences of the coronavirus and here they can enjoy the beauty, social distance and avoid the crowds.”

Colloca has a regular run of smaller festivals, some of which he hopes to still hold in some capacity, such as the Lake Ontario Food, Wine and Jazz Festival around Labor Day. But having a large space they see as a kind of public park will still draw visitors.

“The real advantage that we have at the winery is 103 acres, which includes 12 acres of wines planted,” Colloca said. For daily business, the winery invested in more tables, spaced apart, and can seat around 250 people outside in a welcoming atmosphere. “I feel blessed,” he noted.

“We’re all in the same boat,” he added. “You want to be able to move forward, but you have to be safe.”

“I am optimistic — our business has steadily increased since we have re-opened — people seem really happy to be here,” Lemon said.

Meddaugh also remains upbeat about prospects for summer.

“Fair Haven seems busier than many years, and I expect more people will stay close, or closer, to home this summer,” Meddaugh said. “My hope is that, even without our traditional cornerstone event, the July 4 celebration, folks will see the many venues, the unique shopping and recreational opportunities that our area offers and set sail for Destination Fair Haven this summer.”

The spirit of community — that people are collaborators more than competitors — is something that Colloca thinks will help the village find its footing despite the challenging months.

“Fair Haven is such a close-knit group,” he said. “We just support each other and send people to each others’ places. When we get people to each others’ places, we win.”