“It’s been a wild ride,” Jayma Cardoso reflects as she recounts the last 12 years of owning Surf Lodge, the see-and-be-seen Montauk hotel and restaurant that has evolved into an iconic destination for summer concerts and weekend bacchanalia. In a normal world, the Brazilian hospitality entrepreneur is accustomed to firing on all cylinders with her well-oiled business, upping the ante year after year — she never imagined that her 2020 summer season would come to a screeching halt following the outbreak of a global pandemic.
Summers at Surf Lodge have looked quite similar especially over the last five years; a star-studded roster of weekend performers like Willie Nelson, John Legend and St. Lucia, to name a few, wellness programming for day-time fitness and meditation, and a restaurant helmed by Shaun Hergatt drawing foodies throughout the week, making Surf Lodge a one stop stay-and-play for locals and weekend warriors alike. The high-octane venue has truly earned its badge as a Hamptons staple, flocked by celebrities, tastemakers and influencers with notoriously difficult entry, only adding to its allure and exclusivity.
Cut to April of this year, when understanding what this summer might look like was changing by the hour in the face of COVID-19.
Jayma Cardoso admits she and her team were quite hopeful that the pandemic would be under control for a delayed start to the season, but as neighboring Hamptons stalwarts like Sunset Beach decided to close shop, it became clear that she had to think quickly to adapt to this new reality. “There’s got to be a way to keep the lights on,” she said, recalling her initial thoughts. “We have this beautiful property. How can we rethink our business?” The owner had daily brainstorm sessions, deliberating over options like converting Surf Lodge into an artist retreat for two to three months, or setting up a grab-and-go to support local charities. The right solution for Cardoso would be one that continued to safely serve her beloved Montauk community, not necessarily the easy way out or what could potentially generate the highest stream of revenue. So when she was left with difficult, game-time decisions, she mulled over the different avenues with her trusted team and ultimately landed on transforming Surf Lodge into an extended-stay hotel destination to capitalize on their idyllic location on Fort Pond.
Going for a cool $10,000 per month, Surf Lodge’s digs have been transformed to accommodate long-term stays in lieu of the layout that better served the drop-your-bag-and-go weekenders. While the price tag may seem steep, it’s a steal in comparison to what local rentals are going for thanks to city folk who were quick to relocate, and the property is offering a complimentary car as part of your stay. Cardoso’s team added closets custom-built by a local carpenter, televisions, mini-fridges, coffee machines, updated furniture and accents courtesy of East Hampton’s Serena & Lily, as well as new bed frames and linens.“I’m reinventing myself!” she quipped. “Every day I come to the Surf Lodge, I tell my team we can open up a construction company.”
Despite pleads from Surf Lodge regulars to open up in any capacity, like outdoor dining, curbside cocktails or social distance-approved activities, every function of the property is closed to its booked hotel guests only. “We wanted to make this a big home for everyone, keeping our guests safe, our employees safe and myself safe. I want to know that I can come in to work and I’m not going to infect my family. It has to be done right.” And while the property is closed to the public, Surf Lodge has tested virtual experiences in an effort to stay connected to their community, giving its clientele something to look forward to and feel part of. With an energy that Surf Lodge revelers know and love, the team kicked off Memorial Day Weekend through a digital concert set dubbed, “The Sun Still Sets”, featuring Snoop Dogg, Rüfüs Du Sol, Sofi Tukker and Bob Moses, complete with cardboard cutouts of its usual high-profile guests flanked in the background as the “crowd”. While it could never replace the human experience, suffice it to say this may not be the last time hopeful partygoers are brought together virtually.
“I would say in the last two months, no operator in the world could say, ‘I got this.’ I think we all are doing the best that we can in the safest ways possible, but every day we learn something new, right?”
Because Surf Lodge is now serving about 40 guests instead of its typical drove of hundreds, the restaurant was able to cleverly update its menu, still sourcing from its cherished local partners like Gosman’s and Balsam Farms, but curating special options that are more feasible on a smaller scale. Cardoso divulged some of her personal favorites, like rotating flatbread options with toppings like fig, clam or lobster, burrata now sourced from a small Italian family in Hampton Bays, and fun specials with different catches of the day. For the lucky hotel guests, the restaurant essentially operates like room service with contactless drop-off right at your door.
Surf Lodge first offered its stays internally to accommodate friends and family in need of summer lodging before advertising its plan via social media and newsletters. Cardoso explains that surprisingly, these long-term stays are attracting a completely new audience — rooms have already been booked by a writer currently penning a book, a painter, a couple, and a mother with four children spanning the ages of 6 to 18. “In a way, a little bit of my artist community idea is somehow evolving,” Cardoso said. “I have to say, it’s different and we’re excited. I’m from Brazil, and I feel like there is a Surf Lodge in every corner of every beach town there, but they’re called pousadas. And it’s just that: a nice, beach-chic room with a very chill atmosphere with no bands, no DJs, no programming.” It’s a new era of Surf Lodge.
“I’ve realized at times like this you have to wear five different hats,” she said. “Whatever it takes to get the job done and to survive this season.” However, Cardoso is a woman who knows how to get the job done no matter the circumstances, pandemic or not. She’s held an umbrella over Erykah Badu during a rain-soaked set on stage, and assembled a tent to make sure the show goes on during a hail storm. The entrepreneur credits her resilience and survival instincts to her Brazilian heritage. And now that the business strategy in Montauk is in place, Cardoso is already well underway in planning for her second year of the Snow Lodge pop-up in Aspen, Colorado. Her dreams of alpine programming quickly transitioned from how to top a Diplo performance at après ski to how to maintain social distancing in anticipation of accommodating safety protocol even six months from now.
“Hopefully there is a remedy, a vaccine, a light at the end of the tunnel to next season, and we’ll be back stronger, wiser, and more grateful. I will definitely not be doing the door anymore,” she joked. “Everybody can get in!”