It was February 2011. I was the new kid at the Cape Gazette, single-mindedly determined that every article would be entertaining, if not downright informative. Though the jury’s still out on that one, I wanted to reach for the stars. So I sent an email to Matt Haley, the biggest star I could find down here at the beach. I had been enjoying his restaurants for years, and I was impressed.
So imagine my surprise when he vetoed my request for an interview. But then he countered with an invitation to a day’s ride-along so I could witness firsthand what he does. He suggested the Friday of Presidents’ Day weekend when he would be visiting each of his eateries to make sure they were prepared for the holiday onslaught.
We met at Lupo di Mare. He was on the phone discussing a last-minute menu change with his lead chef, Doug Ruley. Then we were off to Northeast Seafood Kitchen. On our drive there, he explained the structure of his companies, but what impressed me most was that he never answered his phone while he was talking to me. It rang about 10 times. “They’ll leave a message,” he said, tossing the device aside. Wow. Suddenly I felt important. That I mattered. This was my first glimpse into what made Matt, Matt.
At Northeast Seafood Kitchen, a broken bottle of expensive wine had stained the others in the case. The chef suggests, “How about we offer it by the glass as a special?” “Perfect,” says Matt, “good idea.” The chef smiles. Haley kibitzes with the fish purveyor, moves some plants around on the patio, and we’re back on the road to Catch 54. He quietly instructs a young prep cook on knife skills. We move some benches. He calls the HVAC guy about a recalcitrant compressor. He fixes a set of blinds that won’t hang straight. Then he takes me into a deserted building next door and unrolls a set of blueprints. “I’m going to call it Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria, and I’m really excited about it,” he beams. Three years later there are two.
At Bluecoast, Chef Doug pushes a plate into Matt’s hands. “It’s tonight’s appetizer special.” The boss takes a bite and smiles broadly. “I couldn’t have come up with this, Doug. It’s delicious.” Bluecoast’s kitchen is suddenly brighter. Doug was important, and he mattered. And everybody there knew it.
Matt’s Fish Camp was under construction. As Matt and former partner Bryony Ziegler position the POS computers, Highwater Management COO Scott Kammerer asks Matt what color they should paint the dining room walls. Matt looks at me and points. “It should match his shirt.” I feel like I’m part of the action. As we climb back into the truck, Matt dispatches a repairman to Lupo di Mare to fix a busted dishwasher. He ends the call with a polite but firm, “Now.” (Lupo would be packed within the hour.)
“Take this off of tonight’s menu,” Haley says to Chef Jesse as he snaps a photo of an overly fatty prime rib at Betty’s in Midway. He emails the photo to his meat purveyor with a message consisting of an ominously stark row of question marks. Chef Maurice hands Matt a menu he has assembled for a Korean wedding they are catering. “Maurice, you have put a bit of Delaware into Korean food!
Nice job.” Maurice beams. He knows he matters and that he’s important to his boss.
By this time, Fish On! is a mob scene. Matt sweeps into the huge kitchen, switching effortlessly between English and Spanish as he addresses each member of his little army. From fry cook to expeditor to busboy, he leaves each of them smiling as he compliments, corrects and fine-tunes his way through the organized chaos.
Matt and I became friends that day. We discovered that our paths had crossed many years before, and that brought us even closer. Every so often he’d stop by for coffee, or he’d call at the last minute when he was lighting the grill at his house. I overcame the initial intimidation I felt and invited him to my home for one of my special dishes. He loved it. One time I asked his advice as I was preparing it, and he said, “Do you really want my advice? Yours is better than mine! How long ‘til it’s ready?” Wow. He really does like it.
One of the things I’ll always remember about our first encounter on that Presidents’ Day weekend was the departure from Lupo di Mare. As Matt wound through Rehoboth toward Silver Lake, I asked him why he wasn’t taking a more direct route out of town. He pointed to the glistening water and said, “I always come this way. It reminds me why I’m here.” In spite of his almost unimaginable responsibilities, he still lived like he was on vacation - and on his own terms.
Matt Haley’s foresight as a restaurateur, entrepreneur and philanthropist will be celebrated for years to come. But businesses are nothing more than people, and people aren’t perfect. He beat the odds by applying his world-renowned humanitarian efforts right here at home where he made everybody - friends and deserving employees alike - feel appreciated and feel like they mattered. And that’s what made Matt, Matt. He will be missed.