By Collin Hall
Header photo: Before the Deauville Inn, The Whelan Inn welcomed fishers, whalers, and other workers from the area. The Inn came under fire during prohibition for allegations of illegal alcohol and gambling.
Strathmere, a tiny strip of ocean-front land sandwiched between Ocean City and Sea Isle, is home to only 158 people year-round. But hundreds of thousands of visitors come to The Deauville Inn each year, a restaurant so woven into the small town’s fabric that it serves as its de-facto capital. Tim Fox, who purchased Deauville Inn in 2019, joked that Strathmere’s town motto is ‘where the heck is Strathmere?” as he shared his vision for the storied Deauville Inn.
The Deauville Inn went through major renovations and improvements shortly after Fox bought the restaurant with his partner Robyn Kjar in 2019. The couple stresses that money is not a primary motivator behind their vision for the place. They see themselves as caretakers of a beloved institution and come into ownership of Deauville with respect for its long history.
The Deauville was founded by Irish immigrants in the late 19th century. It served as an upscale hotel, the Whelen Hotel, when Strathmere (then known as Corson’s Inlet) was not yet connected by roadway to the rest of the county. The Inn was popular with whale hunters; the whaling industry was prosperous in Cape May County for a short time. The Inn’s popularity continued into the prohibition era with a rumored bar and casino that operated on the Inn’s upper floors. For the past several decades, Gloria Carpenter and her family have stewarded the Deauville Inn and turned it into a thriving restaurant. Gloria, at age 95, still comes into the restaurant and has her own barstool dedicated to her.
With this history as a backdrop, Tim and Robyn sat down for an interview with the Herald on a blustery early-Spring morning at Yesterday’s Creekside Tavern, another local landmark that they purchased and hope to improve.
Both Tim and Robyn come from the healthcare industry; Tim founded Fox Rehab, a rehab clinic that serves 24 states, and Robyn works as the company’s CEO. Tim stressed many parallels between the healthcare industry and food service. He said that “the hospitality business is intimate, and it’s no different than medicine. It’s people taking care of people. People want intimacy at a restaurant, and people want intimacy from their physician. That’s no different than when people walk into this bar; everybody wants to go where people know your name… It’s about taking care of people.”
Tim and Robyn are both South Jersey natives. Tim spent much of his life in Strathmere and joked that he was one of the customers “banging on the front door” while waiting for Deauville to open each day. Beyond his familiarity with Deauville, he carries with him restaurant experience from when he was a younger man. “I waited tables and was intimately involved with the restaurant business for eight years,” he said.
This eight-year experience in the fast-paced dining industry has instilled in Tim a deep respect for the Deauville team, made up of bussing staff, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, chefs, and managers, that gives life to the restaurant. The couple wants employees to feel respected and valued. One of the couple’s first managerial actions was to promote long-standing staff to higher positions of authority.
Similar respect was shown to Tim when he worked at an Italian cuisine in another part of New Jersey. Tim remembered that his boss, Vianna, showed incredible kindness to everybody who worked for her. The grace Vianna showed her staff helped Tim understand that empathetic leadership is essential to the health of a business. Tim’s experience at that Italian restaurant helped him overcome deep childhood pains and helped anchor him to virtuous leadership.
He said, “I didn’t have an easy childhood growing up, I lost my parents to terminal cancer at 19, both within six months of the other. I was at a point in my life where I didn’t know what to do. But I remember thinking to myself: am I going to sit here and be a victim, or am I going to pull myself together and be victorious? Vianna took me in and taught me the foundation of hard work. She was gentle. That’s what’s special to me in the industry. She said to me one day near the end of my time with her, I asked ‘what can I do for you Vianna?’ And she took my hand and said ‘do me one favor. Just do something kind and nice for somebody else one day.’
Tim and Robyn’s primary business, Fox Rehab, now employs over 3,000 clinicians. But through their great success, they haven’t forgotten that empathy and gentility are important foundations for any business venture. They now bring this attitude to Deauville, where they enter the pages of over 100 years of history.