By Collin Hall
Despite several torrential hurricanes, fires, and two nationwide economic downturns, Tyson Merryman has held down the fort at the regionally famous Tuckahoe Inn in Marmora for over 25 years. Tyson purchased the Beesley’s Hotel in 1996 along with his sister and mother; they transformed the aging hotel into the institution, where Tyson says people visit “from birth to marriage to death,” that the Inn is today.
Tuckahoe Inn is known for many things, but over the decades, Tyson has anchored the Inn with a deep respect for food that goes far beyond Cape May County. Tyson is the owner and head chef, but his family, the Merrymans, has traditionally worked in the aircraft industry through contracts with the Air Force or through direct service.
Tyson ventured into new ground with his love for cooking. “I’m the first one who was in the restaurant business; my sister was a retired Lt. Colonel Paratrooper in Army Air; my mother, my stepfather, my father, my other sister, and my stepbrother all worked for Boeing.”
Tyson did serve, at least for a short while, in the armed forces as a Navy aviation electronic technician. He quickly realized that, were he to stay for more than the four years he served, he was forever destined to be a “very mediocre aviation electronics technician,” he laughed. His friend Bull helped him rediscover a deep passion for cooking as Tyson stared down an early career slump,
Tyson said: “I have always really liked cooking. I started cooking in high school; I worked with my friend Bull, and we worked together in restaurants just to make money. He was much better than I was, and then we both joined the Navy, we ended up getting stationed in the same place a couple times and he kept teaching me more and more.”
Though Tyson started his journey in high school, he hopes his staff will be viewed by the public as hard-working professionals; he rejects the notion that restaurant staffing is for the young or low-skilled. “It’s a career, my staff are all professionals,” he said.
This friendship with Bull set Tyson on a journey that led him around the globe. As Bull stepped down from his position at a famous French restaurant in West Chester PA, Tyson stepped in to fill the vacancy.
This time was pivotal in Tyson’s life; it shaped him into the chef he is today and set the flame of cooking ablaze in his heart. He was thrown right into the flames at a restaurant where “all the ordering was in French. I was the only American in there,” he said.
“I worked with many French artisans who had a passion for food which worked its way through me, that really spoke to me. It’s really, really hard work. But what they taught me, going back to the classical days of French cooking with Augustine Escoffier, was invaluable. We made all our own stocks, our own bread, we broke down our legs of veal… we filleted all our fish. We made something out of everything… That was what really made me love cooking, the understanding that it is a lifestyle, it’s a true passion that you have to have.”
This passion carried him through his next few jobs; he worked aboard a famous Mississippi restaurant boat and in casino kitchens and gourmet rooms across America before continuing his culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America and at a culinary school in Paris.
These experiences undergird the cuisine at Tuckahoe Inn, which sits on a large, and expensive, piece of land facing the Great Egg Harbor Bay. The view from the restaurant’s beach is enough to make one’s stomach drop; mighty steel beams that support the Great Egg Harbor bridge stand immovable behind the restaurant. Crashing waves along the shore serve as a reminder of the ocean’s power.
Indeed, Hurricane Sandy tore off the restaurant’s entire back deck and destroyed the site’s gazebo. When Tyson went to assess the damage from yet another powerful storm, he blacked out on the ground. “I went out to the beach to look at the damage, and when I bent over, next thing I knew I was collapsed on the beach after a hurricane. I was taken to ER and diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma that day… Lots of chemo later, I got through it.” But this setback wasn’t enough to separate Tyson from Tuckahoe Inn. He said right after recovering, “Okay, let’s get back to work.”
The restaurant has faced a myriad of challenges since. Tyson remembers working on his hands and knees on a broken sewage pipe that spewed blackwater. It was at this exact moment that an expensive black car and two suited men approached him in the Inn’s front lot and asked to purchase the property. Tyson said, “I took my keys, threw them on the dirt, and wrote a big number in front of me. That was my price. They got back in their car, and I haven’t heard from them since.”
With COVID-19, Tyson and the restaurant weathered one of the most challenging economic situations the Inn has ever seen. “It was worse than 2008,” he said. “And 2008, that was a tough year. We saw how our business just dropped. During the pandemic, we were down to 20 or 30% of our business. At one time, we closed for a couple of months. We had to. We had no choice; there was no takeout, we’re not that kind of restaurant.”
Tyson is no stranger to hardship. “Within the first year we bought the place, there was a major fire in the basement that destroyed all the electrical wiring in the building,” he remembered.
Yet none of these challenges have toppled the Inn. Tyson is incredibly hopeful for the future of the restaurant even once his leadership fades. He said that he is just one part of the legacy of the Inn; his ravenously loyal customers, hard-working staff, mother, sisters, and daughters have all been instrumental in Tuckahoe Inn’s success.
At the end of the interview, Tyson sighed a deep breath of relief. He is proud of what he has stewarded with the Inn, but what has been created here goes beyond him. He said, “You understand it when you own a place like this that you don’t really own it. You’re just a caretaker.”