Bill Claudio remembers receiving a phone call from his brother-in-law one spring day in 1989, asking if he’d have any interest in partnering to purchase their family’s restaurant in Greenport.
Mr. Claudio says he didn’t have to think much before giving his initial answer.
“I told him, ‘No I don’t [have any interest],’” he recalled in a recent interview.
Today, he’s glad he changed his mind.
Claudio’s is recognized by the National Restaurant Association as the oldest, same-family run restaurant in America. Now owned by the fourth generation of Claudio family members, this year marked 143 years since the popular eatery, located at the end of Main Street, was first opened as Claudio’s Tavern.
For the past 24 years, Claudio’s has been perhaps most closely associated with Mr. Claudio, though his family’s business, which has expanded to include the neighboring Claudio’s Clam Bar and Crabby Jerry’s, is owned by a corporation that includes his wife, Jan, sisters Kathy and Beatrice, and Jerry Tuthill, the brother-in-law who first approached him about purchasing Claudio’s from Bill’s father, William Claudio Sr.
This year, Bill Claudio, 75, is being honored as Grand Marshal of the annual Greenport Maritime Festival Parade. Though his office is located just below his childhood bedroom, newcomers to the area might be surprised to learn he hasn’t spent his entire career in the restaurant business. In fact, after a successful career in sales, largely in the aviation industry, it’s easy to understand why Mr. Claudio first told his brother-in-law “no.”
Mr. Claudio’s love of planes stems largely from his adolescent dream of flying in the Air Force. After a brief stint at the Coast Guard Academy, he spent four years in the Air Force and then attended Parks College of Aeronautical Technology at St. Louis University. In 1963, he re-enlisted and spent seven more as an Air Force fighter pilot.
As a Vietnam war-era captain, he flew 216 combat missions for the Air Force, earning 20 air medals among his various citations.
He describes his time in the military as among the most exhilarating in his life. “Only wild and crazy guys get to fly fighters,” he said with a smile, before detailing some of the harrowing circumstances he and his fellow pilots were forced to endure.
After leaving the the military in 1970, he turned down an opportunity to fly for Delta Airlines because, he says, he’d already done the best type of flying there is.
Later, after several years in real estate in Atlanta and Colorado, he returned to an aviation-related field in his native Long Island, when he went to work for the Hazeltine Corporation in Greenlawn. He served four years as Hazeltine’s director of international marketing, focusing mostly on selling black box equipment for aircraft throughout Asia. He left to take a job with MCI when it was just a startup in Washington, D.C.
In the later stages of his career before the restaurant, he bought and sold jets for an aircraft company in Maryland. (He says he once bought a jet from a Saudi prince and flipped it to international crooner Julio Iglesias.)
After returning to Long Island to work for Beechcraft, Mr. Claudio received that 1989 phone call from Mr. Tuthill. After he demurred on purchasing the restaurant his father had owned since 1930, his brother-in-law convinced him to consider an idea he had for expanding the business. Just a year earlier, Mr. Tuthill and his wife, Beatrice, known as “Beatsy,” had opened a smaller Claudio’s Clam Bar adjacent to the main restaurant.
Mr. Claudio said Mr. Tuthill drove him to Island Park, showed him the Paddy McGee’s restaurant complex and explained that this was something he envisioned Claudio’s could become. Suddenly intrigued by the idea of owning multiple waterfront bars and restaurants around a marina in his hometown, Mr. Claudio was on board. It was a business plan he believed could work.
“In today’s economy, you grow or you die,” he said.
But it’s not just change that he credits with keeping his family business as successful as ever, despite the many other great restaurants that have popped up on the North Fork. He says a combination that also includes a level of consistency has been the secret to the Claudios’ success.
“What makes this place work is that it’s been run by the same family,” he said. “But we’ve also hired superb employees, some who have been with us since day one in 1989. If you don’t have talent on your side, it doesn’t work.”
Though initially reluctant to return to the family business, Mr. Claudio said he’s always had a fondness for Greenport. That’s why he’ll be smiling from ear to ear when he leads the parade through the one downtown that’s always been home.
“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he says of the village. “I have a deep admiration for Sydney, Australia, and the Australian people. I once could have settled there. I also love Singapore. I could have settled there, too. But wherever I was in this world, and I’ve been to so many countries, I was always thinking of Greenport.”