In our monthly series, lifestyle reporter Felicia LaLomia sits down with North Forkers to discuss their lives and experiences over a meal of their choosing. Today Felicia’s lunch date is with Andrew and Jennie Werts, siblings and co-owners of Jennie’s at Drossos, quite possibly the best mini-golf snack bar anywhere, and Ellen’s on Front, their first standalone restaurant that opened last summer on Greenport’s Front Street.
“So how often do you guys get to go out to restaurants other than your own?” I said, sitting down at a corner booth at Andy’s, located right next store to Ellen’s on Front. It was 4 p.m., and with Ellen’s opening in an hour, this spot was a convenient pick. But the Wertses said they also really like the food.
Andrew claimed to have more free time for dining out than his sister. “She does all the work.” he said. “She’s cooking. I handle the business stuff on the side, and then I fill in when needed.”
Our server stops by to take drink orders: Jennie gets a Coke and I ask for a sweet tea. “I’ll have a club soda. And I’ll have a beer,” Andrew said.
“I’m qualified to basically do dishes and talk to people,” he continued. “But I leave the professional stuff to her. I provide mirth and whimsy to the staff.” He undersells himself — I later found out he has an MBA.
Jennie laughed. “And the restaurant is named after our mother,” she said. “Who is still with us — because that’s often a question we get.”
“There’s a portrait of her above the bar,” she continued. If you’ve been in Ellen’s on Front, you know the painting behind the bar of the elegant women gracefully posing. “It was her sweet 16 portrait. And so we always thought it would be cool to have that in our imaginary restaurant that we dreamed of for the last 10 years. I can see why people think she’s dead, but she’s alive and well.”
“Was she really into cooking for you guys?” I asked.
“Uh, no, she was not a very good cook,” Andrew said. “She primarily made roast chicken with brown rice, which she would put in as she was going to karate and take out when she got home.” Ellen has a black belt, it turns out.
“But Jennie always was watching the Food Network,” Andrew said. “She would say things like, ‘We need new pots and pans.’”
They grew up in New York City, and Jennie’s senior project in high school was a college cookbook. “It used the microwave or a hot plate or a George Foreman,” she said. When she was in college getting her Art History degree from Union College in Schenectady, she would spend summers on the North Fork working in restaurants.
The first job she got was through Andrew, who was bartending at a French bistro in Greenport that needed help on the weekends in the kitchen.
“The first night of working there making Roquefort salad and crab cakes, I was like, I’m going to do this. Every summer job that I had during college, I worked out here.”
“Are you ready to order?” The server had returned.
“I’ll have the fried kickin’ chicken sandwich,” Jennie said.
“That comes with fries, cole slaw or salad.”
I ordered the oyster po’ boy with fries.
“And I’ll have the burger with swiss and sauteed onions please,” Andrew said.
“Fries, cole slaw or salad?” the server asked. Andrew looked at me and Jennie and smirked. “I’ll do a salad.”
“After college. I went to the French Culinary Institute and then worked in the city for 11 years,” Jennie said, between sips of her Coke. She and Andrew always talked about what a restaurant of their own would look like, Andrew running the business side and Jennie the kitchen.
As kids, Sunday was a day they spent with Dad. “It was Mom’s day to sleep in,” Andrew said. “First, we would go to 7-11 and get coffee and doughnuts. Then we’d get newspapers and watch the forklifts put the boats in the water at Port of Egypt Marina. And then we would go play mini golf.” That was at Drossos Miniature Golf.
“We knew the family there,” Andrew continued. “Four years ago, we had an idea about doing a pop up there on weekends.” So, Jennie’s at Drossos was born. The idea was for the siblings to build a brand and get to know the market with the goal of eventually owning a restaurant. After one year, they were more than a pop up, open six days a week. And three years later, they were ready for a restaurant of their own.
“We found some people who are big supporters of our snack bar and wanted to invest,” Andrew said. Last summer, Ellen’s on Front opened in the spot that used to be Salamanders — a place Jennie had worked one summer.
“How is it working together full time as siblings?” I asked.
“I think we work very well together,” Jennie said. “We know where our strengths are. And we know what our weaknesses are.”
“I’m not aware of any weaknesses,” he joked.
“Yeah, of mine.” Jennie returned the jab.
“It’s nice that I have a business marketing background,” said Andrew, who as it turns out has an MBA from the University of Michigan. “She can play every instrument without doing any classes. She can play piano backwards. I was very good at school and taking standardized tests. So in that way, there’s never been a sort of competition.”
Our food arrived. Jennie and Andrew both cut their sandwiches in half and exchanged. I saw immediately I’d have to smash my top bun on top of the massive oysters if I’d have any chance of fitting it into my mouth.
“With Ellen’s, what something you’re proud of?”
“I say that opening a restaurant is one of the most narcissistic businesses one can undertake,” Andrew said. “You have to have faith in your product, and what you’re delivering, and I have a ton of faith in Jennie’s food. It’s just excellent. I have faith in our team and based on our product and what we offer. There are moments of huge validation people telling us about our website or social media and how good our marketing team is.”
I asked how they’ve dealt with the struggle of COVID hitting, especially so soon after their opening.
“I think it’s very much a collaborative business environment here with the restaurants and that probably was magnified during COVID times with the support of all the business there as well,” Andrew said. When Jennie and Andrew couldn’t find umbrella stands anywhere on Long Island to expand their outdoor seating, they put out a call on Facebook asking to buy some from anyone who had them.
“One local donated one. Front Street Station donated one. Ray [Design Shop] donated one,” Andrew said. “People help each other out. It’s not cut throat in that way.”
“One place is named after you,” I said, pointing to Jennie with the corner of my massive sandwich. “One is named after your mother. Are you going to open a third one so you can get one named after you?” I looked at Andrew.
“He doesn’t deserve it,” Jennie said, laughing.
“I have a vision,” Andrew responded. “I would like a very small, tiny bar where like five people can fit.”
“So do you think you’ll continue opening new places if the opportunity arises?” I asked.
“He’s older than I am,” Jennie said. She is 35 and Andrew is 39. “But I mean, we’re still relatively youngish, young enough where I definitely don’t want this to be the last stop by any means.”