When he was growing up, Curtis Bashaw worked summers at the historic Congress Hall Hotel in Cape May. Then he went to Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, came back, and bought the old hotel (and developed a few others). It’s the Shore version of the American dream.
The co-founder of Cape Advisors and Cape Resorts, Bashaw oversees many hotels and restaurants in the area, including Congress Hall, the Virginia Room, the Starr Inn, the Sandpiper Beach Club, and the Beach Shack. Restaurants include the Blue Pig Tavern, Ebbitt Room, Beach Plum Farm, Boiler Room, and the soon-to-be-renovated Brown Room. On December 3, Bashaw was honored for his work with a Gold Plate Award from the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association. We caught up with him to talk about the awards gala at Caesar’s Atlantic City, the roots of his Cape May pride, and how he plans on continuing hospitality in a region built on summertime.
Table Hopping: You’ve built a small hospitality empire here. Why Cape May?
Curtis Bashaw: I was raised in Haddonfield and Cherry Hill, but I summered in Cape May. I worked at Congress Hall Hotel from when I was old enough to work summer jobs, in high school and college. I managed the hotel in the late ‘80s, then we opened the Virginia [hotel] in 1989. Then I went back and bought Congress Hall in 1995. It was kind of one of those childhood dream situations where you’re like: “What did I sign up for?” But now we’re the biggest employer in the city, if not the county, at least in the private sector.
TH: Beach Plum Farm began as a farm to supply Congress Hall, but don’t you also have some agricultural roots?
CB: My dad’s dad was a weekend farmer. He worked on Dock Street in Philadelphia—he was a credit manager for the produce district. He [also] had 20 acres in what was then Delaware Township, now Cherry Hill. He raised turkeys and chickens, grew lots of corn and tomatoes, and he loved to share his food with people. I would get dropped off there as a little boy and work with my grandfather. Years later, so many farms in South Jersey went fallow as suburbanization took farmland. A lot went fallow in Cape May. Big companies started purchasing produce from other countries. For instance, Cape May really felt it when Del Monte started buying lima beans from Mexico.
TH: Is that how Beach Plum Farm started? To rejuvenate area farmland?
CB: We did a lot of research when we took over Congress Hall. We learned it had its own farm in the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s. A lot of old hotels in Cape May grew food for their own restaurants—the tripod of the area economy had always been fishing, tourism [and] agriculture. Hotels here had amazing oysters and seafood, but also amazing South Jersey produce. We wanted to recreate that. In 2007, we bought 62 acres and created Beach Plum Farm.
TH: How did that develop into full-on modern-era agritourism?
CB: Initially Beach Plum Farm just grew food for the hotels. Then we started letting guests walk the farm. By 2011, we put up a little tent for surplus produce. In 2015, we built a barn to make the farmstand more permanent. By 2016, we added a kitchen, started doing breakfasts and in 2017, farm to table dinners. By 2018 we had five cottages for people to stay in.
TH: You seem to have struck a balance between respecting—even restoring—Cape May history and expectations/amenities of modern hospitality. But what about the summer-only seasonality?
CB: I’m gonna dispute the “seasonal” thing. It’s definitely much more intense in the summer [here]. But whereas before we may have had 50 year-round employees, we now have 400. We’re filling 300 rooms every weekend of the year on Friday or Saturday. The fact is, people want to view Cape May as a legitimate year-round weekend getaway.
TH: How will you add to that year-round appeal in 2019?
CB: We’re doing a renovation of the Brown Room, the main bar at Congress Hall. We’re going to bring it back to style of the bar from the 1950s. We’re renovating part of the Virginia lobby for the 30th anniversary. And we just opened another [restaurant] this year with Jack Wright, who runs Exit Zero (a Cape May magazine). It’s called Exit Zero Filling Station. It’s a gas station with a really cool shop and also a restaurant and coffee shop, with a lot of amazing curries.
TH: How unexpected—Indian and Thai curries at a retro filling station in Cape May. But you are far down there on the Garden State Parkway. So…do you actually sell gas?
CB: We do.