Billionaires Objected. But Island Restauranteurs Prevail - For Now - In Bid For New Clam Shack

Jason Graziadei •

Straight wharf fish market

*Editor's note: this story was published before Charles Schwab released a statement on April 10, 2023 indicating his support for the Straight Wharf Fish Store.

It sounded simple.

“We’d like to make that a clam shack,” chef and restaurant owner Gabriel Frasca said of the waterfront property on Nantucket Harbor that was for decades the home of Straight Wharf Fish Store and Stars Ice Cream.

But Frasca and his partner Kevin Burleson’s plan to continue the fish market and ice cream sales while adding a 62-seat clam shack restaurant became a flashpoint this week. The wealthy property owners of the neighboring Old North Wharf - including billionaires Charles Johnson and Charles Schwab - lawyered up and mounted an opposition campaign. The noise, trash, and traffic generated by a new restaurant in an area already saturated by busy dining establishments was too much and too close to their seasonal residences, they said.

Yet despite the well-heeled effort to challenge the proposed Straight Wharf Fish Market and the new 62-seat restaurant, the Nantucket Select board voted 3-1 Wednesday night to grant restaurant, alcohol, and entertainment licenses for the new venture.

In the end, it appeared that the reputations and relationships built by Frasca and Burleson over their decades in the island restaurant industry outweighed the near limitless financial and legal resources the Old North Wharf property owners brought to stop the clam shack. Their colleagues, competitors and former co-workers from Nantucket’s service industry turned out to offer their support for the new restaurant, while town staff and the Select Board members noted Frasca’s and Burleson’s long track record in the restaurant business on the island.

As a crowd gathered at Wednesday night’s Select Board meeting to engage in the debate over the restaurant, Frasca said he appreciated the interest in the new venture, which he described as a nod to the clam shacks he used to enjoy growing up on the North Shore.

“We were kind of psyched about this,” said Frasca, who also runs the nearby Straight Wharf Restaurant. “It’s a hidden jewel on the water, and we look forward to sharing it with people.”

But their future neighbors on Old North Wharf weren’t too keen on sharing those water views with a busy clam shack. Attorney Danielle deBenedictis, who was hired by Schwab and Johnson, said there was no need for another restaurant on the wharf.

“We flew here from Florida, in spite of the storm, to make our utmost opposition known to you on a personal level,” deBenedictis said. “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson live 18 inches away from this proposed new restaurant. And make no mistake, it’s a proposed new restaurant. It is not a fish market. We have no objection to the continuation of a fish market or to an ice cream store or to take-out. We oppose a site down restaurant. There’s no need for another one on the wharf.”

deBenedictis was joined by another attorney, Sarah Alger, who was hired by the Old North Wharf Cooperative - which represents a group of property owners on the wharf - in opposing the issuance of the licenses. Alger alleged that Frasca and Burleson had not obtained the necessary permits locally or from the state, and had misrepresented certain aspects of the project in their applications. She repeatedly asserted that while the 62-seat restaurant did not trigger the requirement for a major commercial development permit from the Planning Board on its own, it should be taken into consideration in context with the other contiguous properties operating as bars and restaurants under common control and ownership by Nantucket Island Resorts. In that context, Alger said, the project should be required to go before the Planning Board to seek a major commercial development permit.

“Why should this property be treated differently?” Alger asked. “It’s a change of use. This is going from an ice cream shop and fish store, to an ice cream shop, fish store and a 62-seat restaurant. That should have been disclosed in their liquor license application…You can have a clam shack without serving alcohol.”

Other opponents, including Harvey Jones, a tech executive and venture capitalist who also owns property on Old North Wharf, offered similar objections. Jones said he no problem with the fish market and an ice cream store in that spot, or a clam shack if it was located somewhere else.

“My issue is the location of where that clam shack is,” Jones said. “It is literally abutting the Old North Wharf and it will damage the quality of life on the wharf. And to have an operational restaurant with 60-plus continuous, no question it will be busy…The notion of people on the deck, as well as music flowing out of the restaurant, and the activity in and out of that restaurant will be a major change to that particular venue and when you’re that close to a residential neighborhood, you really have to take that into account.”

But as Frasca noted, they had anticipated the concerns of their neighbors on Old North Wharf, and made the conscious decision to not max out the space they hope to occupy with the restaurant. They did not propose a bar, Frasca said, and voluntarily offered to limit the number of seats inside and out.

“This is simple family food,” Frasca said. “We don’t want a rowdy bar, we don’t want loud music. We don’t want anything other than a place you can go without reservation, get a good meal at a good price , and potentially on the water…And we would like to serve beer and wine with our food. It’s typical of the stye of food, and it’s what our guests are going to want. The decision to not put a bar in was a conscious one. There’ won’t be a bar in the future, and we won't’ be serving liquor. We want beer and wine to be enjoyed with our food.”

And sitting among the crowd in attendance for Wednesday night’s meeting were many of Frasca and Burleson’s contemporaries in the island service industry who offered their enthusiastic support for the new venture - even if they would be in competition for some of the same patrons.

“I’m speaking up in support of these guys,” said chef Liam Mackey, of The Nautilus restaurant. “We need more seats downtown, and that’s coming from me, technically their competitor. I think you should reconsider any restrictions. They’re making concessions to the neighbors. But it’s hard enough to run restaurants out here - and anywhere - without further restrictions on hours. That’s not how restaurants work. Beer and wine? WE need it to pay for staff houses, to pay for wages.”

Also speaking out for the new clams shack restaurant were Chris Sleeper of Pip and Anchor, and Jane Stoddard and Carlos Hidalgo of Cru restaurant on Straight Wharf.

“I worry if we let a few voices who have the means to afford a lawyer outspeak the majority of Nantucketers we are setting the wrong precedent for the future of food, hospitality, and tourism on Nantucket,” Sleeper said. “And I believe the majority of the year-round island community stand with Kevin and Gabriel and hope they are granted the license they deserve because we could all use a more accessible, approachable location to grab food and drink with the utmost integrity behind it.”

Sleeper also read a statement from the team at Cru, which included the following from Stoddard and Hidalgo:

“Over the past 11 years, Gabriel Frasca and his team have been tremendous neighbors,” Stoddard and Hidalgo stated. “From the professional sense of encouraging guests to venture into town on a summer evening to enjoy both Straight Wharf restaurant and Cru to the neighborly sense of lending napkins when a delivery is missed. We welcome another quality and dedicated food and beverage venue to our neighborhood. This is a valuable contribution to the vibrant restaurant community that helps provide more amenities to our year round and summer island communities who support us and our staff all summer long.”

Also in attendance Wednesday night were representatives of the property owner, Steve Karp’s Nantucket Island Resorts, which controls dozens of restaurants and shops along the wharves and around the downtown area.

As the hearing went past the one-hour mark, the board began its debate, weighing the concerns of neighbors versus their impulse to support a new business that could offer family dining along the waterfront - something they noted was lacking in downtown Nantucket. The suggestion from Select Board member Malcolm MacNab that no outdoor dining be allowed was refuted by his fellow board member Dawn Hill Holdgate.

"A recurring theme for me in conversations is how lacking Nantucket is in waterfront dining options," Hill Holdgate said. "This is the first one that we’ve seen in many years as a proposal. I like the concept, that it's more casual, not reservations based, and it's combination of a fish market, which is also lacking from town. I’m sympathetic to there being residences right behind, but I also recognize that town is inherently noisy, especially with both boats and a massive amount of traffic the Hy-Line brings along there. I understand it's an addition, but it’s not even remotely the scale of everything else in the area. Nantucket is not only lacking in waterfront, but lacking in restaurant seats. That was a huge discussion we had coming into the season last year. I do want businesses on the island to be successful, and these people have proven themselves a number of times. This new concept is interesting, I think we have to be careful about timing and exterior noise. But I hate the idea of having a restaurant go in on the water and not allowing anyone to sit outside at any time."

Both town licensing agent Amy Baxter and Select Board chair Jason Bridges also remarked on Frasca's and Burleson's solid track records working in the island restaurant industry.

"I’m OK with this being a restaurant," Bridges said. "One thing we look at is reputation. It would be different if it was an unknown entity and they were from from off-island. That makes a difference to me."

Ultimately the Select Board voted 3-1 to award a new restaurant and alcohol license to the proposed Straight Wharf Fish Market, placing a condition on the license that "last call" be set at 9 p.m. at the new restaurant. The original proposal had been to close down at 10 p.m. Jason Bridges, Dawn Hill Holdgate and Brooke Mohr voted in favor of granting the licenses. Malcolm MacNab was the lone no vote.

An entertainment license to allow interior background music only was approved on a 4-0 vote. The issuance of all the licenses will be contingent upon the Straight Wharf Fish Market team securing any other permits deemed necessary by the town building commissioner.

It seems more than likely that the Select Board’s decision will be appealed, and that the Old North Wharf opponents will also be pursuing other avenues - with state agencies and the Nantucket Planning Board - to further challenge the restaurant.

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