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North Sea native and owner John Betts re-opened Shippy’s on July Fourth weekend of last year. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

For anyone who’s been around these parts long enough to talk about the good old days of restaurants in the Hamptons, there are several you could name, from Montauk to Shelter Island to Westhampton Beach, that made their mark. You know, the ones where you could… always get a table, see familiar faces and when all was said in done still have some money in your pocket after paying the bill. In that roster of restos — many long gone, some still here — it’s impossible to not mention Shippy’s

Situated on Windmill Lane, just a block west of Southampton’s Main Street, the 70-year-old, emphatically beloved locale has been a longtime favorite among residents for very simple reasons: reasonably priced food in a comfy and cozy atmosphere and the fact that not much has changed about the place since its inception in 1954. It was the kind of spot you could take your grandma for a crackerjack wiener schnitzel dinner with all the fixin’s. Or it was the place you could hit after work or a movie for a pint or two and a really good burger. It was simple, straightforward and it was always there.

And thanks to new owner and Southampton native John Betts, it still is. 

A tale of four owners

Originally opened in 1954 by William “Shippy” Casgrain, a New York City-based marine and bartender, Shippy’s served American food and was a noted celebrity hangout, according to Betts. Adorned with dark wooden panels, deep maroon-colored booths and a plaid red carpet, the haunt was “a happening place,” he says. “It was their quiet place when they didn’t want to go to Bowden Square.” 

In 1976, Casgrain sold it to Ed Nielsen, a German-born restaurant owner who brought on the Austrian/German/Bavarian hit parade of dishes with which the place has become synonymous. “They had a piano and music,” Betts says. “Ed did a good job with introducing the German fare, plus he kept a really good hold on the look and feel of the place. He would sit down to chat with people dining all the time — he was a great promoter.”

Conversely, Nielsen’s son Nick loved the kitchen aspect, according to Betts, and was the one responsible for ultimately leading the charge to serve good food at a good price after he took over from his father in the late 1990s, another noteworthy aspect that would eventually become a deep-rooted Shippy’s characteristic.

What’s Old Is New

Open for just under a year now,after a quiet reemergence on last year’s very unquiet July 4 holiday, the newly renovated Shippy’s has quite possibly never looked better.

“There have been three owners before me,” Betts says, “and each one managed it in a different way and kept the Shippy’s myth a solid brand true to its iconic nature. Right now, we’re probably the most different from the first iteration.”

To help bring the arguably antiquated look the joint cultivated for decades into the 21st century, Betts went completely local, calling on a revamping team that included Southampton architect Lisa Zaloga, Water Mill interior designer Karen Gorman and Southampton general contractor Lance Nills. 

“Lisa gets credit for bringing Lance into the picture, who’s a genius and knew exactly what I needed. And Karen deserves credit for creating the feel and the adaptability of the space,” he says. “Those three saved me.”

It was a team that understood the delicacy and respect due in reinventing an old fave, and they did it well. 

On a recent weekday, the dining room’s dozen or so tables are neatly set with linen roll-ups and crystal-clear water glasses for the upcoming lunch shift, slated to start in less than two hours. Large, dimly lit Parisian streetlamps hang above the black-topped bar, cleverly designed by Lumber + Salt, the architectural salvage and design source located in Jamesport on the North Fork. The well-worn dark wooden panels that once ran throughout the space have been replaced with light-colored exposed brick and saturated, dark wood accents. Accents of rich browns, blacks and greys pervade the corridor-like dining area, and each of the old booths that line the lefthand wall are now a dark, clubby olive green. The tables are flooded with natural light from adjacent windows. It’s an atmosphere that’s at once familiar and comfortable, but refreshed and buzzy, too. 

A numbers man with a big-picture vision

Upon arrival, and after preparing a small cup of black tea for himself, Betts sits at a four-top in front of two large windows toward the front of the building, looking out onto the street. It doesn’t take long to recognize that the North Sea native is a pragmatist whose commitment to Shippy’s is his latest focus.

“The staff and myself are totally committed to the legacy of Shippy’s here,” he says, noting that every single change or tweak that was made has had feedback from guests and employees alike. “So far, we’re getting very high marks and good feedback on our food and our hospitality.” 

After retiring in 2020 from a 50-year career at McDonald’s — the last 12 spent as CEO of the chain’s Canadian operations — Betts is no stranger to marketing strategy and brand analysis. During his tenure there, he was able to consistently modernize his work through both feel and function, a practice he’s consistently applied to Shippy’s since purchasing the building nearly two years ago.

“The Shippy’s brand is Southampton’s brand. I thought a lot about what I was going to do with my retirement and I knew there was a way for me to do some good and be engaged in my community without stepping into something and automatically spending a lot of energy defending positions,” he says. “My constituents are my guests. Me being able to do good as a business leader is second nature.”

Future food for thought

With a team of about a dozen or so kitchen employees led by chef Sibre “Giovanni” Wilson, both the lunch and dinner menus at Shippy’s pair its classic German specialties with more familiar modern-day fare that’s both crowd-pleasing and affordable.

“The most controversial thing here is the menu,” Betts says, noting it as the thing Shippy’s fans were most concerned about when he took over two years ago. He even published a survey in the local paper asking the public what menu items they’d like to see at the newly refurbished Southampton staple. 

“We got about 150 responses and I realized, if I make Shippy’s a little bit nicer and keep the prices low, it’s the ultimate way of giving back. There’s a definitive rep here,” he adds when talking about the legacy of the place. “We have a playbook we need to stay true to and so far we’ve been pretty successful.”

John Betts may be Shippy’s new owner, but his attachment to the place comes from growing up in Southampton. (Photo credit: Doug Young)

As summer gets underway, the next step for Betts is expansion, in every sense of the word. In May, he launched a new breakfast service, third-party delivery and thoughtful, attentive takeout systems. He next plans to install a retractable roof that will enclose the adjacent outdoor biergarten, turning the space into a year-round dining room option and doubling the footprint of the place. 

“Last October, it rained every day except for five,” he notes. “Oktoberfest is important; it’s just as big as August.”

He also plans to convert the two apartments above the restaurant into another dining space designed for private events and set with a balcony that will hold up to 16.

“We’re taking this little old sleepy Shippy’s and still keeping these areas that are intimate,” Betts says. “This is the evolution of this place, because we want to be able to do the business, but we want to do it comfortably. Nothing is impossible; you can always find a way.”