OCEAN CITY – The owner of a popular resort cafe will retire this month after more than four decades in the restaurant industry.
On Sunday, Oct. 20, Sahara Cafe will open for its last day of the 2019 season. It is also when owner Jay Whitmeyer will finish his 20th and final year at the establishment.
“It’s mixed emotions,” he said. “But I can’t thank everyone enough for the support and love they have shown me.”
Whitmeyer said he has worked in restaurants since 1972. At the age of 19, he moved from Baltimore to Ocean City to work at Granny’s Pizza on 17th Street.
“I came down here in September of 1975 and found work very easily because everybody is shorthanded,” he said. “Little did I know, that when October came around everything would close up. The winter season, from October to the next spring, was kind of rough. I lived on cheap beer and canned soup.”
Whitmeyer went on to manage Granny’s from 1975 to 1986. From there, he owned the Surf and Sands Coffee Shop at 23rd Street.
Thirteen years later, Whitmeyer moved to San Francisco. But it wasn’t long before he was presented an opportunity to return to Ocean City and take over the Sahara Cafe on 19th Street.
“I had just moved to California, I had a California driver’s license,” he said. “I was settled in and loving my life there. But I thought this gave me an excuse to come back to Ocean City, just to look at the place and see some friends.”
During that time, however, Whitmeyer’s father had a heart attack and passed away.
“That got me thinking, ‘Maybe I want to be closer to my mom,’” he said. “I decided to take this place for a year. I think they gave me a one-year or two- year lease.”
Whitmeyer said business was rough at the beginning. But with time, and the help of social media, things started to improve.
“When I took the business over it wasn’t very good,” he said. “It had a bad reputation. A busy day that summer, we might have done 100 people for breakfast. Now we average 400 to 550 in the summer, sometimes 600, and the place only seats 75 people.”
Since taking over in 2000, Whitmeyer said Sahara Cafe’s business has grown by leaps and bounds, particularly in the last 10 years. But he said the family friendly atmosphere remains the same.
“It’s like going to a bar where you know the bartender and know all the people around,” he said. “It’s that kind of place.”
Whitmeyer noted that many of his employees have worked for him for over a decade. Manager Joyce Duffy, for example, worked under Whitmeyer for 13 years at Surf and Sands and for the last 19 years at Sahara Cafe.
“Joyce knows them all,” he said. “She’s now waiting on, in some families, the third generation.”
Being a business owner in a resort town, Whitmeyer said his career has afforded him opportunities to pursue his interests in the off-seasons. He noted, for example, that he has attended 19 World Series games and visited former J-1 students in countries around the world, including England, Poland, South Korea and Nepal.
In 2002, during a trip to Asia, Whitmeyer decided to visit Thailand. It was there that he met his partner, Danudej, and purchased a piece of property, which is where he will spend his retirement.
“We bought property in 2006, built on it in 2007 and renovated it in 2017,” he said. “It’s in the mountains … almost near the border of Burma.”
Now nearing his final days at the cafe, Whitmeyer said he is sad to leave the many employees and patrons he has come to call friends.
“Ocean City has been very good to me,” he said.
Whitmeyer recognized the Podowski family and Mike and JD Quillin for giving him his start in the industry, as well as the many employees who have worked for him at Surf and Sands and Sahara Cafe.
“I cannot thank all the people who have worked for me over the years enough, as you are only as good as your staff,” he said.
Whitmeyer said Neela Robbins will take over operations at Sahara Cafe beginning around St. Patrick’s Day weekend. For more information, visit www.saharacafeocmd.com or Sahara Cafe’s Facebook page.