The Peter Shields Inn sits like nobility on the shore of Cape May, N.J.
Steps away from the beach, where the sounds of sunbathers and seagulls mingle on salty air, presides the grand, white Georgian Revival in all its 109-year-old glory.
With a white-pillared grand entrance and back doors that open onto a terrace for dining, the summer home of turn-of-the-century businessman Peter Shields lives on as a romantic destination restaurant and inn.
Boasting nine beautifully appointed guest rooms and five dining rooms, the 1908 mansion has found its niche in the hospitality industry since it was purchased in 2010 by the brother-sister team Jeff Gernitis and Cathy Pelaez.
In this week’s Recipe for Success Q&A, Alena Scrocca, restaurant manager for the Peter Shields Inn, discusses the vision and menu that has breathed new life into the Cape May home.
Q: Please tell me about the history of your establishment?
The history goes back to 1908 when Peter Shields had this house built as his summer home. He was originally from Pittsburg, and he wanted to bring more business to Cape May. There was an accident in his family, and his son died, and the beautiful home, after that, passed through different owners. It was a club at one point, it sat vacant at another point, and then in 2010, Jeff Gernitis and his sister Cathy Pelaez bought it to create a restaurant and inn. It was Cathy’s idea to take it over and it was very successful.
Q: How does the restaurant draw customers to its doors?
There’s so much to talk about with this restaurant! The fare is fine-dining, American cuisine. Our chef Carl Messik is a local chef who really grew his career and brought so much success to Peter Shields. His idea is to keep the menu simple, seasonal, and sustainable.
Our menu is limited, but we change it seasonally so we can offer key ingredients when they’re in season, and at their peak. This is how we ensure quality and consistency. We have customers return here and tell us that it’s wonderful every time. We love this!
Q: What’s an example of a simple, seasonable, sustainable menu?
One of our more famous dishes is the local oysters. They come from the bay right here where we live, and we have them on the menu year-round. We serve them with champagne ice and paddlefish caviar. In the summer, we concentrate on seafood because we’re right here by the ocean. What I love is that the chef brings in different types of fish, and isn’t limited to the salmon or sea bass. We just had an amazing Pennsylvania trout, and a great monkfish.
Q: How have challenges been faced creatively?
One of our biggest challenges involved a liquor license. They’re very expensive and hard to get. But, we were able to get an exception allowing us to serve wine from a locally sourced vineyard.
So, it worked out really well! We partnered with the Cape May Winery, which is the oldest winery in the area. They have a beautiful winery and are a real tourist draw, and we offer an extensive list of their wines. We’re one of the few restaurants that carries port wine. But we know we can sell it because our clientele is looking for it.
Q: How was the success of Peter Shields parlayed into a second venture?
After Jeff Gernitis’s sister Cathy died in 2012, he decided to look for partners to start a second restaurant. In 2014, Jeff and his wife Maria partnered with two other couples — Lenny and Kim Gagliardi and Gino and Terry Ciancaglini— to create a fresh, new restaurant called Fins. It’s a beautiful new place with a nice modern feel. Jeff was an engineer before he retired and went into the restaurant business with his sister Cathy. And Peter Shields did so well that now we’re expanding!
Q: Any advice for someone wishing to get into the restaurant business?
They should know it’s a lot of work, and they need to have the attitude that they can work well with people. It’s a service industry, so it’s largely about hospitality. You need to be a ‘people person’ to do well in it. Our team trains on all aspects of hospitality so they are well equipped to welcome our guests with the utmost care and attention. They need to have the flexibility to be able to take suggestions and provide the service the customer is looking for.
All of my servers are professionals. We’ve had staff here for many years and that’s because they like what they’re doing and they believe in the restaurant. The work is incredibly rewarding though, and we hope that every customer leaves happy and refreshed. — Peter Shields Restaurant uses Metallic Tones, one of the many fine menu cover options offered by Boxerbrand.