How Scott Kammerer Transformed Delaware's Hospitality Industry
The Rehoboth-based restaurateur didn't expect to suddenly take over the state's biggest restaurant group—but under his leadership, SoDel Concepts has grown even more.
Scott Kammerer’s strong leadership has helped SoDel Concepts continue to expand after the death of company founder Matt Haley in 2014.//Photo by Jim Coarse
Scott Kammerer is a man with a plan.
When he wanted to become a championship high school wrestler, he crafted an agenda of achievable goals. As a young adult enthralled by the hospitality industry, he sharpened his pencil again.
“I wrote out a timeline and a list of what I needed to learn to become a successful restaurateur,” Kammerer says.
All the planning has paid off. An All-American wrestler who won a New Jersey state title in 1991, Kammerer is president of SoDel Concepts, a hospitality company with 10 restaurants at the Delaware beaches, as well as The Clubhouse at Baywood, located a few miles inland in Long Neck. SoDel also has a catering division, food truck, consulting business, hospitality management division and a film company to make its many commercials and YouTube videos. What’s more, there is a proprietary line of gourmet flavored sea salts and artisan sodas. The $50 million company employs up to 700 people, depending on the time of year.
Kammerer took over in 2014, the year that Matt Haley, SoDel Concepts’ founder, died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle crash in India. In the aftermath, Kammerer remained steady under pressure. “I have a lot of respect for him,” says Xavier Teixido, the founder of Harry’s Hospitality Group and the former president of the National Restaurant Association and the Delaware Restaurant Association. “His leadership in a very difficult time demonstrates terrific skill.”
But Kammerer would have eventually reached a pinnacle without being pushed into the role. “He’s a strong operator,” Teixido says.
Since Haley’s death, Kammerer, 43, has already earned the Delaware Restaurant Association’s 2016 Cornerstone Award and the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce’s Marvin S. Gilman Superstar in Business Award. He makes it look easy. It’s not. While he likes to have a plan, his path toward success was paved with big bumps and sharp detours.
A competitive edge
Kammerer was born in Edison, New Jersey, but spent his early years in Presidential Lakes, an unincorporated community surrounded by the Pine Barrens. His father did medical research for Johnson & Johnson. His mother was director of nursing in nursing homes. Kammerer is the second of their three sons. (His younger brother passed away when Kammerer was 28.)
Kammerer was 12 when he got started in the food industry by picking blueberries and selling them at his aunt’s roadside stand. That same year, the family left the Pine Barrens for East Brunswick, New Jersey.
At East Brunswick High School, Kammerer played football in the fall and wrestled through the winter. He relished flexing the mental and physical muscles it took to win. “They say once you wrestle, everything else is easy,” says Kammerer, a heavyweight whose father was also a championship wrestler. “It was about proving myself.”
He spent the summers in Ocean City, New Jersey. “I learned how to fish for bluefish and cook them,” he says. “I learned how to pull mussels from the jetty, how to clam, how to cook flounder. That’s the basis for my love of seafood.”
A wrestling scholarship took Kammerer to Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania, where he met wife-to-be Lisa, a Sussex County native. “It was love at first sight,” he says. “I knew I would marry her.”
Lisa recalls feeling flustered when she had to use the phone in his room during a party. “I knew who he was, but I’d never talked to him before,” she says. “I hung up the phone and was getting ready to walk out. I said to myself, ‘You have to say something. This is your chance.’” She noticed a textbook in his hand, which seemed odd given the party going on around them. “Are you studying?” she asked incredulously. He closed the book. “Not anymore,” he told her.
The classroom held little appeal for Kammerer. “All I wanted was to get my hands into something and get into the world,” he says. Soon after meeting Lisa, he moved home to attend Middlesex County College, then Rutgers University.
Finding a calling
Kammerer and Lisa, who would graduate with a degree in education, endured a long-distance romance for several years. “It was awful,” Lisa says. In the summer, they worked at the beach. She was a server at Royal Treat in Rehoboth, and he washed dishes. “I loved it the moment I started doing it,” he says. “I loved the people. I loved the food. I loved the action. I loved the summer.”
He ticked off each of the skills he believed he needed to succeed. He cooked, hosted, bused and waited tables, and tended bar. “I honestly enjoyed washing dishes and taking out the trash as much as being the president of one of the largest restaurant groups in Delaware,” he says. He worked at the iconic Rehoboth Beach area restaurants, including the Seahorse, the Garden Gourmet, The Starboard and the Renegade.
He had another motivation to succeed. In 1996, Lisa gave birth to Griffin. “When my son was born, I got sober,” says Kammerer, who describes himself as cross-addicted. “I joined AA, and then I followed the plan,” he says. “It’s the only time in my life I really listened and did what I was told. My sobriety is the foundation for everything that I have in my life now.”
The couple wed in 1997. Kammerer counts his wedding ring as his most prized possession. Griffin is a senior at Swarthmore College. The Kammerers have two other sons. Holden is a freshman at Franklin & Marshall College. Carson is in eighth grade. All are athletes, which is not surprising considering that Kammerer coaches wrestling, Little League and basketball.
Fate steps in
While the kids were still young, Kammerer’s timeline to success accelerated.
After an AA meeting at Epworth United Methodist Church, he first met Haley, who had relocated from Washington, D.C., to help a friend open Third Edition in Rehoboth Beach. At that time, Kammerer was the general manager at Jake’s Seafood House. They chatted about the business. “I’m going to build a restaurant empire,” Haley told him. “Me, too,” Kammerer said. Haley, known for gut reactions, suggested they do it together. In 2000, Kammerer left Jake’s, and the pair started a consulting company.
As Haley opened Redfin in North Bethany Beach, later renamed Bluecoast Seafood Grill + Raw Bar, Kammerer opened Bluewater Grill in Millsboro with John Rishko and Nelia Dolan, whose sister is friends with Lisa. The couples’ children are close in age. “Whenever Scott and I were together, we would talk restaurant,” Nelia Dolan says. “We both just loved the business and loved to talk about it.”
As Bluewater’s managing partner, Kammerer was rarely home, Lisa says. He finally left the business in order to help Haley with a new management contract. In quick succession, Haley opened new restaurants, and Kammerer became more involved with SoDel Concepts, finally earning the title of director of operations. “Matt really opened my mind up,” he says. “He told me I should create the kind of life I wanted to live for myself.”
Ronnie Burkle, now a director of operations and a longtime chef with SoDel, recalls meeting Kammerer for the first time at SoDel’s Catch 54 in Fenwick Island. “I recognized immediately that he knew a lot about the industry, everything from design, branding, marketing, cuisine and finance,” Burkle says. “He excels in all of it—a plethora of knowledge, if you will.”
The magnetic Haley, whose charm was as abundant as his ambition, remained the front man, even as his passion for travel and philanthropy grew. His reputation for being brutally honest about his life, which included drug addiction and prison time, and his willingness to speak to others about it earned him attention both in the state and outside of it. In 2014, Haley received the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award.
While Haley traveled the world, Kammerer and his team kept the restaurants going—and growing. “He struck me as a behind-the-scenes everyman,” says Carrie Leishman, president and CEO of the Delaware Restaurant Association, who remembers Kammerer’s discomfort in front of the camera when he was filmed for a video celebrating Haley’s Cornerstone Award.
By 2014, travel and two bouts with cancer kept Haley out of most day-to-day operations. Kammerer helped Haley prepare a plan in case something happened or if Haley decided to bow out to pursue his interests.
Kammerer called on all that experience and planning in August 2014, when he got the news that Haley had been hit by a truck while motorcycling in India. “It was that 3 a.m. call that changes your life,” Kammerer says. “For 10 years, I had talked to Matt every day. He was a mentor, best friend and member of the family. It changed my life forever.”
In the days after Haley’s death, Kammerer recalled how often Haley had asked him: Are you in or are you out? It was Haley’s way to make a person stop, think and commit. Kammerer assembled his executive team, most of whom are still with the company, and created a plan to move forward. The behind-the-scenes worker bee was suddenly in the limelight. “It was a place he might not have wanted,” Leishman says. “My respect and admiration for him have grown exponentially, largely because he did not expect it.”
But Kammerer had always wanted to run a restaurant group, and he was up to the task.
“I’ll never forget how seamlessly Scott assumed control of SoDel Concepts after we lost Matt,” says Bob Yesbek, a food writer for the Cape Gazette and a friend of Haley’s. “He not only kept the company running profitably, but he has improved it and expanded it. The construction and eventual opening of the new Bluecoast Rehoboth this summer is testament to Scott Kammerer and his entire team. Matt would be so proud.”
Leishman says Kammerer has gone above and beyond what Haley might have dreamed—and Haley could dream big. “Scott has taken it and built the company for his people. He has become this unbelievable advocate not only for his industry but also for his people in southern Delaware. He’s taken that role, and he has rocked it.”
The new Bluecoast is proof of that. The restaurant, located on Del. 1, has a large dining room, a smaller room for private events, a raw bar, a bar, an outdoor bar, a patio and a covered porch.
Despite his athletic brawn, Kammerer likes to decorate. He and Lisa—with the help of Milton resident and designer Carey Graviet and SoDel Concepts employees Dan Levin and Phill Blush—handled the interior design, which has more luxe touches than SoDel’s previous restaurants. Consider bright local art, plump pillows in the waiting area and faux suede banquettes. The kitchen team is largely made up of employees who have worked their way through the ranks.
Since Haley’s death, Kammerer has given the company more structure. The fashionable office on Rehoboth Avenue is decorated with furniture and artwork purchased for Haley’s estate. Doug Ruley was named vice president and corporate chef. Mike Dickinson, vice president of operations, oversees several directors of operations. SoDel has its own onsite human resource person, a sommelier and a controller. Dolan is now the marketing director.
“There is a great team there, a ton of people I have grown to love and admire, and I think we all work well together,” she says. “And Scott is at the helm, and it just works. Everyone respects him and wants to work hard to make SoDel great. We are all invested.”
Seeing others happy makes him happy, says Kammerer, whose dream jobs include being the mayor of a large city or a coach for a professional sports team. It’s important to him that everyone shares in the accolades. “Scott became the new face of the company, but made sure he wasn’t the only face,” Burkle says. “He made it all of our faces, as a team.”
SoDel Cares, the company’s philanthropic foundation, carries on Haley’s commitment to giving. It’s a legacy that is ingrained in what’s become a strong company culture. “Scott is a true humanitarian,” says Teixido of Harry’s Hospitality. “He believes in other people in this community.”
Burkle says Kammerer continues to set goals and makes sure the company meets them. He starts each morning with a plan.
“Each day,” Kammerer says, “I get up, and I try to make the world a better place.” It’s a quest, he says, that never gets old.