Matt Haley’s So Del restaurant empire booms after his death

Scott Kammerer
Scott Kammerer runs SoDel Concepts from his Rehoboth Avenue office where he keeps a desk given to him and his late partner Matt Haley as a thank-you gift from one of their restaurant consulting clients.// Photography by Brian Harvath

By Kathy Canavan

The morning after restaurateur Matt Haley died in a motorcycle crash last August, his business partner Scott Kammerer called their restaurant employees together at Haley’s Rehoboth Beach house.

“I said, ‘Are you in or are you out, because if you’re in, we’re going to put our heads down and work, and it’s not going to be easy,” Kammerer said. “What we did was essentially execute our 10-year plan. I felt like Matt had been working toward this for a long time. His life was no longer about the center of the plate. It was about leveraging the businesses to help others.”

It’s clear the food service staff wasn’t born yesterday, but they were, on average, born around 1986. Even the corporate execs have an average age of 36.

Still, when Kammerer asked, nobody opted out.

Several stepped up and asked for more responsibility. A server was promoted to general manager. A chef was named a vice president. An assistant manager dropped the “assistant” in her title.

Almost a year after Haley’s death, his So Del Concepts is prospering. Sales have been up 40 percent every month this year — even in May, usually a slump month in a seasonal town.

Marketing Manager Nelia Dolan called it “a huge relief for everyone.”

The company is scouting for locations in New Castle County and Ocean City, Md. Meanwhile, in the past 12 weeks they have coordinated events for three nonprofits, run a food program for inmates at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution, and raised $30,000 for Nepal earthquake relief.

“We built the business to be flexible, so it operated without Matt’s day-to-day involvement,” Kammerer said. “He was in Nepal for three months last year and we served 60,000 crab cakes. You ask the question, ‘Who was making the crab cakes?’ ”

Haley-Kammerer was a match made in a 12-step program that snowballed into eight restaurants, plate catering for 400 events a year, a food truck, a soda business, a documentary film arm, a hospitality-management company, and a restaurant-consulting business that turns down 10 customers a month.

Kammerer, more than a decade younger than his mentor Haley, came to the state 23 years ago with $17 and a bicycle, arriving via the Cape May–Lewes Ferry. He worked his way from dishwasher at the old Royal Treat in Rehoboth to CEO of a company that boasts $50 million in annual sales.

“It was never about the money — well, maybe a little about the money,” Kammerer said, laughing. “And Matt always wanted to make a dollar so he could give it away.”

Immediately after his friend’s death, Kammerer’s future forked. He said he felt scared and uncertain for maybe an hour running a company with so many moving parts. “Then,” he said, “I realized that all I had to do was wake up the next morning and believe in the people I work with.”

That week, as if someone had flipped a switch, Kammerer began getting calls as the heir apparent to the star restaurateur. “When Matt passed away, Governor Markell called me and offered his support, Senator Coons called and offered me his spiritual support, and Alan Levin, who had been through a similar situation in his life, offered to help me and mentor me. I feel like you don’t get that in a big state,” Kammerer said. “That’s the kind of support and collaboration that makes Delaware a special place.”

Kammerer sought advice from Michelle Freeman, Haley’s girlfriend, who took over Carl M. Freeman Companies after her husband died in an auto accident in 1998, and Levin, who became CEO of Happy Harry’s after his father died in 1987.

Levin, whose son Dan is So Del Concepts’ HR director, offered to serve as a sounding board for Kammerer because he went through a similar transition when he was 32.

“When you’re in a new role, you always need somebody to bounce ideas off,” Levin said. “My dad had always been that person. I called him my fudge factor because he was always there to ask. After my dad passed away, I kind of turned around over my shoulder and he wasn’t there.”

Kammerer quickly announced that Levin would sign on as a “senior adviser.” “Scott just loves calling me ‘senior,’ ” said Levin, who added that he was fortunate enough not to have to draw a salary. When he worked as development director, he donated his state salary to a different Delaware charity every two weeks.

So Del employees said Haley’s number-crunching and load-bearing partner was able to move into the front man role fast because he had always been behind the scenes ordering, scanning spreadsheets, tracking sales and making business plans.

And Carrie Leishman, president of the Delaware Restaurant Association, said, “Scott was the soldier who moved that company forward, in my opinion. Matt was busy in the last few years, and Matt had a lot of faith in Scott running that company. I think you’re going to see a new level of commitment to growing the company even faster than it’s already grown. Scott has the energy, and he doesn’t have the same distractions Matt had. Matt was really busy in the last couple years. “

Michael Dickinson, an operations manager, said Kammerer tightened up So Del’s one-year-, five-year-, and 10-year-growth plans so they’ll be ready when the right opportunity comes along.

Papa Grande's
Papa Grande’s is one of several businesses in the So Del Concepts portfolio concepts.

“The beauty of Matt was he was so smart and his mind worked so quickly that he had the plan in his head, but he didn’t always divulge it to you. It was like, ‘Oh, you bought Papa Grande’s today? Let me put some shoes on and I’ll meet you up there,” Dickinson said. “Scott is much more strategic with the long-term vision of the company. He looks at the numbers more. When he called us all together, he said, ‘My job is no longer to make sure the crab cakes get made. My job now is to make sure the restaurants are up and running and we have enough money to buy the crabmeat.’ ”

“Matt and Scott were very, very different,” Dickinson said. “Matt was single. Scott’s got a wife and he’s got three kids. He’s much more family-oriented. I remember one time when I worked a six-week stretch with a day or two off. We’ll still work 60 to 65 hours a week, but there’s an understanding that we’re family people, and we need our time with our families as much as we need to be in the restaurants. ”

Dolan, a former restaurant owner herself, said the success or failure of a restaurant happens in the back office, and Kammerer can just look at a spreadsheet and spot a problem.

“Due to his vast experience with so many restaurant models and also the way his brain works, he can look at the numbers and tell the story better than the people who are working at a location day to day,” Dolan said. “Having the ability to pinpoint and, many times, foresee problems and project budgets is so important. And when you are managing so many restaurants, it is invaluable.”

One point Haley and Kammerer differ on is the move to increase significantly the minimum wage.

While Haley said he tried living on minimum wage and couldn’t, Kammerer called the move to a high minimum wage a barrier to entering the restaurant business, although even dishwashers at So Del make more than the minimum wage.

“There’s no barrier to getting into the restaurant industry,” he said. “Anybody can get in at the lowest level as a dishwasher and their way up to running a restaurant. I don’t think they should take that opportunity away from people. If there were a $15 minimum wage, I would not have gotten hired as a dishwasher, because I was not a $15-an-hour dishwasher. I think people should be encouraged to improve themselves.”

Kammerer referred to servers as “commission-based salespeople.” “It’s one of the few places that you can make as much money as you can make,” he said.

The company promotes from within. As Dolan put it, “When you have people who have been here for a long time, they already have a good understanding of what the vision is.”

“Scott’s biggest strength is his ability to recognize great employees and put them in spots where they can succeed,” said Jim Affeldt, an operations manager.

Kammerer, a former football player, likened it to building a winning sports team.

“You can’t have five quarterbacks and six running backs. You need very specific skills. The collection of talent that we have is amazing in all our positions. It’s a matter of when they’re going to be great, not if.”

Levin forecasted more success for So Del Concepts: “The team that Scott leads is probably the best team of individuals I’ve ever had a chance to work with. They’re all pushing for the same goals — to put out a quality product and continue the legacy of a person they love,” he said. “I’m not trying to equate it with Happy Harry’s, but in a lot of ways it’s similar to when I took over with all these individuals who loved and admired my dad. They’ve got a great team.”

So Del Concepts in the First State

Restaurants

Papa Grande’s Coastal Taqueria

Fenwick Island and Rehoboth Beach

Bluecoast Seafood grill and Raw Bar

North Bethany

Catch 54 Fish House

Selbyville

Fish On Seafood Grill & Bar

Lewes

Matt’s Fish Camp

North Bethany

Lupo Italian Kitchen

Rehoboth Beach

Northeast Seafood Kitchen

Ocean View

Catering

Plate Catering

Food Truck

Big Thunder Roadside Kitchen

Filmmaking

SoDel Films

Beverages

Matt’s Homemade Sodas

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