Not in the business to change things: Tim’s Shipwreck Diner under new ownership

Business by: Joanne Kountourakis and Chrissy Ruggeri, January 9, 2023

Tim Hess of Tim’s Shipwreck Diner (left) with new owner and Northport Village resident Denis Beyersdorf.

Picture Tim Hess, longtime owner of Tim’s Shipwreck Diner, day in and day out at his landmark breakfast and lunch location, greeting customers, flipping eggs, clearing a table, cracking jokes. Every weekend, since he was 13 years old, Hess has worked at the diner.

“It’s my whole life,” Hess told the Journal from a corner booth at Shipwreck late last week. “It’s the only thing I know.” For 24 years, he worked for his dad, Otto. For the last 25 years, he’s run the ship himself.

Now picture this: Hess in the brand new built-in pool in his East Northport backyard – the same house he grew up in – simply relaxing. Maybe it’s a weekday, maybe it’s the weekend. For the first time in his adult life, Hess has nowhere to be.

The 64-year-old had the 12-by-24-foot pool installed over the summer. “It sounds small but it’s the perfect size,” he said. “What do I do, float?”

This past December, after a few months of conversation and formalities, Hess handed over the keys to his Main Street establishment to Northport Village resident Denis Beyersdorf. When he spoke of the sale of the business, of the transition from his dad’s place to his place to now this, Hess sounded relaxed, at peace with the decision.

It was time.

“Why the hell do you want to buy my diner?”
Born and raised in Huntington, Beyersdorf – a St. Anthony’s alumnus – graduated Fordham University before entering the world of banking. He left to become an apprentice at a local restaurant and was all set to go to the Culinary Institute of America “and a month out, I backed out,” he said. “That was my largest regret in life.”

Beyersdorf re-entered the banking and financial services industry, landing a 24-year-career at Reuters, through all its mergers and acquisitions. In October of 2021, he lost his job. The 49-year-old, who lives in Northport Village with his wife Allison and their two children, Patrick and Claire, took it as an opportunity to stay closer to home, do a 180, reinvent himself, he said.

In March 2022, Beyersdorf mentioned his intentions to a friend, Brad Goldner, and said he was exploring possibilities in the food industry. Goldner, who knows Hess personally, asked if he’d be interested in the Shipwreck.

“At that point I spit my beer out at him. I said ‘That’s in play? No. You’re crazy,’” Beyersdorf recalled. “I didn’t sleep for three days, and I thought if this is even a possibility, holy cow. I’m a Northport guy. How the hell can I let an opportunity like this go by without even exploring it?”

A few months later, after Goldner relayed messages between the two, Hess and Beyersdorf met in person. Hess recognized Beyersdorf as a fairly regular customer. The conversation, said Hess and Beyersdorf, went like this:

Hess: “It’s you.”
Beyersdorf: “Yeah, it’s me.”
Hess: “Why the hell do you want to buy my diner?”
Beyersdorf: “Tim, I’m not buying your diner. I’m going to preserve it. I’m going to join the family.”

A dream come true
Beyersdorf spent June through September 2022 pouring through the history of the diner, and doing the research necessary to make an informed decision. He asked fellow Northporters Jeff Wang and Ed McAllister if they wanted to join him on this journey. They both agreed – almost immediately – to jump on board, and the three friends started a partnership called Harbor Wheel. “Those guys are silent, unless they’re here to eat,” Denis joked. “I am the face, I’m here, I’m going to be the operator and managing partner of the business. They are along for the ride because they wanted to be part of this.”

With the potential takeover in motion, Beyesdorf began to spend two to three days a week at the diner, to see the day-to-day processes, what he called “the dance.” He sat in different seats, visited on different days, brought different people, all to get a better feel for the place.

Hess and Beyersdorf agreed to keep the sale of the business and building quiet until it was a done deal. But Northport is a small town, and the locals began to catch on. Beyersdorf was at the diner more and more often. Inspections would take place on days the diner was closed. “Somehow it started to leak out a little bit and it turned into the worst kept secret,” Beyersdorf said. People who love the Shipwreck were concerned about it closing or changing; if someone was going to take over the diner, they better be from Northport, Beyersdorf overheard. Fortunately, Hess wanted a local to take over, someone he could stay close to and guide throughout the process, said Beyersdorf. Hess knew Denis was his guy.

Though the deal wasn’t official until late December, Denis Beyersdorf, pictured in the Shipwreck last week, has been prepping for his new role of owner since summer 2022.

A handshake deal in October was followed by an official closing on Tuesday, December 20. Keys in hand, an enthusiastic Beyersdorf, dressed in a gingham button-down shirt, arrived at the diner at 6 o’clock Wednesday morning, wanting to be the first one there. Damon Pratt, one of the Shipwreck’s longtime cooks, was already prepping the kitchen.

Beyersdorf began to question what role he should take as a new owner entering such an established dynamic. He considered sitting in his car and waiting a few hours before coming back. But he knew he wanted to be an integral part of the diner; he wanted to learn the ins and outs of the eatery, “from the front lock to the back lock,” he said. So he stayed, and feels that long-ago regret about leaving the food industry was finally correcting itself. (He does admit, after some persuading from customers, to losing his button-downs in favor of sweatshirts, but said he won’t be imitating Hess’ trademark casual style in the way of basketball shorts, ever.)

“It has always been a dream of mine to own a food establishment. The fact that it’s in my own town, the fact that it’s on Main Street, and it’s the Shipwreck, one of the most well-known and historical diners on Long Island, if not New York State, was a dream come true,” he said. “I am 49 years young and I’m happy to say that my dream came true.”

If it’s not broken…
The Shipwreck dates back to the 1920s, when a trolley dining car was rolled onto its current landmark location on Main Street. The then-Northport Diner was bought by Tim’s father, Otto Hess, in the early 1970s. Tim took it over in 1996. In August 2022, in conjunction with its “Iconic Northport” exhibit, the Northport Historical Society honored Hess with the first ever Northport Icon Award.

To this day, the diner itself is revered among locals, for its casual and comfortable environment, its food, for Hess himself. “I don’t see it as a diner,” Beyersdorf said, before quickly allaying fears that he would change the Shipwreck once he took over. “This is historic. This is a piece of Northport,” he said. “It’s going to be just the same as you know it, as anyone who knows this place. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

In time, Denis might humor requests for small changes, for example, to stay open for dinner. When asked about this (it happens often), he always has the same response: “If the time is right, and we can do it and not hurt the quality, or the service, or the experience of people who know and love the Shipwreck, then that’s the time to do it,” he said.

Hess will be around for another six months – and maybe longer – in a capacity he jokes about, but will no doubt benefit his successor. “I get the privilege of learning this diner from him,” Beyersdorf said.

When asked how he felt about moving on from the Shipwreck, Hess’ answer was quick, and honest.

“I have no idea yet,” he said. “It’s still my diner.”

Beyersdorf doesn’t disagree.

“The Shipwreck is Timmy’s legacy,” he said. “I’m not coming in here as a guy who’s in the business to change things. This is something that he’s built.”

Editor’s note: The Facebook post announcing the change of ownership at Tim’s is our most shared post ever, reaching over 18,500 Facebook users in less than three days. It’s a testament to the loyalty of Tim’s customers, and the community he has helped serve for nearly five decades One of our favorite comments is from East Northport resident Jim Munson, who shared this memory:

My dad took me to the diner for the first time in 1980. I was 12. Otto came to our table, and chatted with us for several minutes. I remember thinking, “This is the nicest man I have ever met.” When he walked away, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Son, that’s how you run a business.” Tim learned well from his dad and continued that incredible business acumen as the next generation took over. Now, almost 50 years later… the Hess family is hanging up its collective apron and ending one of the most successful and beloved eras in Northport Village history. Best of luck to Tim and the Hess family in their next chapter. To Denis as well, nothing but good fortune and success as you take over the golden spatula!

Tim’s Shipwreck Diner is located at 46 Main Street in Northport Village.