CAPE MAY — Toby Craig and his three children gathered around a patio table at their Cape May Winery on a recent summer morning for one of their famous family meetings.
For the Craig family, owners of the Washington Inn and Lucky Bones restaurants, Cape May Winery, and the Love the Cook and Cape May Roasters stores in town, the meetings have paid off.
Every decision they’ve made through the years has been done as a family. Every possible venture has been analyzed and discussed, starting in 1976 when Toby and Rona decided to leave their teaching jobs in Delaware and move to Cape May.
In June 1776, the crew of the colonial ship Nancy, on the way back from the Caribbean with g…
The topics of discussion can vary wildly. On this day, sons Michael and David and daughter Betsy Sole told stories about their humble beginnings in the local restaurant scene, interspersed with the good-natured digs that often occur between siblings.
Off to the side, Toby smiled through his sadness. June 26 marked two years since Rona, his wife of 56 years, passed away.
“A lot of the reasons our family is so close is because of their mother,” Toby said. “She was the person who kept everything going, who organized our family meetings. She kept us all together.”
CAPE MAY — A local ice cream shop that had its Pride Month decorations stolen and vandalized…
Besides their skill at business, the family is known even more for their willingness to help the community, whether it’s through charitable donations or providing their restaurants for civic gatherings.
“Everyone knows they’re very charitable and they’ve helped so many people,” Cape May Mayor Chuck Lear said. “And they are so down to earth. You can see Toby, his two boys or Betsy and it’s just continuing the conversation you had the last time you saw them. They are just a great family. I love every one of them.”
Toby spent his boyhood summers at his grandmother’s home in Cape May Point and was a member of the Cape May Beach Patrol in 1958-59. He dreamed of raising his family by the beach.
MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Looking out over a field of low brush and wildflowers, Denise South sees h…
They moved into a house on North Street in Cape May. Rona returned to teaching, and Toby became a businessman while the kids took on summer jobs.
Their reputation as hands-on owners of the businesses is evident by the callouses on their hands and dirt on their fingernails.
“We developed our work ethic as children,” Betsy said. “My first job was cleaning the steps of the Hotel Alcott next door by hand. I was around 8 or 9. I think I was paid 25 cents a day.”
Another family meeting led to them buying the Washington Inn in 1979.
At the time, the downstairs was a tea room. The Craigs moved upstairs, which featured all of three rooms and a bathroom.
“We went from a 15-room house about a block from the beach to a three-room space in the middle of town,” Toby said. “In the winters, we’d take the furniture off the porch and put it in front of the fireplace.”
At the time, Cape May’s top restaurants were considered to be the Lobster House, the Merion Inn and the Top of the Marq at the Marquis de Lafayette Hotel. In 1981, the Washington Inn joined the list after the Craigs acquired a liquor license and turned it into a restaurant that is now considered one of the best fine-dining establishments on the East Coast and a go-to place for wedding rehearsal dinners, anniversaries and other special occasions.
“Our dad is a genius,” said Michael, who now owns the Washington Inn. “He has that ability to visualize and create something special.”
Michael, David and Betsy all worked at the restaurant as teenagers while becoming outstanding student-athletes at Lower Cape May Regional High School.
Michael (Class of 1981) and David (1983) were both members of the Lower Cape May football team that went undefeated during the regular season in the fall of 1980 and reached the South Jersey Group III playoffs. David was also a standout wrestler, winning a District 32 title. Betsy (1985), a member of Lower Cape May’s Athletic Hall of Fame, went on to play field hockey at Michigan State University.
The Craigs had another great restaurant when it opened the Pelican Club at the old Top of the Marq but were forced to close at the end of summer 2005 when the hotel owners decided to convert the space into condos.
Another family meeting led to opening Lucky Bones, site of the old Anchorage Inn and briefly 1919 Restaurant, in 2006.
“There are a lot of good restaurants in town, but there wasn’t any place where you could get a brick-oven pizza and a glass of wine or a beer,” said David, who owns Lucky Bones. “Betsy always thought it would be a big hit. She thought it was a concept that Cape May needed.”
While the Pelican Club was open, Toby Craig ran into Bill Hayes, a former member of the Coast Guard who owned and operated a small winery on Town Bank Road in Lower Township.
Toby had offered to buy the winery a few years earlier. In 2003, Hayes sold it to him.
Betsy co-owns the winery with her father while also overseeing the Gene Sole Scholarship Fund in memory of her late husband, a decorated Marine Corps veteran and former junior high school principal and coach who lost his fight against cancer in 2011.
Most recently, David has developed a food truck called Rolling Bones.
“Not everything we’ve tried has worked out,” David said. “But our parents taught us to never be afraid to fail. If something doesn’t work, you just cut bait and move on.”
After a family meeting, of course.