The past and future of a butcher, donut maker and caterer.
EAST HAMPTON—Dreesen’s Excelsior Market was always much more than a butcher’s shop, or later, a deli and a catering business. Dreesen’s was a community gathering place in the center of East Hampton Village.
Mornings saw regular customers, mostly groups of older men and women, who had been meeting there for years, beginning their day with friendly conversation. They gathered before work to drink coffee around a couple of small, high window tables. In warmer weather, the crowd overflowed onto the sidewalk and the wooden benches.
With the hot coffee, Dreesen’s sold millions of warm plain or sugared donuts served in brown paper bags. People of all ages, including actors and presidents, came from around the world to eat Dreesen’s Famous Donuts.
In the afternoon, customers on lunch breaks from local shops lined up for fountain sodas and tuna-on-rye sandwiches, burgers or homemade soup and a salad. Some took their provisions to the beach. Housewives or house “assistants” would pick up steaks for dinner at the back counter. In the back kitchen caterers prepared food for barbecues. The place never seemed to be still.
The hero in author James Brady’s murder mysteries like
Further Lane often bought the donuts as a gift for his lady friends. East Hampton author Hilary Thayer Hamman’s heroine also made a point of dropping by Dreesen’s in the novel Anthropology of an American Girl.
“Dreesen’s on Newtown Lane is the East Hampton version of Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Everybody goes there for the
donuts. Even the usual suspects,” Brady is quoted as saying on the Dreesen’s Famous Donuts wholesale sheet.
Rudy Sabatino DeSanti Sr.’s father, Rudolf DeSanti, bought Dreesen’s in 1944 from a butcher named Dreesen. The donut idea came from the five and dime store in East Hampton, which sold donuts in the 1940s and then gave their old donut fryer to DeSanti. At the same time, someone else gave the butcher a “Donut Robot,” and the rest is history. The portable donut machine cranked the luscious loops out, in Dreesen’s window, for all to admire, smell and taste.
The secret to the family’s recipe is “just the right amount of nutmeg,” DeSanti Sr. says in the The Donut Book: The Whole Story in Words, Pictures and Outrageous Tales by Sally Levitt Steinberg.
DeSanti Sr.’s grandfather, Sabatino DeSanti, a brickmaker, came from a small village in the mountains, a little north of Rome, called Ginestra Sabina.
“It’s as beautiful as it sounds,” says DeSanti Sr.
“Of course I’ve been to Ginestra Sabina. It’s stunning. There are grapes, olives, and the vistas are beautiful,” he says. “I don’t know what possessed my grandfather to come to Sag Harbor in the 1900s, but he loved it here.”
Like his father, DeSanti Sr. started as a butcher. He took over the reins of the business in 1970.
When Dreesen’s closed in 2006, East Hampton Village felt a huge loss. People were angry another institution had gone by the wayside. Although a customer can get the donuts elsewhere, like Scoop du Jour, which occupies part of the old Dreesen’s, and the catering side still exists in the back kitchen, it is not the same.
But the hole Dreesen’s left in the village may be filled yet.
A new era of Dreesen’s is being ushered in by Rudy Sabatino
DeSanti Jr., beginning with a brand new kitchen in a brand new building on Lumber Lane. When the family sold the building on Newtown Lane, they bought another piece of property and started fresh.
The future is uncertain. It’s up to the notoriously negative village hall to zone the space for a wet license that would allow a business the right to have seats, but new beginnings are rarely easy. DanceHampton rented the studio above the new kitchen, and two other commercial spaces are available to rent.
“I want to get it going by July 1,” says DeSanti Sr. at the building site. Etched in the cement in the back of the building are the names of his four grandchildren.
“This is Rudy’s,” says DeSanti Sr., stepping inside his son’s new kitchen. “The business kept going along, and each person runs it in their own avenue. Dreesen had his. My father had his. I had mine, and Rudy is doing his thing.”
“I like the kitchen part of the business,” says DeSanti Jr. “It’s working out well. It’s only going to get better with the new kitchen. It will be all on the first floor, set up for deliveries, a walk-in refrigerator will be right there. The whole thing will be more efficient.”
Prime meats were the first products that Dreesen’s offered and still top the list. The most popular items are New York strip steak, filet mignon, skirt steaks, baby lamb chops, baby back ribs and of course freshly ground beef for hamburgers, perfect for summer barbecues. They have a longstanding collaboration with meat supplier Jules Wicksman of Oceanside, New York.
The exclusive Maidstone Club in East Hampton serves Dreesen’s sliders to members at parties, but anyone can have a Dreesen’s burger at the Harbor Bistro on Three Mile Harbor Road in East Hampton and Indian Wells Tavern in Amagansett, among other places.
“My customers tell me, ‘your fresh ground beef is the best.’ Whenever you need, I’m here. I’m not just Monday to Wednesday like when you buy meat in bulk,” he says. Dreesen’s also makes their own barbecue sauce which is sold by the pint or quart. “It’s kind of a secret,” says DeSanti Jr. “Not smokey, more on the sweet side but not too sweet.” Dreesen’s specializes in “old-fashioned, homestyle food.” Salads and sides are prepared from local produce, such as Bistrian’s corn, when available.
Dreesen’s has been feeding certain mouths for decades, and its role in the food economy extends beyond retail and wholesale. The first thing DeSanti Jr. does in the mornings, Monday through Friday, is make the meals for Meals on Wheels of East Hampton, founded by his father and a partner in 1983. Gretchen Howe, the executive director, runs the office and organizes the volunteers. “I do all the food and ordering,” he says of the meals for 50 homes. Each person gets one hot meal, a sandwich, milk, juice, fruit and pastry per day. A frozen meal is prepared on Friday for Saturday. Special needs requests such as low sodium or no ham are honored. That’s 250–300 meals per week, and that number goes up in the summer, and includes meals for “residents of the town of East Hampton who are homebound or unable to prepare and/or shop for food regardless of age. Referrals accepted from relatives, friends, physicians, clergy, health and social agencies,” according to an online community listing for Meals on Wheels of East Hampton. The nonprofit organization gets by on private donations and the odd grant. (Volunteers pack the meals in coolers and deliver. There are always volunteer opportunities available.)
Back in the old kitchen, DeSanti Jr. says, “Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been in here.” He graduated from East Hampton High School and then attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He is married with two boys, Patrick, nine, and Rudy III, 12, who has already started washing dishes and sweeping floors. “He wants to be a chef,” DeSanti Jr. says of his son. “I always say he’s a little too smart for that.”
DeSanti Jr. will also run the concession stand at the Amagansett Beach Association near Indian Wells this summer. DeSanti says he will hire “a couple of cooks and some younger people to work the window. This is new for me. It will be fun. The dunes, the water, the atmosphere.” Hamburgers, fried-flounder sandwich, crab cakes, Cobb salad and fried chicken will be on the menu. When asked if his sons would work at the beach stand, he says, “My boys are dying to work. They’re just a little too short.”
Unfortunately, the snack bar will not be open to the public, but you can always call Dreesen’s for your next dinner, barbecue or party. At the very least, Dreesen’s will continue as a caterer. At the most, the caterer will become a retail shop and takeout, as it was for generations. A place to sit down would be even better. Are you listening, East Hampton Village?
Kelly Ann Smith lives and writes in Springs.