AMAGANSETT—Standing behind the counter of a grab-and-go breakfast-lunch spot has taught Mary Schoenlein a lot about people in the past nine years. It kind of boils down to this: People don’t like change, except when they ask for it.
Schoenlein, the owner of Mary’s Marvelous on Main Street in Amagansett, during the summer feeds the frantic recreationer, but over the winter a stream of locals keeps her in business. There are some she sees every day and others who will call her at home if she takes an item off the menu.
“People got upset when I stopped making the curried chicken salad sandwich,” she says. “We had another kind of chicken salad, and everybody makes a curried chicken salad, but that’s what they wanted.”
She is not complaining. In fact, the evolution of her business—from a stripped down selection of pastries and sandwiches, to an ever-changing chalkboard of breakfast sandwiches, soups, grains, vegetables, and meat dishes—was prompted by her standby customers, who came to depend on Mary’s for breakfast, lunch and (reheated-at-home) dinner. From the very beginning, “people were just wanting to grab food and get to their next thing. New Yorkers, especially on vacation, want that lifestyle,” says Schoenlein. Then as customers started coming back and asking for more, the prepared foods started creeping in. “They’d say ‘this is great, but how about a salad?’ or ‘Do you have anything I could bring home for dinner?’”
For Schoenlein what her customers want is as important, and maybe more so, than her desire for creativity. It shows in how many of those who enter her store greet her by name, ask after her family and talk about their lives, as Schoenlein listens like she has all day. Despite the exclamation mark in her logo, Mary’s Marvelous conveys a steady dedication to quality where the answer to the question “What’s good here?” is answered by other customers and staff alike, “Everything!”
And everything is prepared in the diminutive 1,100-squarefoot space. Egg dishes for breakfast, 12 different types of pastry, muffins, prepared sandwiches, salads, hot food like curried tofu, sautéed kale from Balsam’s Farm and Waldorf salad. Chicken potpies sit in the case next to macaroni and cheese. Cupcakes are surrounded by spiced nuts and the dozen or so different cookies baked in the small kitchen. There are sablés, regular and chocolate, peanut butter filled peanut butter cookies, fresh lime shortbread, Mary O’s, just like Oreos but better, and what Schoenlein calls her American line, good old chocolate chips and oatmeal raisin.
The menu also reflects the diversity in the kitchen. The housemade salsa is prepared using a recipe provided by one of the Ecuadorian cooks, which uses tomate de arbol, a tree tomato native to South America that results in a creamy pale orange sauce. The eggs Colombian are rolled in a tortilla and have crumbled potato chips in a decidedly Andean flourish. Outside of home kitchens, Mary’s Marvelous offers some of the South Fork’s only madefrom-scratch arepas, thick corn cakes filled with milk, butter and white cheese, or shredded beef, guacamole and hard-boiled egg.
In the winter, with the Amagansett Farmers Market, Vicki’s Veggies and much of Montauk shuttered, Mary’s is perhaps the last food option for eastbound roadtrippers. So, it’s not unusual that, on any given day in winter, a line of customers snakes away from the cash register, toward the back of the shop and then back toward the front, forming a horseshoe around a center table arranged with the shop’s own packaged products and selected artisan
foods from around the country. During a recent “quiet” week, the shop went through 120 dozen eggs, a number that quadruples in summer. The shop goes through 1,000 pounds of flour each week. For Thanksgiving, they sold nearly 80 pies, mostly pumpkin, double-crusted apple, and pecan. Mary’s sells “gallons and gallons” of chicken soup, made fresh three or four times a week.
Mary’s opened in 2002, but Schoenlein’s cooking career began nearly two decades before when she moved to New York City and talked her way into the kitchens of trendsetting Gotham restaurants, like Jonathan Waxman’s Jams on the Upper East Side. She honed her pastry skills during a stint at a two-star Michelin restaurant in Versailles, France, and deepened her reverence for impeccable ingredients alongside Alfred Portale when Gotham Bar and Grill received its first New York Times stars.
Schoenlein and her husband ultimately wanted out of the city. They found a home in Amagansett, and Schoenlein became the executive chef of the late Red Horse Market on Montauk Highway, east of East Hampton. There she started her own line of granola, called Mary’s Marvelous at the suggestion of a friend, a suggestion that Schoenlein first doubted but it stuck. (More than a few customers have made the granola—a mix of oats, maple syrup sent direct from a farm in Vermont, jumbo raisins, and “just a few other ingredients”—their morning staple for the last decade. “It’s baked in small batches,” says Schoenlein. “We’re very conscious about keeping it fresh.”)
When the Red Horse Market closed, Schoenlein started looking for a space for her own business. The space, at the eastern end of the row of shops in Amagansett, had once been the Coach outlet but before that, in the ’70s, it had been the Store, run by Bert Greene, who went on to become a food writer and cookbook author. The Store was one of the first to sell prepared gourmet food, preceding even the Barefoot Contessa in East Hampton. The landlord heard she was looking for a place and gave her a call. It was a perfect match, a store with plenty of parking ideally
located for beachgoers seeking breakfast and lunch. Schoenlein’s husband, Pat McKibbin, who works for South Fork builder Bulgin & Associates, redesigned the space and was side-by-side with Schoenlein as they sledgehammered the concrete slab to lay a new kitchen floor. Later, when the business quickly grew, McKibbin helped build out storage and refrigerator space. (“He’s really been my rock in starting this whole venture,” Schoenlein says. “Starting my own business was a dream. Pat helped me realize it.”)
And for 10 years this coming summer, Mary’s Marvelous has served customers seven days per week, opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 4 p.m. (3 p.m. on Sundays). She now has a full-time staff of 13, and her sister, Sandra, has been
there since the beginning. Another sister, Laura, worked there but died of cancer, something customers still talk about and remember.
Change still hovers. This year, in response to customer requests, Schoenlein added gluten-free offerings and more vegan specialties. Items like raw kale salad, a butternut squash and spinach gratin, and quinoa cakes are just a rotating roster of in-season additions that consistently sell out. In the home-meal category, her turkey meat loaf and chicken potpie remain big sellers.
Schoenlein continues to consider expansion as the volume of her business bumps up against the tiny kitchen. She’s investing in her Web site, taking notes for a cookbook, and, with her longhaired miniature dachshund, Bijoux, at her feet, spending more time in her office, which had to be moved to another building so she could expand the kitchen. This year, she says, after a decade of “working ma butt off,” was the first she didn’t have to come in on weekends.
And while she has tried to get some distance from the day to day, the demands of 4 a.m. pastry-baking, after-closing stock and soup-making, and her own ongoing urge to get her hands coated in flour, all pull her back in. She depends on “an incredible staff,” including cooks who head up pastry, savory and other elements. But Schoenlein still designs all the menus.
“It amazes me. It still amazes me,” she says. “All the time and all the work that goes into making good food.”
Eileen M. Duffy, Edible East End’s deputy editor, holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the International Wine Center and writes from her home in Southold.