ORLEANS — “Don't change the onion rings recipe.” That's what Liam's at Nauset Beach owner John Ohman heard when he took over Philbrick's snack shack there almost three decades ago.
But, as Ohman realizes more than most, there's no stopping change when an ocean and a shoreline meet. On Monday at 5 p.m., selectmen and other town officials will talk about whether to tear down Liam's in the wake of the weekend's high winds and punishing tides.
“The pictures don't do it justice,” Ohman said this week of the storm's force. “There's no sand in front of Liam's. There's a 10-foot drop, and the tide is starting to undermine the foundation. Three and a half days ago, there was 80 feet of sand.”
Working against time and tide to salvage what he can, Ohman was packing up with volunteer helpers at high tide March 5 when waves came over the building. “Two in a row,” he said. “It shuddered, literally shook. You thought you'd had a traffic accident.”
The storm was selective. It wiped out the sand protecting Liam's and the town's gazebo – host to concerts, weddings, and even annual meetings of the county's legislature – but spared for a while the administration building, which may have little as four feet of protection.
Leslie Fields, the Woods Hole Group coastal geologist who's been working on short- and long-term retreat plans for the beach, visited Nauset and prepared a notification letter to the conservation commission and the state Department of Environmental Protection. It states that the town will act, under the DEP's Severe Weather Emergency Declaration, to protect public health and safety by removing Liam's, the gazebo, and an old septic system exposed by the storm. On March 7, the selectmen approved moving the gazebo back from the ocean, with the understanding that it might not remain intact in the process. The next step after that will be dune restoration, which may require permitting from the Cape Cod National Seashore.
The selectmen had planned to vote March 7, as parks commissioners, on the demolition and dune restoration to protect the town parking lot and the main septic system. Building and facility stabilization and municipal self-insurance funds are two likely sources.
The commissioners had intended also to vote on terminating Ohman's lease for the Liam's building, which runs to November 2022. Town Administrator John Kelly and Town Counsel Michael Ford were working on an option for him to operate a mobile food establishment at Nauset through 2022. On March 7, the commissioners learned that no action could be taken until it received a structural engineer's report on the condition of the concession shack. The report should be available for their March 12 meeting.
The Chronicle spoke with Ohman before he had heard from the town regarding that possibility.
“The new rage in the United States of America is food trucks,” he said with a chuckle. “I moved to Cape Cod in a food truck in 1977. I came down to Cape Cod and crashed the party.” He ran beach concessions in Dennis, Harwich and Yarmouth, bought Kate's Seafood in Brewster in 1986, and took over the lease at Nauset Beach in the winter of 1989-1990. “Liam was six months old when we named it after him,” Ohman said of his eldest son. “He's now 28.”
All those years ago, about 125 yards separated Liam's and the water. “There was so much room you didn't know what to do with it,” Ohman recalled. “(But) Nauset is a living beach. It did some serious living this week. I was there at high tide (Monday). It was magnificent.”
Ohman said he would “love it if the town would consider what they originally planned to do,” which was build a relocatable concession building in the parking lot.
“I want everyone to know we still own Kate's Seafood in Brewster, with the same onion rings,” he said. “The building may be gone, but Liam's will live on. I have to judiciously find a new location for Liam's. You can never replace the salt, the sun, and the air of Nauset Beach.”
Beach access is a gift from the sea that can be treasured but not protected forever. Selectman Mark Mathison remembered living near Nauset Light in Eastham as a child and walking down to Bob's Dog House for an ice cream after dinner. “Eventually, the septic system for it went over the dune,” he said. And he saw the changes wrought by the blizzard of 1978, which blew out Eastham's Coast Guard Beach.
But he believes the town's retreat plan for Nauset can work in harmony with nature. The second phase, which will now be accelerated, involves taking out the administration building, removing the first row of parking spaces facing the ocean, rerouting traffic, and putting up a new restroom/admin building elsewhere.
If the plan delays the inevitable, there'll be time for everyone to drive to the ocean and have a snack, and for stories like this one to happen.
“A guy came in and said he needed the smallest onion rings we could give him,” Ohman recalled. “I said he had to tell me why. He said he was going to propose to his boyfriend with one of our onion rings.” To this day, whenever there's a wedding on the beach, Liam's sends onion rings and calls them wedding rings.
And about not changing that recipe? Well, Ohman says he hired the previous owner's cooks and that, while renovating, he ripped out a vinyl shelf and “written underneath was the onion ring recipe.”
A video about Liam's has been posted at https://www.facebook.com/LiamsAtNausetBeach