Exit Zero sits down for a chat with Jeff Gernitis and Cathy Delaez.
Locals and tourists have long admired the Peter Shields Inn, a stately Georgian-Revival landmark situated across from the ocean in East Cape May. The building was commissioned by Peter Shields and completed in 1907 when Shields was president of the Cape May Real Estate Company. During those years the home served as a summer “cottage” for the Shields family and friends, and if archival photographs are any indication, the house was constantly full of visitors enjoying the estate and nearby beach.
Since that time, the house has been used as boat club, a private residence, and as offices for the Christian Beacon Press. In recent years the Peter Shields has once again become a haven for visitors to Cape May, boasting nine elegantly-appointed guest rooms and a Zagat-rated restaurant offering tapas, lobster crab cakes, and ocean views.
This year marks another turning point in a history of the PSI, as new owners (and siblings) Jeff Gernitis and Cathy Delaez bring their taste and talent to bear on the venerable inn. Exit Zero had the pleasure of interviewing the new management, asking questions about everything from prior career experience to whether they’ve encountered any Shields family ghosts…
What were your careers before buying the Peter Shields Inn?
Cathy: I retired in February of 2009 as President of Liberty Travel. Liberty is one of the largest retail and wholesale travel companies in the country. My interest in smaller, more intimate boutique properties drew me to the Peter Shields.
Jeff: I retired in October of 2008 after a 39-year engineering career. I spent my entire career with ITT Defense and retired as Vice President of Engineering. We developed some of the most sophisticated electronic defense systems in the world, ranging from airborne missile defense and counter IED jammers to the GPS space satellite transmitters that guide our guests to Cape May.
When did you first visit Cape May and what did you think?
Jeff: My wife Maria and I visited Cape May back in the 90s several times. Our first real understanding of what Cape May was all about came during our stays at The Manse. I still remember the unique feeling of walking down Hughes Street late at night, time transformed.
Cathy: Unlike Jeff, I hadn’t actually visited Cape May as an adult prior to our decision to purchase the Peter Shields. He’s the one who introduced me and my husband to this wonderful place. Now we’re the lucky ones living here as full-time residents.
How often have you visited since?
Jeff: I’ve actually only taken a few day trips since the mid-90s. It was difficult with the time constraints of a family and work. It’s great being retired.
What are your favorite things about Cape May?
Cathy: Cape May is very genuine. It’s a resort town with lots of history and no pretension. Now that the tourist season is coming to a close, we’re getting the opportunity to experience the small town vibe and it’s great. The people we’ve had the pleasure to meet have been wonderful.
Jeff: The people that are part of Cape May and the people that visit Cape May. Our guests bring a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Sitting on the front porch of the PSI I’ve had some great conversations. Cathy and I have also made new friends among the locals.
What made you buy the PSI?
Cathy: I actually found the PSI online, called my brother and said “Let’s check it out.” We were looking for a business to purchase at the shore. In the end PSI had it all: it’s a beautiful house, the restaurant provides additional revenue that we wouldn’t get at a traditional B&B, and the location is second to none. When we sit out on our front porch overlooking the ocean, the long process and tough decisions it took to get us here all make perfect sense.
Had you eaten, or stayed, there before?
Cathy: Once we discovered the inn was for sale we visited and had dinner with our family a few times. Overnight stays didn’t start until the due diligence process.
How does the brother-sister relationship work in business? Is it difficult? Who does what?
Cathy: It’s an interesting dynamic to say the least. Jeff and I have done an excellent job of compartmentalizing. Business is business and personal is personal. We spent time before we closed on the Peter Shields discussing our roles and committing to stick to our plan and vision. We believe that communication and honesty is paramount to our success in this partnership.
I’m responsible for the daily operation of the PSI, both the inn and the restaurant. I also do the marketing and advertising, and I’m working on a decorating project to give the inn a fresh look.
Jeff: I guess you could call me the “business manager,” handling most of the financial and legal aspects of the business. I also took the lead role during our due diligence of the purchase. Maybe most importantly, I’m the PSI resident golfer.
What are your plans for the PSI? What would you REALLY love to do there?
Cathy: First and foremost, we want to carry on the great tradition that is the PSI, but we also want to make it our own. For Jeff and I, this isn’t just a business or an investment, it’s our passion. We were very fortunate to acquire a beautiful piece of real estate, a fine inn and restaurant and most of all the most talented and professional staff in Cape May. With all of that we’re in a perfect place to create an even more beautiful inn and better restaurant by introducing some fresh ideas. Ultimately, the Peter Shields will be the finest inn and restaurant at the shore, delighting guest with the best service, food and accommodations.
Our Ghost Writer Craig McManus has written a lot about the ghost of Peter Shields’ son, Earl. Do you believe in the after-life? Have you had any strange experiences there?
Cathy: No strange experiences for me, but I always do my best to stay on the good side of Earl, just in case. Right now I’ve got my hands full concentrating on the living.
How would you spend a perfect evening in Cape May?
Cathy: Our restaurant full of happy people, enjoying wonderful food and wine while listening to the beautiful piano of Kahlil Gunther. I don’t mean to be so business-focused, but as I mentioned earlier, for us the PSI is our passion. Of course a quiet night at home with my husband Armando, our two poodles and a home-cooked dinner would also be a welcome change, since those nights are few and far between. Oh, and a perfect evening calls for a great bottle of wine, as well.