When Connolly’s was put up for sale in the fall of 2020, locals were concerned: What would become of the Irish surfer bar, a staple of the Rockaways community since opening in 1962? Fans were pessimistic. “This is the nail in the coffin for Rockaway becoming land of wealthy condo owners,” posted one Facebook commenter, resigned. “I wish hipsters never ‘discovered’ Rockaway,” another lamented. Others could muster only sadness: “Woooooooo what? Oh myyyyyyyy noooo.”
And then, last week, there was official news. None of that would happen. Mike Reinhardt and Mike Kololyan, 32-year-old co-owners of Locals Surf School and Locals Collective and, in fact, true locals — both are natives of the Rockaways — announced they had bought the place, along with a collection of friends and family, with a mission to keep Connolly’s Connolly’s.
One month before the grand reveal — Connolly’s opens for the season May 27, Memorial Day weekend — Grub caught up with Reinhardt to discuss the future of keeping Connolly’s the same.
I guess we should start with the most pressing question: Who are you?So my name is Mike Reinhardt, and I’m one of the co-founders of Locals Surf School. We do surf lessons for adults, corporate outings, parties, events, kids’ camps, skate lessons, and we also have an ancillary business called Locals Collective. That’s our brick-and-mortar: It’s a coffee shop, it’s a bar, it’s a hangout, it’s a surf club where some members can keep their surfboards and have private access to a shower and stuff, and we do events there as well. I grew up here in Rockaway Beach, and so did my business partner, who’s also named Mike — my family has been in the Rockaways for five generations now, or longer, actually.
And you’re the new owner of Connolly’s. Had that been your plan?
No, actually. We heard the news that it was going for sale at the same time as everybody else, in October 2020, and I think it was my business partner, Mike, who brought it to our attention. We had sort of suspected that it might go for sale because we knew the owners, Jeff Aquilante and Kerryann Daly, had been living in Ireland for several years, even before COVID. It really just kind of felt like nothing had been happening with Connolly’s for a while. And so when Jeff, the previous owner, put it up for sale, we tossed around the idea amongst ourselves, almost like a joke, but also thinking, could we make this work? We thought, why not us? It sounds like he’s trying to entertain a developer deal, but perhaps there’s some heartstring to pull on to pass the torch to some other locals who will carry on the tradition, because there is so much history and legacy in that bar. So I wrote a very heartfelt letter to appeal to those sensibilities, and I think that got our foot in the door.
So you make your case, and then what happens?
A tumultuous two-year journey of what you could liken to Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire and putting the ring into Mount Doom, except that there’s a happy ending here.
It’s a complicated deal — complex, I guess, is a a nicer word. Because it’s three properties: One is a lot, one is a multifamily unit with a couple bungalows behind it, and then one is the bar, which is in the basement of a residential building with apartments. It’s not very easy to get loans on a property like this. And the negotiations took a long time as well.
The owner I knew wouldn’t want it to get sold to developers, because there’s history in the bar since even before he bought it — it’s been around since 1962. And he’s obviously put his heart and soul into it, and it would just be really nice — I was assuming — for him to be able to pass it on to people like us. But ultimately, money talks, right? I mean, if some developer came in and offered them something he couldn’t refuse, he would take it, and I wouldn’t blame him — I don’t think anyone would blame him, but it would just be a shame. That seems to be the trend right now in New York City, especially in Rockaway.
How do you feel about that?
There’s a lot of development, and we welcome most of that. If it’s driving progress, that’s great. But then some things don’t need to be changed; some things need to be preserved, and that’s how we feel about Connolly’s. That’s how the community felt about Connolly’s. For the longest time, everybody on the coconut telegraph, the Rockaway rumor mill, is saying, “Oh, I heard Connolly’s got sold and it’s going to turn into condos. I heard someone from Brooklyn bought it.” All stupid shit, no one knows anything about it, you know? But eventually, the deal got done, and we feel like it was a more than amicable transfer of ownership. I mean, I would love to just sit in Jeff’s house, any day, have a couple of drinks with him while he chain-smokes his cigarettes and just listen to him talk and tell stories. It feels really great to have that torch passed to us — it’s a privilege and an honor and we very much look forward to living up to that expectation of status quo in that bar.
It seems like your mandate is, basically, don’t change it too much.
When you start a business from the ground up, like we have with Locals — of course, the community is so much a part of what we do, but we were the visionaries behind it. We created it, and when we see it running, we can say, “Yeah, we did this.” But with Connolly’s, we didn’t do it. It was a huge part of our upbringing, but the community created that — it’s just as much the community’s establishment as it is ours, if not more. It’s just that it’s our responsibility now to uphold those standards and respect and honor that history.
What is that history?
It represents an old guard of Rockaway. It’s always been something of a surfers’ bar, but in the traditional sense, before surfing was popular and cool in Rockaway, when it was really a niche thing. If you were a surfer, you knew everyone in the water here — you were probably only from Rockaway, you weren’t from Brooklyn, or the city, or anywhere else. It was always a lifeguard bar, it’s actually sometimes still just known as a lifeguard bar, because people would go there after the shifts, or they would go there during the day, sneaking for a few drinks during their lunch hour — they’re obviously not supposed to do that. They’d have lifeguard shack parties here, and if you weren’t a lifeguard, you knew someone who was, or someone who was a surfer. The volleyball leagues would come and hang out here. The old-timers would come and just share a beer. It really is just such an institution — I can’t overstate that.
It was the first bar that the lifeguards took me to when I was a lifeguard. And before I could get in, it was the first bar I ever wanted to get in. You step in, and you just feel that there’s something special about this place; you feel that there’s been a long history there before you. You know, they say “if these walls could talk,” and they literally can, or they’re one step away from it, because there are so many pictures all over the walls. There used to be a picture of me wearing my lifeguard Speedo when my senior lifeguards forced me to enter the bikini contest — which I did not win, and did not deserve to win. There are so many pictures on the wall we couldn’t seem to find this one, and maybe that’s for the better.
You’ve got to be changing something.
That’s the best part — nothing. Just from a business standpoint, this was so attractive, because we would have to literally change nothing. And in fact, that is what people want. They don’t want us to change the name, they don’t want us to change anything about what we’re offering or doing. Over time, we may put our little touches on it, but all that we’re going to change for now is making the bathrooms nicer, which I don’t think anyone will have a complaint about. We’re going to add a little bit of nice outdoor seating. Maybe we’ll see what new trends are for drinks, but the staples of the bar, and the pictures on the wall that become iconic — those aren’t going anywhere.
When did the new guard show up — the city people, the Brooklynites?
It had just started to happen in like 2011, but then when Hurricane Sandy happened, obviously there was a crazy amount of attention being brought to the Rockaways, and people sort of discovered it then. It just exponentially grew from there. Especially as the infrastructure was being rebuilt — literally the boardwalk, roads, houses, making it nicer. And then new businesses opened up, making more things for people to do, and it really took off from there. It was only a matter of time. People like to complain, but we’re just ten years behind Huntington Beach, California. We’re just 20 years behind Malibu. It was a matter of time: It’s a beach town that has waves and a huge urban city — what were you expecting? So that’s where we are, and we’re doing our best to usher that in and as responsibly as we possibly can, to connect people to our love of the neighborhood.
I want to talk about the famous frozen piña colada — you got the recipe?
Of course, it was part of the deal.
Officially, in writing, part of the deal?
Yep. Jeff is old-school. He took meticulous notes on everything — when he handed over the keys, he just kept coming up with all these different notebooks and cool journals. I mean, he had literally chronicled all the different paint colors he’d used in every room. And he gave us this wooden box full of index cards with handwritten recipes for all the different frozens they’ve tried over the years, and of course, the famous piña colada recipe that everybody knows Connolly’s for. That was one of the big questions: “I hope they’re not going to change the recipe,” “Don’t change the recipe!” And we’re like, Don’t worry. We’re not. We’re even keeping some of the staff, and they’re appreciative of that, and so are we, because we know that they know how to make this place Connolly’s.