Café Chew owners will say goodbye to Sandwich customers. But not farewell.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A correction was made on March 22, 2023, to the sale price of Café Chew.
SANDWICH — For Robert King, running three successful restaurants in the last 41 years has meant going one step above.
"And we've never compromised on quality," said King, who opened Café Chew with his husband Tobin Wirt in 2009. "We've done very well that way. We are fortunate."
Previous owners of both Marshland and the Bee-Hive Tavern, the couple recently put Café Chew on the market for $1.3 million.
"It will stay Café Chew. If it ain't broke, don't fix it," King said.
The couple will miss the hustle and bustle of restaurant life, Wirt said, as he greeted customers and chatted with staff on Monday. As Wirt handled the front of the house, King disappeared into the depths of the kitchen, where muffins, pastries and from-scratch breakfast and lunch options were being made, many under $10.
The men also have made a name for themselves in Sandwich for their dedication to civic duty, and as supporters to young people and marginalized community members. The men were married in 2004.
"It's the interaction with people we will miss the most," Wirt said, of their restaurant.
Housing crisis on CapeWhat Cape Cod can learn from other resort regions grappling with worker housing crisis
The couple has lived a restaurant life in Sandwich.
King, originally from Duxbury, bought Marshland, a classic breakfast, lunch and dinner diner, in 1982. A Cape Cod Cablevision executive at the time, Wirt moved to Sandwich from Iowa in 1986. The duo met, began a relationship, and ran Marshland together.
"Back then, there wasn’t even a Dunkin' Donuts in Sandwich. We were in the right place at the right time,” said King.
In 1992, the couple purchased a building, which King described as a total wreck — but a great deal. After revamping the space, they opened Bee-Hive Tavern. Two years later, King and Wirt sold Marshland and focused just on the tavern before selling it in 2004.
For a handful of years, King and Wirt took life slow until the economy crashed in 2008.
Cape housing project in courtOpponents of Twin Brooks housing project in Hyannis go to court: Here's the latest
"It became time to make money the old-fashioned way and we opened Café Chew," said King.
This time around, they focused intently on establishments that were doing well, despite the state of the economy, like Panera Bread and Starbucks. Both corporate brands streamlined food orders from a counter instead of table-side service.
"We wanted to open a restaurant where people didn’t have to spend a lot of money to enjoy a meal," said Wirt.
Café Chew has take-out and two outdoor patios, which helped during the COVID-19 pandemic, said King.
Civic duty is a priority for Robert King and Tobin Wirt.
Their commitment to community remains a priority. King is chairman of the Town Hall Preservation Trust, and current chair of the Sandwich Planning Board. King was also president of the Thornton Burgess Society for many years. Wirt serves as the state-appointee of the Sandwich Housing Authority, and also sat on the preservation trust board.
Wirt helped guide the housing authority through the development of 30 units of affordable housing, known as Terrapin Ridge, said Paula Schnepp, executive director of the housing authority.
"Both Robert and Tobin have not just civically impacted the Sandwich community — they've impacted real lives," she said. "There is no self-serving aspect in the way they've given back."
Robot security dogHigh-tech pooch: Cape Cod Space Force Station gets robot security dog
What advocacy looks like in Sandwich for the couple.
When King was born, he said being gay was illegal, and he struggled with his sexuality throughout his adolescent and teenage years. As a young, gay man in Iowa, Wirt felt much of the same. Throughout the 1980s, the couple watched many of their friends die of AIDS.
In addition to the horrors of death, they watched as many gay men were separated from their partners as they languished in hospitals. Because gay marriage was illegal, having children was also just a dream, and Social Security and health benefits were non-existent.
"We realized we had accepted second class citizenship. We had to get power of attorneys, and health proxies all drawn up because we didn't have civil rights," King said.
Still, as the couple launched their businesses, they agreed to refrain from announcing their sexuality, and decided to be themselves. They hoped the community would get to know them — and like them for who they were, Wirt said.
"Everyone just made their assumptions. There wasn’t a lot of talk about it," he said.
Offshore windCape Cod fishing crews take extra work in offshore wind. Here are 3 stories.
Some breakthroughs, but the struggle for civil rights continues
When same-sex marriage in Massachusetts was legalized May 17, 2004, King and Wirt headed to town hall on June 24, 2004 and became one of the first gay couples on Cape Cod to marry. Throughout the experience, King said he kept the advocacy of Harvey Milk in the back of his mind. Milk, an LGBTQ+ and civil rights icon, encouraged gay people around the world to come out of the closet.
In modern times, society struggles to understand the transgender rights movement, King said. Even as a gay man, he said, it's been a process for him to learn more and become comfortable with pronouns.
But in Sandwich, he said there are people, including themselves, who are actively trying to change the narrative.
For Melinda Gallant of the Sandwich Arts Alliance, King and Wirt are living testaments that people from marginalized communities can be successful, while simultaneously helping people move forward.
"They are role models for younger and older people," Gallant said. "Through their ongoing generosity, they've proven that a couple can be inclusive. That's their gift to the community."
Barnstable High School alumni successFormer Barnstable High School basketball star led UVM to first NCAA bid in over a decade
Goodbye for now - but not forever
From providing jobs to driving people to work to offering advice, she said the duo has served the Sandwich community in selfless and committed ways, said Paula Johnson, executive director of Sandwich Community Television.
"Bob and (Tobin) have a wonderful relationship and it has been something to watch as they work their magic with the public," Johnson said. "Sandwich has been charmed to have these two great people sharing their talents with all of us."
Jonathan Finn of Sandwich for All said Café Chew is amazing because of its menu and ambiance, but mostly because of King and Wirt.
"They put their heart and soul into everything they do, whether it's Café Chew, town government or their amazing home and gardens," he said. "They're caring, gracious, authentic and fair. They are the heart of the town."
Gain access to premium Cape Cod Times content by subscribing.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Café Chew owners will say goodbye to Sandwich customers