In 1963, Harry Zerby bought the Shirl Ann Motel on Olive Avenue near the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach. A popular place, it had a beach view, even if it wasn’t quite beach-front. Several years later, he handed it to his son, Jeff Sr., and daughter-in-law, Ruth Ann, to run. Over the 18 years managing the place, Jeff Sr. acquired enough adjoining property to raze the Shirl Ann and build the magnificent Boardwalk Plaza Hotel, the 21-year-old pink Victorian-style building that has become one of the resort’s most recognizable structures.
“It was always my husband’s dream to have something oceanfront,” Ruth Ann Zerby says.
Now her son, Jeff Jr., 45, and his wife, Jennifer, 43, are living the dream. Together, they oversee the hotel every day. “I love it,” Jennifer says. “It’s the life we’ve built.”
The Zerby family has always worked in the hospitality industry. In addition to the Shirl Ann, they owned the old Swiss Dairy ice cream stand, a Dairy Queen where Thrasher’s Fries now thrives on Rehoboth Avenue, and other properties. Jeff and his sister Wendy started working there “as soon as they could see over the counter,” Ruth Ann laughs.
The key to the family’s success, says Ruth Ann, is the meshing of their individual talents. Jeff Sr., 69, is the consummate entrepreneur. Jeff Jr., a former economics major, is savvy about computers and software. Wendy, though not directly involved, is an advocate for the employees. Jennifer, a past president of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, is a skilled designer who handles marketing duties. Ruth Ann, 70, jokes that she has no talent “other than shopping,” but she does care about service and appearance. She designed the stunning interior.
Jeff Jr. took over operation of the new hotel fresh out of college. Jennifer, his high school sweetheart, joined him immediately. They worked together for a year before their wedding, the hotel’s first big event. “No pressure on the staff,” Jennifer laughs.
Yet staff is family. Food and beverage manager Steve Cobb organized the Zerby wedding. “They put my nerves to the test right away,” he says. “It worked out well.”
Server Mary Cook, a “recovering accountant,” has worked for the Zerbys for 12 years. “The things we love are the things that drive us nuts about working for a family,” Cook says. “Having a well-honed sense of humor helps. But I don’t have to convey a corporate manner. I have the trust of the family. Mistakes happen, and we get slapped down, but when you’re empowered, it makes your job so much easier.”
“Staff decisions are usually the right decisions,” Ruth Ann says, “because they have the guests’ best interests at heart.”
Early experience was invaluable for Jeff Jr. “I’ve always been enthusiastic about working with the guests,” he says. “My parents made me feel proud of what I did. It inspired me. The opportunity to run a big hotel at 20 years old was truly a huge responsibility and an opportunity for success.”
Running a family business is much like being married, says Ruth Ann. She and Jeff Sr. have been married 48 years. Jeff and Jennifer have been married for 20. “It’s not always peaceful,” Ruth Ann laughs, “but it’s always a success.”