Life after doughnuts? Ocean City's Harmon Brown, 90, prefers flipping French toast at the B&B

JSHARMON20
Harmon Brown makes french toast at Brown’s Nostalgia Bed & Breakfast in Ocean City.

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - It's the innkeeper's life to be barged in on, so Harmon Brown, 90, barely raises an eyebrow when you walk through the swinging wooden doors to the kitchen - though it is way too early to be barging in on Harmon Brown.

Turns out you're not the first person to take liberties with his time that day. He was answering the phone at 2 a.m., talking to people looking to arrange accommodations at Brown's Nostalgia Bed & Breakfast in the middle of the night.

"They think there's a front desk," Brown said, looking up from his cryptoquip, coffee, and cinnamon bun, still in deer-hunting pajama pants. No front desk; only Harmon Brown, multitasking as usual.

"Multitasking," Brown says. "It becomes a chore. I'm having trouble keeping up."

But not as much trouble as you might think. After 17 years, Brown, patriarch of the Brown family doughnut empire, is still in the kitchen every morning making breakfast for the crowd at the B&B at 10th and Wesley, the place his son and daughter-in-law sent him and his late wife, Marjorie, to move them out of the doughnut shop, making room for the next generation.

Harmon and Marjorie Brown - the shop teacher and the home economics teacher from Springfield, Montgomery County - met, married, and created the Brown's doughnut empire. They sold 240 dozen every summer morning, straight out of the fryer, with lines on the boardwalk. But the B&B has turned out to be good fit, too.

Brown still wears his wedding band from his 60-year union with Marjorie, who died in 2011. But he's made room in his life for his college girlfriend, with whom he reconnected three years ago. "We're still quite compatible," he says.

And there's lots of room for his five children and 14 grandchildren. One, Emily Newhard, 24, is his partner in the kitchen in the summer.

Another granddaughter, Paige, 12, stops by - because, why not stop by? Isn't that the whole point of having a grandfather at the Shore holed up in a 130-year-old B&B a few blocks from the beach? The two giggled and hugged one afternoon recently and neither seemed to have anything better they'd rather have been doing. "We're tight-knit," Brown says. It is obvious.

One week earlier this month, lots of extended family was in from out of town, taking up all the spare beds and secret rooms and couches other than the eight rooms rented to paying guests. "It gets crazy full," Newhard says. "We sleep anywhere. I have slept on the roof in a sleeping bag."

In the kitchen with Brown, you keep waiting for him to sing, but he does not. It's rumored that he sings - his mom was an organist, his dad played the trombone - but mostly he gets busy. Busy is what has gotten him to a working 90, created a family, renovated a century-old beach house. At Brown's Nostalgia, breakfast is served at 9 a.m. seven days a week, and the deadline focus kicks in around 8:15. Newhard takes the bulk of the stove work, while Brown, ever the shop teacher, seems drawn to the biggest knife available to make a fruit salad.

Every once in awhile he makes a joke and laughs that laugh. He and Newhard are only semi-compatible in the kitchen, tending to overlap and even contradict one another. He starts to put the cinnamon away. She tells him she still needs it. He looks at her and laughs. The miracle of a granddaughter who has grown into an adult who can set him straight.

"Sometimes the two of us together will be counterproductive," Newhard allows. Brown laughs. Newhard reminds him to put in his hearing aid. Local teacher Laura Desmond arrives to help serve.

Newhard says no one in the family is really sure what will happen to the bed and breakfast down the road. For now, it's still Brown's baby.

On this day, they are making Bananas Foster French toast, a side of sausage, and the usual fruit salad. Having filled in the final letter of the cryptoquip (C in Spacek, with a punny reference, stumped him for a while), Brown's refilling coffee machines, chopping up fruit, stirring batter for the French toast, cutting off crusts with a huge knife aimed right into his hand. He's missing part of one finger, just like any decent 90-year-old former shop teacher. Not even worth talking about. Brown would rather tell you about his time in the Army, between 1944 and 1946. How he was sent on reconnaissance missions, landed at Normandy, set up a movie theater in an old German tank repair shop that was still functional a few years ago when the family went with him to retrace his steps.

The Browns' fairy tale marriage was humming along in a very practical way in Pennsylvania when, in 1976, they launched the doughnut empire on the boardwalk after seeing a small doughnut operation that seemed ready to be improved upon. Marjorie Brown was the risk taker, Harmon Brown the people person who kept anyone from taking their undertaking too seriously. "It worked out," he says. "We made kids."

Brown has nothing to do with the doughnut business anymore, other than he can get them from the back door and not wait in line.

As he says, he's now in the nonprofit wing of the family, staying in the small backroom quarters off the kitchen of the gracious house he and his wife gutted and renovated themselves, with a subtle theme of a Pennsylvania Dutch outpost at the Shore. He's still in charge of making people feel comfortable, nudging along small talk if guests in the dining room are too quiet.

"You can take a teacher out of school, but can't take the school out of the teacher," he says. "I have to be careful I don't talk too much. I try to be attentive but not overbearing."

On this morning, he's kicking himself for forgetting to put two tables together for his party of three, so the son is sitting by himself at a table a foot or so from his parents. They don't seem to care, but Brown gives himself a demerit. He might be just a bit tired, not because he's 90, but because last week's bookings included some particularly picky guests. "Our pampered guests have gone," he says.

All the guests of course feel pampered inside this old beach house with its original oak millwork, open floor plan, collection of Hummel figurines, and, not least of all, breakfast every day at 9 a.m. This one, after some scrambling, comes off as well as ever: French toast, caramel banana sauce, a shake of powdered sugar. Before you know it, the dining room is empty, and the gracious old porch and its rockers are full. ("I'm off my rocker," Brown says, unable to resist the groaner.) Some people might even head to the beach, though at Brown's, it doesn't even seem necessary.

arosenberg@phillynews.com
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@amysrosenberg
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