Native Freeporter Barbara Jagnow, 85, carefully pivoted the joystick knob to the front and then to the back carefully moving her power wheelchair in front of the table on the outdoor patio of Otto’s Sea Grill on Woodcleft Avenue in Freeport, N.Y. As a light breeze tickled the red flower barrette in her hair, she dug in her purse to find a shawl.
“It’s starting to get chilly,” Jagnow said.
Otto’s has been in Jagnow’s family since the early 1930s. Her parents once owned and operated the business during a time the region was known as the Woodcleft Canal and fishermen were the main proprietors.
“I grew up here,” she said as she pointed towards the restaurant. “My life was surrounded around the restaurant. I was a waitress here when I was in high school.”
After she graduated high school in 1950 she attended Bryant College, now known as Bryant University in Providence, RI where she studied accounting. One of the first members of her family to attend college, Jagnow says she was excited to get away from the restaurant life for a while.
“I don’t know how I passed my accounting classes,” she said with a laugh.” My professors were helpful and I know I did because of them, not because of me. But I studied accounting because I knew it would eventually help me with the restaurant.”
Jagnow moved back to Freeport after graduation. Though she worked for department stores like Gertz, A&S (Abraham and Straus) and Franklin Simon & Co. she eventually got married in 1955 and in 1962, Ilona, her only daughter, was born.
“I raised Ilona right here” she recalled affectionately. “She’d spend after school doing her homework here and we’d have dinner as a family before we went to our home across town. Our lives revolved around the restaurant.”
It was a slow transition, but eventually, Barbara and her husband, Arnim took over the operations of Otto’s.
“I have so many memories here,” Ilona said sitting next to her mother. “A lot of my friends hung out here too.”
Like Barbara, Ilona spent her formidable years hanging out at the restaurant and eventually a waitress, too. When she graduated from Freeport High School in 1980, she too was determined to find her own passion away from the restaurant. Though her friends use to tell her they believed she would eventually take over the restaurant, she graduated Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY. She traded her waitress pad for a stethoscope. Nursing was her calling and she was determined to pursue it. Her parents were supportive and respected her decision to pursue her dreams.
“I worked as a nurse for 15 years in the ICU unit at South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside,” Ilona said. “I loved it so much. I had found my life’s work in nursing.”
By 2000, Illona says she was perfectly content working in the nursing field, but a knee injury prompted her to reevaluate her career goals. Though a difficult decision she decided to leave nursing and started helping her parents around the restaurant again.
“It was a tough decision, but I took the opportunity as a way to press reset,” she said.
Barbara says her husband was excited to see Ilona active in the family business and immediately supportive and encouraging Ilona to pursue a business venture of her own. In 2003, Ilona mulled the idea of opening a mini-golf park on the Nautical Mile. Eager to support his daughter, Arnim, spent the year helping Illona gather information and plans to reach her goal. The Crow’s Nest off S. Ocean Avenue and a block across the street from the restaurant opened, followed by a quaint gift shop, Ahab’s Attic.
Over the years the Jagnow family kept busy tending their restaurants and working alongside each other. Misfortune struck in 2012 with Superstorm Sandy and the family lost their homes and experienced the massive destruction of their businesses.
“We didn’t think we were going to reopen,” said Ilona. “It was a scary time for us. Dad got really sick and passed away in 2014. It was just mom and me trying to make this all still work.”
Rebuilding from Sandy has been a nightmare for mother and daughter duo. Presently, they’ve been living in Ilona’s house off South Long Beach Avenue, while Barbara’s home is sitting on stilts waiting to for the elevation construction to finish.
“We’ve poured our savings and some to rebuild our business and homes,” Ilona said tearfully. “It’s been tough, but we’re still pushing to get this done.”
“I know Ilona didn’t plan to take over the family business, [Otto’s], but I’m so thankful she has,” Jagnow said.
It’s been 17 years since Ilona took over the family business. Candidly admitting it was not her intentions to do so, she continues to oversee the daily operations of Otto’s Sea Grill and Crow’s Nest Mini Golf. Alongside her mother, they make decisions in the best interests of the restaurant.
“We’re holding to our family’s legacy,” Ilona said. “Our lives are invested in this. Our livelihood depends on our businesses. I try so hard to keep this together every day. It’s a part of me.”