how i get it done

The Luxury Hotel Owner Who’s Willing to Get Her Hands Dirty

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Jayma Cardoso is the founder and owner of the Surf Lodge, a luxury hotel and restaurant in Montauk, New York. The Brazilian immigrant and entrepreneur started her business a little over 12 years ago, and it has been one of the most popular destinations in the Hamptons ever since. Last summer, to adapt to the pandemic, Surf Lodge closed to the general public and pivoted to extended stays. Now, Cardoso and her team are working tirelessly to adapt again and ensure guests are safe. This year she launched a wellness series with Lightbox Jewelry, developed a partnership with Polestar to allow patrons to drive themselves around the Surf Lodge property in the eco-friendly Polestar 2, and welcomed two-star Michelin chef Paul Liebrandt for a residency in the kitchen. Cardoso, however, does more than run the show. “On a Saturday night, we’ll see Jayma bussing tables in a Zimmermann dress to get the next crew of people in,” says Laura Lapitino, the Lodge’s publicist. Cardoso also admits she has trouble separating life from work, living only 10 minutes from the Lodge with her seven year-old son. Here’s how she gets it done. 

On her morning routine: 
My mornings always start with my son; he’s my alarm. He always wakes up at 6 a.m. I brush my teeth and do some meditation. I use the transcendental meditation method, usually for about 20 minutes. It reminds me of all the things that are coming up and I need to do, or the things I’ve been procrastinating. Then I’ll let myself look at my phone. I’ve been trying intermittent fasting, so I usually just have a black coffee for breakfast. The morning often dictates the rest of my day, so if I don’t go through my steps, my brain doesn’t feel as creative or active. I usually get to work at about 11 a.m., sometimes 10, but I like to come and go [depending on] the different hours and programming that we have. I’ll drive to work. I’m lucky that I live so close by. I always listen to music on the commute. It’s an opportunity to find new people [to perform at Surf Lodge].

On ambition:
I am super ambitious. It sounds so arrogant for me to say, but I came to this country about 25 years ago and I wanted to go to medical school. That’s how I started working. I wanted to transfer to a more expensive school, Fordham University. My mom called me from Brazil and was like, “Hey I think it’s really great that you got into Fordham, but we can’t afford that.” and I was like, “Oh no, we can. I got a job,” I didn’t have a job. My mom started asking all these questions about it and balancing it with school and affording an apartment in the city, and I was just like, “Don’t worry about it, it’s all taken care of.” And then I got off the phone with her and called a girlfriend and said, “I need a job.” She was able to help me find work as a bartender, and I had never done it in my life. Of course, I lied and said I had. So I started a job as a bartender and got fired the same day. Luckily, the owner then gave me a job in the coat check. I don’t recommend lying. But I realized I loved it. I realized I wanted to run my own business, so I started saying, I want to be a hostess. I want to raise my own money and open a nightclub called Cain. I just never looked back. If you don’t make bold choices, you won’t excel.

On managing her busiest workdays:
Saturdays are the craziest days for me. We host a Wellness workshop [at the Surf Lodge] in the morning, so I’m usually here by 9:30 a.m. I’m a bit of a control freak, and not as good of a delegator as I think I could be, so I come in and make sure everything is ready. I’ll greet the teacher. Then, I’ll try to make sure that it segues into a good brunch, and [keep track of] whatever else is happening on the property. What does brunch look like? Has the band arrived at the airport in a timely manner? How is soundcheck looking? If I don’t try so hard to stay organized, [the day] will fall apart half way through. Everything is sort of a “go” — if something goes over by 5 minutes, another thing is delayed by five minutes. It’s also a lot of waiting for people to show up. Everything else could go smoothly, but sometimes you’re wondering “Where is everyone?” So it’s a lot of Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. There are always curve balls, and I’m always super calm. People ask “How are you so calm?” and I’m like “Well, what am I supposed to do?” I go with the flow, and I think that’s why I work in my industry. If you do it any other way, it’s really challenging. Other people would probably have a heart attack [if they did my job].

People probably don’t know this about me, because it doesn’t look like I’m organized. I’m definitely not a corporate hero. I don’t write 10,000 emails or keep super organized spreadsheets, but it’s all in my brain. I know that we need to stay together as a team to get to a flawless Saturday, if there even is such a thing, in this industry.

On facing challenges this past year and a half:
I view them as learning opportunities. The struggles — I don’t like the word “losses” — wake my team up. Like, Okay, we’ve got to do something differently. It’s very rare that you’d ever find me in “struggle mode.” I just see that as a time to approach something differently. In the last year, it’s all been about taking little steps. We had to get creative about the programs. There’s still obviously a lot of stress in the air, but it feels like we went from 0 to 1000.

The pandemic has made me grateful for small things. Like, the Fourth of July forecast was rain. I could’ve thought Oh my God, we’ve been closed for so long. Our team needs this. What are we going to do?! But the new me is like, Okay. Let’s try to get a tent! Let’s try to get a permit. Let’s do other things. It could be a lot worse. We could be closed right now. Things aren’t totally back to normal. I don’t feel like I can hug anybody — and I’m Brazilian, so I’m very much a hugger and a kisser! Now, I just do like a little dance [to greet people]. My mindset is very much: Let’s not try to solve everything. Be grateful for what we have. That’s pretty much been our motto this summer.

On work/life balance: 
I love what I do, but that comes with a price. I think it took me a while to not feel bad about [focusing on my personal life]. One night, I asked my son, “Who is the most important person in Mommy’s life?” and he said, “Your phone!” I said “No! You!” and he said “I know, I know.” He was just kidding, but it made me realize I needed to make an adjustment. It’s okay for me to go to the beach for a few hours with him on a Sunday and not feel guilty. You don’t need to be here at all times. I have to say that to myself. I always worry I’m going to miss [a guest] or not be able to say “hi” to them or improve their stay in some way. But I’ve realized you also become a better person when you prioritize your own life, and that means my son. I’ve gotten much better, but it’s definitely hard.

On truly leading by example:
If you can’t cope with stress, this is not an industry I would recommend working in. There are no shortcuts. I definitely had to put in hours and learn every position in hospitality. I don’t think I would be as successful if I couldn’t go to our cocktail waitresses and say, “Hey, I’ve been there. I know it’s not always easy and the guest isn’t always right but this is how we need to do it.” There isn’t a single job — other than DJing, which I am learning — that I haven’t done before. I think there’s something really important about getting your hands in — cleaning the tables, picking up the slack. The show must go on, and if you don’t have that mindset, I think it would be really hard to navigate a job in hospitality. It’s a team effort. The idea that you’d [as the owner] just come in in a fancy dress and stand and drink rosé is not a reality. While you’re sipping, the place is falling apart. It’s definitely not the type of position where you just sit back and watch the rewards. You have to get your hands dirty. And the more you do that, the more you will benefit. You learn better by doing that.

On her self-care habits: 
Sometimes I like just driving somewhere, not listening to music at all, and sitting. Just doing nothing for an hour. People always say, “You’re so outgoing” and “You’re so friendly,” but I’m actually really shy. I need [alone time]. It’s therapeutic. I’ve also found that I need my sleep. Sometimes I notice I get less creative or I can’t focus as well, and that’s usually because I’ve had to wake up earlier than normal, so I always try to make sure to go to bed early. But that’s it. I think I’m able to handle stress pretty well. If I wasn’t able to cope, I don’t think I would have this job. There are too many moving parts.

The Luxury Hotel Owner Who’s Willing To Get Her Hands Dirty