Keeping Lady Liberty in the family business


By Julie Shapiro

The Statue of Liberty is in Brad Hill’s blood.

His grandfather opened the first private concession on Liberty Island for tourists in 1931. His father was born on the island. And Hill has spent more days in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty than he can count, especially since he joined his family’s concessions business full-time 28 years ago.

But no matter how many times Hill, 53, has stood at the base of the Statue of Liberty looking up at the sea-green arm stretching skyward, the sight never gets old.

“I’m not jaded at all,” Hill said as he walked the island’s breezy perimeter on a recent afternoon. “It’s still a special place to me.”

Hill’s concession business, called Evelyn Hill, Inc. after his grandmother, has come a long way in the 78 years since it started as an outdoor table covered in small statue replicas and letter openers.

Today, the 3.25 million people who visit the statue annually shop at Evelyn Hill’s indoor gift shop, stacked floor to ceiling with memorabilia, and eat in Evelyn Hill’s cafe, which serves T.G.I. Fridays-style food. Hill has put a green spin on his family business’s operations, diverting over 75 percent of the island’s trash into recycling.

The country’s attention turned to Liberty Island last month when the National Park Service announced its decision to reopen Lady Liberty’s crown this July 4. But the crown reopening won’t have as much of an impact on Hill as an earlier announcement by the Park Service.

Late last year, Evelyn Hill beat out several of the country’s largest concessionaires, including ARAMARK, to win a joint contract for both Liberty Island and Ellis Island. Evelyn Hill took over Ellis Island’s concessions this spring, marking a 40 percent expansion.

Last fall, Hill was nervous as he waited to hear from the National Park Service on the 10-year contract for concessions on the two islands, since he knew he was up against much larger firms. None, though, had the history of Evelyn Hill.

“It’s nice to be able to carry on my family’s legacy,” Hill said.

That legacy started with Aaron Hill, Brad’s grandfather, who was a medic during World War I. After the war, Hill was stationed at Fort Wood on Liberty Island, then known as Bedloe’s Island.

Evelyn, Aaron’s wife and the company’s namesake, gave birth to her son James on the island in 1925 because she wasn’t able to get to the hospital in time. James and his sister Charlotte grew up on the army base and attended school on Governors Island.

Back then, soldiers stationed on Bedloe’s Island sold souvenirs to the tourists who arrived by the boatload, Hill said. But in 1931, the soldiers stopped selling to tourists, and Aaron Hill, by then retired, decided to take over.

Hill continued operating the concession even after the army left the island and he was forced to move his family to the Bronx in 1933. He ran the business until his death in 1943 at the age of 46. After his father’s death, James came home from the U.S. Air Force to help his mother with the business.

Evelyn continued working at the concession until her death in 1990 at the age of 88. A Polish immigrant, she spoke seven languages and was so committed to providing quality concessions that she secured sugar on the black market to skirt the rations that accompanied World War II.

James Hill retired in 1996, passing the company on to his son Brad. James, 82, lives in Midtown and still advises his son on the company. Brad started working on Liberty Island when he was young, flipping burgers and selling souvenirs. Although he has occasionally considered working elsewhere, Brad Hill said he couldn’t imagine leaving.

“This is home,” Hill said from a small office crammed with models of the Statue of Liberty. Without Liberty Island, “I’m not sure what I would be doing,” he said.

Since Aaron Hill opened the first gift stand in 1931, the souvenirs have changed slowly, growing more accurate and elaborate as technology improves, Hill said. But the shop still carries one item that has been selling steadily since the 1940s: A metal key chain with a picture of the statue on one side and the poem from the statue’s base on the other. It is still manufactured by the same company, Bates & Klinke in Massachusetts.

“I don’t have the heart to discontinue it,” Hill said. The key chain isn’t a bestseller, but it sells, he said.

Now that Hill has won the new concessions contract for Liberty and Ellis islands, he has big plans for the next few years. Hill will expand the gift shop on Liberty Island and overhaul the one on Ellis Island, bringing back a replica of an old cash exchange booth for the cashier.

Hill also plans to open a sit-down restaurant in 2010 to give tourists a taste of the immigrants’ experience.

“You’ll be treated just like an immigrant,” Hill said with excitement. “You’ll register your name and sit at long tables with other modern-day immigrants.”

The menu will come from a real 1904 menu served to the incoming immigrants who disembarked on Ellis Island. Hill will reproduce nearly every item on the menu, from lamb and chops to broiled bluefish, but he decided to leave one item in the past: liver balls with sauerkraut, which he didn’t think would appeal to modern taste buds.

Hill also keeps busy running private events on both islands, though the events don’t bring in as much money as the gift shops. The islands have hosted weddings, bar mitzvahs and corporate parties. They range from simple to lavish, and one party even brought in Duran Duran for the night.

The prices at the cafes are reasonable for a tourist attraction in New York City, with all entrees under $10. The Ellis and Liberty island concessions have virtually no competition — unless you count the vendors hawking knishes and posters in Battery Park — but like many other businesses, Evelyn Hill has still been hit by the recession.

Retail business is down 16 percent in the last year as tourists spend less money and buy less expensive items, Hill said. But he didn’t sound too worried.

“We’ll recover,” Hill said. “We’ve been through recessions, we’ve been through wars, we were closed after 9/11 and also for the restoration [in 1985]. We learn quick how to weather storms.”

Hill lives with his wife and six children in Basking Ridge, N.J. His brother recently started managing the Ellis Cafe, and one of his daughters has worked scooping ice cream.

But as for whether a fourth generation of Hills will take over the concession business someday, “I don’t know,” Hill said, smiling. “It’s a question of whether we’re lucky enough to get another contract — and whether I work that long.”