Remembering Robert Kaskel

 Remembering Robert Kaskel

By Katie McFadden

“I Make People Better,” a description on Thai Rock owner Robert Kaskel’s LinkedIn reads. It was a headline preempting a description of his latest business venture, On Hand, a technology service designed to help other small businesses be successful. But it could have been a headline for Kaskel’s life. On Thursday, August 10, Robert Kaskel, a man who made people better, a man who made Rockaway better, died at age 60.

Last Thursday, Kaskel passed away surrounded by his family and closest friends. His death followed a long, brave and quiet battle with pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with in May 2022. With the exception of family and close friends who knew, it was a battle he faced privately until sharing the news on his Facebook page on June 24. “I may not be here much longer, but I do love living and have had great life experiences, always surrounded by people I love and enjoy being with. I’ve done my best to eliminate negativity and have kept positive,” he said.

“I pray for our world and all the life on it. I pray for sustainable living and the eradication of divisiveness. I pray that my children and their children and many generations more will live in a cleaner less hostile world, where not every opinion is equal and truth triumphs falsehood. And I pray my sweet, devoted wife will live long and find joy and happiness for all her days.”

They were sentiments he lived by and lived out throughout his life, according to those who knew him best, his wife, Metta, his children, Ethan and Matthew and his adopted son, Moo, his other family and his closest friends.

As someone who loved living, Kaskel was someone who took chances in life in pursuit of his dreams. His wife, Metta Kaskel, saw it from the day she met him, when he walked into the restaurant where she was bartending, Dojo on West 4th in Manhattan. “He came in on May 3, 2002. He asked if I’d be working the next day and I said no, if you come, you won’t see me. He said, ‘Oh, good, that means if you’re not working, we can have dinner tomorrow,’” Metta recalled. “Every day after that, he would pick me up from where I worked and made sure I got home safe. He took good care of me, and we’d been together every day since, for more than 20 years.” The couple married at City Hall on September 5, 2003, and had a traditional Thai wedding on January 15, 2005.

After finding the dream girl, Kaskel decided to pursue his other dreams. Originally from Long Island but living in Manhattan where he worked in financial technology, Kaskel was feeling unfulfilled. He dreamed of living by the beach. In 2009, he made that dream come true, moving his family to the Belle Shores condominium on the oceanfront of Beach 101st Street. Next was pursuing a new purpose.

For Kaskel and his warm, open, friendly personality, that meant doing something that would give him more opportunity to embrace the social aspects of life. As a lover of people and music, he decided to open a bar. And he looked for locations closer to his new home, so his wife could work closer to home. When an opportunity opened to obtain a bayfront property on Beach 92nd Street, they jumped on it. Their family went to work, renovating the old Lobster House, turning it into a Thai restaurant that would double as a bar and give musicians a local stage to play their music.

On June 3, 2011, the Kaskels opened Thai Rock, giving Rockaway its first taste of Thai cuisine. But it wouldn’t be the only first Kaskel would share with the community. From the inside out, Kaskel made Thai Rock a hub for new and fun experiences for Rockaway locals and its visitors. Inside the restaurant, he provided musicians with an indoor space to play in, he brought in activities like paint nights, and hosted holidays like Thanksgiving dinner and balloon drops on New Year’s Eve. On the outside, Kaskel took full advantage of his bayside space and dock.

The first of those efforts was introducing Rockaway Jet Ski to the peninsula, launching with two jet skis in the summer of 2012. Kaskel teamed up with someone who had become a regular customer at Thai Rock, lifelong resident Glenn DiResto, in the effort to bring something fun and different to the peninsula. The business partners made a good team. “Robert was calm, soft spoken and much more patient than I am,” DiResto said. “He was a great communicator and we worked well together.” By the end of that summer, they had to get two more jet skis. Rockaway Jet Ski was a hit. Kaskel enlisted the help of his family, including his son Ethan, and hired other locals to make it a success. “It was a win of an idea that blossomed into this standalone entity,” Ethan Kaskel said. “He wanted to bring in jet skis to drum up business for the restaurant, but it exploded into its own thing. We had more than 20 operable jet skis at the height of it.”

After having to completely gut and rebuild Thai Rock following Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, Kaskel started coming up with even more ways to help boost his business, the community and give locals something to look forward to. In late 2013, he formed the Hospitality & Entertainment Association for Restaurants and Taverns (HEART) as a way to unite Rockaway’s local businesses and support one another as they navigated returning to normal after Hurricane Sandy. As part of that effort, in December 2013, Kaskel hosted the first Taste of Rockaway Beach, a community event that gave people a chance to visit and support several local businesses on a food tour. Taste of Rockaway became a bi-annual event that locals looked forward to up until, like many other things, Covid gave it a quiet end.

But Kaskel kept bringing attention to the bayside. In 2014, curiosity piqued as visitors saw people flying high above the bay on something reminiscent of a “Jetsons” episode—the flyboard. Kaskel contracted a provider to bring the new technology to the bay, giving New Yorkers yet another brand-new experience. Then he introduced Rockaway Paddle, giving people an outlet to access the bay with paddleboards and kayak rentals. When his Rockaway Paddle partner, Linda Humphrey, sent him a video of the Tarzan Boat in 2016, Kaskel knew it would be his next adventure. He bought his own and launched the floating jungle gym in August 2016, later naming it Rockaway Water Park.

The flyboard and water park became short-lived ventures, but as those things winded down, Kaskel was already on his next project, On Hand. It was Kaskel’s effort to try such things that others wouldn’t, that many admired. “He was willing to take risks. He was like a visionary. Always thinking ahead and thinking outside of the box. Robert took risks and chances in life,” DiResto said.

Whether speaking to his wife, his kids or his friends, everyone shares the same sentiment about Robert—he was positive. And his positivity was something he shared with others through his efforts to bring joy to people. “He had this warm philosophy about dealing with people. He never wanted to say no. He wanted to be dependable and for people to come and enjoy the food, the live music, the activities. He just wanted people to enjoy themselves,” Ethan Kaskel said. “He was a kind, positive person. He loved me to death, and he loved everybody,” Metta Kaskel shared.

Whether it was having his new restaurant destroyed by Sandy, being faced with Covid, taking risks that didn’t work out, or even in his own cancer battle, Kaskel kept a positive attitude. “He always looked to the positive of things. I don’t remember ever seeing him looking at things in a negative light,” Ethan Kaskel said.

When Kaskel was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2022, he kept that positive attitude throughout, even through trying various treatments. “He handled it amazingly. He was stronger than most,” DiResto said. “He was very optimistic the whole way, very full of hope.”

Though facing a battle that was slowly taking his life from him, Kaskel never stopped living. He went on family trips to places like Mexico and Florida. He continued running the restaurant and working with On Hand. He threw himself a celebration of life in July, a party with his closest family and friends throughout his life. A week prior to his death, Kaskel hopped on a jet ski for one last ride. And two days before he passed, he was adamant about getting in the pool at The Rockaway Hotel for one last dip. “He was very strong,” Metta said.

The pain of losing Robert has hit those close to him and the community hard. But many take comfort in the legacy he left behind that will continue. “I go around the restaurant and it’s sad because we watched him build all of this up and he’s not here anymore, but it also brings a relief and joy that we were able to experience everything he built. He included us all in it,” Ethan Kaskel said.

Even though Robert was taken much too soon at age 60, Metta says he got everything he wanted. “His dream was to have a house on the beach. We got it. His dream was to have his own bar and to have live music. He got it. He had the jet ski business. He got it all. He owned his own restaurant, had his own music, his own bar, the waterfront property. His dream came true with everything.”

And Robert won’t be forgotten. “He’s definitely going to be quite missed,” DiResto said.

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