The Funny, the Fabulous and the Confounding

By Pam George
From the Holiday 2014 issue

MattHaleyThe man behind the restaurant and philanthropic empire was a whirlwind of energy and ideas. Those who knew him best tell what made him special, and why he will be dearly missed.

The sun shone bright and unseasonably warm on Sunday, Sept. 28, when more than 2,000 people gathered at The Freeman Stage at Bayside to commemorate the life of Matt Haley, who had died the previous month following a motorcycle accident in India. From the video clips to the passionate speakers to the spirited rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil,” the event was joyful, inspiring and, of course, sad.

It had been a year of enormous highs and crushing lows for Matt, whom I met in 2001 shortly after he opened Redfin, now Bluecoast Seafood Grill, in Bethany Beach. Not that the Washington, D.C., native’s life was ever easy.

When his abusive, alcoholic father left, his mother raised four sons and a daughter. Matt, the middle child, delved into alcohol and drugs as a teen, and his fast life landed him in prison. There, determined to turn his life around, he learned culinary skills. He worked minimum-wage jobs while keeping his eye on the prize: owning his own restaurant. Today, the Matt Haley Companies include eight restaurants, a food truck and a catering company — all under the SoDel Concepts umbrella — a hospitality management company and a consulting firm.

In recent years, Matt was best known for his philanthropy. In 2011, he’d founded the Global Delaware Fund, and in May he received the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award for his work in the United States and abroad, particularly in Nepal (where he had adopted three young girls and helped build schools) Also this year, he received the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Cornerstone Humanitarian Award and the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ National Humanitarian Award.

Unfortunately, the cancer he’d beaten a few years ago returned this past spring — at the same time that he broke up with a live-in girlfriend. “You know me,” he told me on the phone one day. “I live for these challenges.” Indeed. By mid-summer, he’d received a clean bill of health, and his longtime friendship with Michelle DiFebo Freeman had turned romantic.

On that September Sunday, Matt was praised for his willingness to help others and his 24-year commitment to sobriety. And still, there was so much more to say about this complex man, who was only 53 when he died.

The day after the ceremony, a group gathered at Lupo di Mare in Rehoboth Beach, one of his restaurants, to talk about Matt over plates of olives, Italian meats, sliced bread and fresh mozzarella. There was a lot of laughter, a few tears and a strong sense of camaraderie.

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