Some people may be content with barely skimming the surface of life. But when Renea and Duncan Dayton’s interests are piqued, you can count on them to take a deep dive. Whether it’s competition, collecting, coffee, or community, the North Salem twosome approach daily pursuits with an enviable level of commitment and creativity, finding ways to weave in their myriad interests. For Duncan and Renea, these just happen to be a little higher-octane than most.
While the couple was bewitched by North Salem from the start, Renea and Duncan often noted the lack of a good local coffee shop. The slim choices for a quick and handy caffeine fix comprised a gas station convenience store or a sit-down restaurant. The solution? Renea opened her own café at Hayfields, which she had first envisioned as a garden center. Now, instead of wondering where to get a decent cup of joe, she owns a place that wins awards for it.
Practically from the minute its doors opened in March 2015, Hayfields became an indispensable asset to the community. “I wondered if people would patronize it. But its popularity showed a need: People want a place to gather and get together,” Renea says. The outpouring of community involvement with Hayfields is an ongoing delight for Renea, who grew up in Houston and went to college in San Antonio, thriving on challenge and competition in a state where “sports are everything.”
That was her focus from the get-go: from team sports to sports camp to Outward Bound to internships with local organizations and pro teams. “I wanted to work in sports marketing; that was my goal. I knew I wasn’t going to be a doctor, lawyer, or accountant; it had to be something sports-related,” says Renea, who played basketball at Trinity University while earning a degree in communications.
A college romance with a New Yorker led her to the Northeast, where she landed a marketing/public-relations gig at Lime Rock Park, the Lakeville, CT, racetrack. “I knew nothing about racing; to me, cars were for getting from Point A to point B. But I wanted to be part of something competitive.” The boyfriend didn’t last, but Renea’s enthusiasm for the job and the region did.
Like his wife, Minneapolis native Duncan Dayton always has his eye on a target. “I set rigorous and ambitious goals. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there,” notes the real estate developer, who also races and collects vintage cars.
A scion of the multigenerational family that founded the Dayton-Hudson Corporation retail empire, which eventually evolved into Target Corporation, Duncan’s passions encompass art, architecture, design, and engineering. The apple didn’t fall far from the family tree: “My parents collect modern art; they taught and encouraged us at an early age that if something resonates with you, save your allowance and go for it. I still have pieces I bought when I was 19 or 20 years old,” Duncan says.
A self-described motorhead, Duncan loved taking apart and reassembling his go-karts and mini-bikes since he was a kid. To earn money, he restored and resold mahogany speedboats and later Ferraris. “I’ve always been fortunate to be passionate about what I do,” he says of his restoration work.
Duncan moved east, to attend Connecticut College and Harvard. He considered becoming an architect until he looked around his class one day and realized: “There were two great architects in the room; I wasn’t one of them.” Instead, he got into real estate development and continued to pursue his automotive interests through racing cars and collecting vintage vehicles, which he calls “a way to interact with works of art instead of hanging them on the wall.” He has headed a championship-winning racing team, driven in American Le Mans Series events, and built a reputation racing historical vehicles.
He describes his car collection as constantly evolving, as he frequently trades, buys, and sells. But Duncan has no trouble pinpointing his favorite: a 1978 Lotus driven to multiple victories by Mario Andretti. As a teenager, Duncan saw Andretti pilot the car in a race at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York. If Duncan ever sold off his collection, “that would be the last to go,” he says.
Renea and Duncan met at Lime Rock. “She didn’t know a Ford from a Ferrari when she started there; she knew about marketing, not about cars. But through hard work and dedication, she learned to speak the language and gained respect through her knowledge and competence,” says Duncan.
Besides now knowing her way around a spectrum of automotive matters, Renea shares Duncan’s love of art and is an avid photographer. Through her outdoor photography, she “fell in love with the world of plants,” she says.
The Daytons love living in North Salem. “Here, you feel like you’re in Vermont. It’s one of the most ideal locations. It has rural attributes, plus all the cultural benefits the city has to offer, just an hour away,” Duncan says. He also cites the ease of making friends: “The community is unique in how welcoming it is, how open people are. It’s the most collegial place I’ve been.”
Learning more about her neighbors’ interests and needs prompted Renea to kick off a series of special events at Hayfields, starting with monthly “Cars and Coffee” gatherings. “It gives Hayfields an identity,” Renea says. Hayfields now has something special going on each week, from trivia nights to exhibitions of works by local artists to live music to workshops on floral design and wine.
Duncan won’t claim even a minor role in Hayfields’ success: “I’m not involved in Hayfields day-to-day. It’s 100 percent Renea and her business partners; they get all the credit,” he says. However, according to Renea, her husband of five years has been key to her accomplishments. “He taught me about hard work, about public speaking. He encouraged me and gave me confidence. Duncan is my number-one supporter.”
Renea would like Hayfields to continue to evolve. She envisions more special events, an expanded catering service, and additional partnerships with local businesses. Among Hayfields’ current offerings are floral arrangements and bouquets from Amy’s Floral and Design, seasonal outdoor dinners at SPACE on Ryder Farm, and a CSA partnership with Field Goods.
“I like to keep it fresh. Since Hayfields is new, we can try new things,” shares Renea. “People enjoy that we’re constantly growing and changing. I want a vibe that’s alive; we’re always moving things around, bringing in new merchandise, changing the decor seasonally.”
When they’re not minding the store, the couple loves to travel. They take an annual road trip, exploring regions from the Southwest to Chesapeake Bay. Unsurprisingly, Duncan does all the driving, while Renea is in charge of the itinerary. Her plans typically mix comfort and adventure, like alternating luxury hotels with off-the-beaten-path experiences, such as sleeping in yurts.
Whether on the road or closer to home, maintaining ties to family and friends is a priority for both. Renea relishes visits from her Texas relatives, introducing them to the natural beauty and brilliant fall colors of the Northeast and showing them around Manhattan. Duncan notes that he’s still close with almost two dozen of his high school classmates and has longstanding friendships through his work
According to the Daytons’ friend and neighbor Debbie Weinstein: “They’re philosophically committed to friendship. Duncan is loyal, committed, warm, and generous; Renea is the same, and she’s so open. They’re very social; they like to bring together a mix of people they think will get along and urge them to mingle, talk and get to know one another.”
On the same subject, Duncan finds a broader application to some words of wisdom a mentor once shared about auto racing: “Winning racing championships is incredibly hard, and even if you’re good, you have to be lucky. The harder you work, the luckier you get.
“Friendship is like that,” Duncan continues. “You have to care for people, help out when they need it, work hard for people you care a lot about. These may sound like Midwestern values to some, but they’re hard at work in North Salem, too.”
Elzy Kolb is a White Plains-based freelance writer, editor, and copy editor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Hot House Jazz Magazine, and elsewhere.