Chef David Burke, who has seven restaurants in New Jersey and three in Manhattan, has a notably buoyant personality. Yet, like all restaurateurs, his resilience was put to the test last year when Covid-19 safety measures restricted operations to takeout, with outdoor and, later, indoor dining eventually added at reduced capacity.
“Fortunately, our locations in New Jersey are large and had outdoor space,” Burke says, “especially compared to Manhattan, where we got screwed and devastated. So I gotta be honest, I’m happy in Jersey. We had a pop-up in Asbury, and I’m happy the governor allowed us to be open at [initially] 25 percent, and that the beaches stayed open all summer. I have colleagues in small downtowns that didn’t do as well.
“It wasn’t a fantastic summer,” he admits, “but breaking even and making a little money was a good summer for 2020. I wouldn’t sign a lease in New York City now, but the Jersey Shore is different.”
In January, Burke put his money behind that statement, reopening Drifthouse by David Burke in Sea Bright. In March, he returned to Rumson, opening Red Horse in the storied building where he once ran the Fromagerie. In April, at Beach Haus Brewery in Belmar, he opened a casual, sit-down restaurant called Belmar Kitchen.
Nationally, restaurant and food-service sales were down $255 billion from expected level, between March 2020 and January 2021, according to the National Restaurant Association, which expects a full recovery to take years. In New Jersey, about one new restaurant opened for every five that shut down, according to the New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
But, along the Shore this year, optimism has broken through some of the clouds. One leading indicator is the summer rental market. “The reservation pace was super-strong,” says Curtis Bashaw, managing partner of Cape Resorts, a group of restaurants and lodgings in Cape May. “You can just tell that people have been stir-crazy.”
“It’s insane,” says Alicia Marzarella, an agent with Berkshire-Hathaway on Long Beach Island. “The minute something went on the market, there was a bidding war.” Renters began reserving properties in November, a good two months earlier than usual, she says, and inventory was tapped by February. For summer rentals, “there’s nothing out there.”
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The Asbury Ocean Club, a 17-story luxury apartment building in Asbury Park, has rebounded from a slow start. The building, completed in 2019, had sold only 20 percent of units by March of last year. By spring of this year, half the units had been sold, says Jodi Stasse, senior managing director of sales for Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group. Moreover, she says, apartments, which start at about $900,000, are selling at asking price.
“Asbury Park was a big amenity and very much part of our story,” she says, noting that the music scene and the restaurants are “a big draw.”
In Atlantic City, when casinos were closed from March through early July 2020, visitors descended on Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall. Owned by Mark Callazzo and Scott Cronick, it has an outdoor space with artificial turf, bamboo plants and fire pits. “We created an oasis,” says Cronick.
For Shore eateries, ramping up staff for summer is always hectic, but this year it was a nail-biter. That seems counterintuitive, given record levels of unemployment in the hospitality industry. Nonetheless, “we’re coming in slimmer than ever before,” Marilyn Schlossbach, owner of, among other ventures, Pop’s Garage and Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, said in March. “A lot of people got laid off in Covid and moved on to other types of jobs. We’ve had a few servers move to Amazon, making good money, and they’re not coming back. Teachers are overstressed with the year they had and may not want a second job like they normally do.
“We’ve got a lot of applications for leadership positions,” she added. “Executive chefs and sous chefs may be available because their restaurants closed, but below that, for a runner, a server, a cook, a dishwasher, these people are not eager to come back to work. I want to get back to full swing and give guests the full experience, but I urge the public to be patient.”
In Seaside Park, restaurateur Mike Jurusz says he is “totally psyched and pumped up” for summer 2021, based on the positive response he got last year. Instead of offering just take-out in 2020, his Chef Mike’s ABG (Atlantic Bar & Grill) expanded and upgraded its outdoor seating. “We are big on presentation,” Jurusz says. “I couldn’t just slop-and-plop in a box.”
In paring his menu from four pages to one, he softened the distinction between his fine-dining dinners and casual lunches. “That line’s been blurred,” he says. “You want a rum bucket at dinner now with your 28-ounce tomahawk? You got it.”
Despite difficulties in hiring, Two Mile Landing and Crab House in Wildwood Crest adjusted to an all-outdoor format last summer. “We are open on three sides, right on the water, with a massive parking lot,” says manager Lori Lane. “We were never fully staffed. But the good news is that the staff we had was making good money.”
It was a different story for A Little Cafe, also in Wildwood Crest, which Lane opened in 2020. “It was entirely take-out, and, with the six-foot spacing, we could only allow one or two customers inside at a time,” Lane says. “But the café survived. And survival—that’s all you could ask for.”
With indoor dining curtailed, the vagaries of weather took a greater than usual toll. After a windy night last summer, Steve Bidgood, owner of Salt Creek Grille in Rumson, found his dining tents floating in the brackish waters of the Navesink River. He invested in sturdier tents, with anchors that cost $1,000 each.
“I’ve been in the business 48 years, and I thought Sandy was the topper, but this is it,” says Bidgood, who contracted Covid-19 in April of last year. “I have cried so many times, I can’t tell you.” Despite the challenges, business has bounced back, he says. During the pandemic, he transformed the dining room into a staging area for takeout, heat-and-serve and raw-ingredient packages.
In Ocean City, chef Herb Allwood and his wife, Pamela Womble, co-own 701 Mosaic, an upscale Caribbean restaurant. Throughout 2020, they offered only takeout and lamented the loss of personal interaction and aesthetics in plating. “My shrimp curry is normally served in a bowl with jasmine rice in the center and the shrimp and sauce spread around it,” Allwood explains. “Now we have to put it in two containers, and that takes away from presentation and profit.
“The staff assured me that’s how it is in take-out,” Womble adds. “It was a bitter pill to swallow. An entrée salad in a container? Yes. A certified Angus steak? Not so much.”
For the first three months of last year’s shutdown, Drew’s Bayshore Bistro in Keyport offered three-course take-out dinners for $35. “Volume made it work,” says chef/owner Drew Araneo. When outdoor dining was permitted last June, Araneo eliminated the $35 specials, but he has continued curbside pickup. Dining on the Bistro’s broiling asphalt parking lot proved more problematic for patrons, the sweltering staff and Araneo’s budget. Tent rental cost him $2,000 a month, “almost the same as the rent of the bistro.” Still, he says, “it was well worth it.”
Vicki Weiss, owner of Mathis House in Toms River, offered teas and luncheons on the lawn instead of inside the historic 1897 Dutch Revival mansion. She also began offering takeout and launched a daily farmers market. Catering outdoor weddings, showers and even funeral receptions helped cultivate new clientele. Survival was, of course, sweet, but, she says, “so, so challenging and exhausting.”
Chef Joe Spano is accustomed to high pressure, with 16 burners to keep track of at Spano’s, his Italian restaurant in Point Pleasant Beach. Spano and his son, Frankie, do all the cooking.
At the outset of the pandemic last year, “we knew restaurants that closed and thought it would only be for a few weeks,” says Joe. The Spanos ramped up take-out, including “family relief meals,” such as a half tray of baked manicotti with salad and bread for $48. “We had to take the phone off the hook,” Spano said. “We couldn’t keep up with the orders.”
Toby Sweeney, owner of two Beach Haven restaurants—Terrace Tavern and Delaware Avenue Oyster House—responded to the March 2020 shutdown by knocking down a warehouse behind the tavern to create an outdoor dining space, which was ready by Memorial Day. She created a “mash-up” menu, with raw-bar items and signature cocktails from the Oyster House also available at Terrace Tavern. Anticipating a labor shortage, Sweeney reached out early to summer employees who were in high school or college and were on remote learning at home.
Tents and heaters are prohibited on the Asbury Park boardwalk, limiting outdoor options for Marilyn Schlossbach’s Langosta Lounge, Asbury Park Yacht Club and Pop’s Garage. She expects a better summer this year, especially if the Stone Pony and other local venues reopen. “People are going to want to get out,” she said, “and it’s going to be overwhelming.”
At Lefty’s Tavern in Barnegat, owner Lefteddy Sarapoulous used funds set aside for a remodeling project to sustain his business through the shutdown. Lefty’s was “decently busy all winter,” he says, mainly due to Barnegat and LBI residents who stayed in summer homes through the off-season.
“I definitely had to keep my emotions on the down-low all year,” Sarapoulous says. “It was never really a chore to go to work, but this past year was really hard. I’d stop what I was doing every day at 1 pm and be glued to the TV to see what Governor Murphy had to say, to see if any changes had been made.”
Bashaw says he noticed mutual appreciation between staff and guests last summer at Cape Resorts, perhaps because all were aware of how hard restaurants were hit.
“There was a sweetness to last summer, honestly, and it created so much energy,” Bashaw says. “It was a rich experience, and we are hoping for more joy this year.”
“I believe we’re going to be better this summer,” says Gus Stavrides, chef/owner of Kostas Grill in Tuckerton. “All of us learned to live with the pandemic. People want to feel safe and they want to feel free, and so now they understand how to have both.”
When Spano’s opened for outdoor dining, the restaurant began requiring reservations. Spano intends to keep it that way. Before the pandemic, he says, “sometimes you’d have to wait two hours to sit down, and we don’t want that. In the end, 2020 was our best year, better than 2019. This summer will be even better. We’ll finally start the roaring ’20s.”Click here to leave a comment