“When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high and don’t be afraid of the dark.”
There couldn’t be a more apropos line from the timeless Rodgers and Hammerstein song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to describe the determination of many Jersey shore business owners during this turbulent period.
Yes, it’s July—the height of the summer season. But the year is 2020 and the scene at the shore—a beloved, sacred tradition for generations of area residents—is unlike any we’ve seen in our lifetime. Shore goers are out and about but life looks different: some restaurants are shuttered, others are limited to takeout and most recently, outdoor dining with social distancing measures. There are rules on boardwalk traffic; masks are required inside retail establishments; and hand sanitizing, disinfecting and hygiene are in super high gear.
A number of businesses have shifted their services to accommodate life during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Here’s a look at how four business owners are weathering this storm, each with a resolve to emerge even stronger.
This popular seaside resort celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and introduced the addition of 21 new guest rooms bringing its total to 174. They also rent condos and a beach house.
Typically, their busy season kicks off Memorial Day weekend, but the ongoing health crisis prevented that from happening. La Mer opened its doors on June 5.
“We are so honored to be the keepers of this amazing property for five decades,” said George Andy, 32, whose parents, Gus and Fotini Andy, emigrated from Greece to America after World War II. They transformed a run-down motor lodge into a sought-after resort that has hosted a steady clientele over the years, mostly guests traveling from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“My father saw it as a diamond in the rough,” recalled Maria Tettamanti (George Andy’s sister), who handles marketing and social media for the resort from her Miami home and spends summers at La Mer.
Their onsite restaurant, The Pier House, can accommodate about 30 guests in its outdoor dining area. The family is fortunate, noted Tettamanti, to have this space during New Jersey’s Phase Two reopening while indoor dining remains prohibited.
Tettamanti, 43, who grew up in Cape May and worked in just about every aspect of the business—from front desk reception to cleaning guest rooms—explained that the resort has long been known for being super clean and meticulous. “We’ve kicked that up a notch,” she said. Besides the extra sanitizing and disinfecting measures, guests are required to wear face masks inside and staff offers hand sanitizer at check-in. The aim is for everyone to feel safe and secure.
Although reservations aren’t nearly what they’ve been in past summers—typically they sell out—Tettamanti is cautiously optimistic. “People are tired of staring at the same four walls; people need fresh air.” And since most people aren’t traveling far this summer and plan on staying in the United States, Tettamanti is hopeful that guests—most drive to La Mer—will return.
“As a Greek family (referring to her parents) that immigrated to the United States with literally zero dollars in their pocket, this is just another storm,” she said. “We feel we can weather any storm.”
Pat Fasano’s vision for Atlantic City hasn’t changed because of the pandemic. His plans to revitalize the city with a focus on open-air venues and the natural wonder of the beaches have stayed on course as he views his creations through a long-lasting lens.
The 64-year-old self-made real estate developer is known for his work in the renaissance of Asbury Park. His energies have most recently been channeled on Atlantic City. A couple of years ago, Fasano purchased 20 contiguous properties, predominantly along New York Avenue, stretching to St. James Place and up to the boardwalk. Named The Orange Loop, after streets on the Monopoly board game, three beach blocks will include unique restaurants, refurbished apartments, coffee shops, bars, music, yoga and more.
Fasano’s efforts will roll out in phases. Last summer, he introduced two restaurants: New York Avenue’s Bourré, featuring Cajun-style and BBQ cuisine with an outdoor patio and bar and the boardwalk’s Loteria, Mexican fare. Both have socially distanced picnic tables. Takeout service at Loteria, ongoing throughout the pandemic, continues. Bourré offers takeout and delivery options.
This summer, he’ll open a beach volleyball court, concessions, a medical marijuana dispensary and Hayday Coffee. Future plans for entertainment encompass indoor and outdoor stages to feature live bands as well as comedy nights.
The New Brunswick, NJ native is particularly proud to be repurposing steel shipping containers to fashion many of his spaces, including a 40-foot bar and 18,000 square foot outdoor entertainment venue that will soon open at Bourré. “Industrial is trending now,” he explained. In fact, when Fasano witnessed an entire hotel in Costa Rica built with these eco-friendly steel containers, he decided to try the concept in Atlantic City.
A resident of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, Fasano gears his spaces toward families and people of all ages, but, he underscored, the late-night bars and entertainment spots will clearly draw millennials.
He relies on his daughter, Anna Fasano (an art therapist), for her creativity and artistic talent. Father and daughter worked together in much of the design in Asbury Park and they’ve continued this collaboration in Atlantic City. His son, Patrick, a real estate broker, is also immersed in the family business and manages many of Fasano’s properties.
“We’re not going to let this [pandemic] stop us,” said Fasano, who aspires to return the city to the way it once was with a fresh take. “Each year, it will be bigger and better with more to do that is non-gaming,” he said. “Atlantic City was a huge success before the casinos. People want to be outdoors.” That idea, he added, couldn’t be more timely as health experts report that the coronavirus is much less contagious when people are outside.
“We’ve been knocked down before at the Jersey Shore and we always come back stronger,” he said. “This is the beginning of the renaissance of Atlantic City.”
Jim Barnabei of North Wildwood has seen a lot in his 30-plus years as a restaurateur. His family-owned and operated restaurants, North End American Grill in North Wildwood and Concord Café in Avalon, survived Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Both remained strong since that comeback while catering to a steady clientele.
Admittedly, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been like no other storm. But Barnabei, 69, remains optimistic. “My hope is that people will start coming down during July.”
In recent days, Barnabei and his wife, Nancy, have taken a step back from day-to-day operations, while passing the reins to their children. Their son, Justin, 41, a professionally trained chef, oversees the kitchen staff and manages the Concord Café; son Jeffrey, 40, and daughter Jamie DelMonte, 42, manage the North End.
The North Wildwood 300-person capacity, casual dining establishment with a full-service bar, entertainment and outdoor seating, was forced to close its doors in mid-March. It reopened for outdoor dining on June 15. “The city allowed us to put tables on the sidewalk,” explained Barnabei. The family added 16 tables and can seat 64 while adhering to social distancing measures. The outdoor bar has also reopened with limited seating and live music.
Concord Café stayed opened throughout the pandemic, with curbside takeout. The 100-seat restaurant has been providing takeout for 30 years, so it wasn’t a stretch, said Barnabei, to continue that operation. Beer, wine and select items were added to the menu as a convenience to customers.
“We have been through difficult times before and have always been able to overcome the challenges we’ve faced,” said Barnabei. “This time will be no different.”
Gino Iovino, owner of Girasole in Atlantic City, has witnessed many ups and downs in the 35 years he has called this city home. “I take the good with the bad,” said Iovino, who was raised in Naples, Italy and immigrated to Philadelphia at age 20. He established several restaurants since coming to America including the former Girasole at 13th and Locust Streets in Philadelphia, as well as Amare Ristorante in Miami Beach.
Atlantic City’s Girasole, known for its homestyle, high quality, cooked to order Italian cuisine, has been a fixture on Pacific Avenue for 28 years. “We’ve built an incredible clientele over the years,” said Iovino. During non-pandemic times, the 65-year-old proprietor has about 30 employees; 15 of those are family members. This includes sisters, a brother, brother-in-law and many nieces and nephews.
When restaurants were ordered to close their doors to dining in mid-March, Iovino used the time as an opportunity to enhance the establishment. Although he typically offered takeaway, that ceased during the shutdown. Iovino refreshed a bit of the inside but concentrated on expanding the small outdoor seating area to what he now describes as an amazing 20-foot wide sidewalk for 60 customers.
Besides outdoor dining, Girasole has resumed takeaway service so patrons can again pick up orders to enjoy in the comfort of their homes.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Iovino who maintains a positive outlook and refers to the community and longtime customers as one big family. “This is my home. We have to come back.”