The summer is over.
The crowds of tourists haven’t completely dissipated yet — especially with Sunfest in full swing this weekend — but the process by which seasonal businesses shut down and year-round businesses curtail their hours has begun, giving Ocean City’s restaurant and retail community a chance to reflect on a season highlighted by a record tourist rush versus a severely depleted labor force.
“Business has been good. It’s been a blessing,” said Peter Elias, who owns the Spain Wine Bar in the new Cambria Hotel on St. Louis Avenue. “We’ve been busier, even on the weekdays. The response from the locals and all of our guests has been overwhelming and supportive. We’ve gotten tons of regulars.”
Elias wasn’t the only business owner to say that crowds were everything a new business could hope for, but like many others, at times he’s had to get creative to devise ways to maintain the staff to handle all that business.
Elias said he’s been “aggressively” pursuing help by talking to restaurants that have closed for the offseason, to see if any of their staff is sticking around the area and in need of work. He forecast that he’ll lose 80 to 90 percent of his staff when J-1 visa holders leave.
“We have some staff coming our way this offseason,” Elias said. “Of course, our schedule is based on our staff right now. We’d like to be open seven days a week but we’re closed on Mondays currently.”
Over at Tequila Frogs on 54th Street, which opened in May, owner Johnny Natoli spoke about a missed opportunity to really capitalize on August, which he sees as the busiest month of the tourist season. He pointed to a different reason than labor, however.
“With the delta variant (of covid-19) in August, people kind of changed their tune a bit,” Natoli said. “I’ve been coming to Ocean City all my life and, you know, August is typically … three or four rungs above July. I noticed this year August was just a little bit more productive. It was almost a copy of July. We didn’t really see (the usual uptick). I think the covid scare kind of filtered some people who weren’t comfortable going back out.”
“But were we successful for what we had? Yes.”
Unsurprisingly, businesses that rely the least on seasonal labor — especially visa labor — were the ones that benefitted most from the swarms of tourists that descended on Ocean City over the summer.
Delmar Smith owns two boutique dog shops with his wife, Dena — the Doggie Style K9 Cafe at the Inlet Village Shops and the Doggie Style Boutique and Bakery at the outlet shopping center in West Ocean City.
While the labor shortage left virtually no business unscathed, businesses like the Smiths’ benefitted from some insulation due to their small staff that is primarily made up of family and longstanding employees.
“We’re very, very fortunate,” Delmar Smith said. “It’s hard to find labor this year and we didn’t get a lot of J-1 students like we normally would. But we’re family-owned and operated. We made out OK because family worked for us.”
Business was good, he said, and they’re hoping to see even more of an uptick for their inlet store once the food courts being built there are finished.
Mickie Meinhardt opened The Buzzed Word — a wine bar and bookstore on 118th Street that specializes in the pairing of wine and literature — in July and felt virtually no sting from the labor shortage.
“Honestly, the summer was awesome,” said Meinhardt, who employs two locals part-time. “I had a really incredible July. August was awesome. It really just exceeded all my expectations … “Going into fall, September has been great. I’m seeing more of the locals come in now. It’s been good. I’m really excited for the offseason.”
Just a few doors down from The Buzzed Word, Fast Eddie’s Corner Bar & Grille is showing that a full-fledged restaurant can survive with a similar plan.
“Since we stuck with family and people we worked with in the past, we kind of had a set staff and still do where we have a full-time kitchen,” said Eddie Johnson, one of four co-owners.” And since it’s a smaller place, a couple full-time servers and bartenders and then three working owners (is all that’s needed).”
Johnson said that they’ve been closing on Tuesday and Wednesday the last few weeks to give their staff some rest but they plan to operate six days a week throughout the offseason.
Johnson, like other owners, thinks that the success to date and hope for success in the future rests on the atmosphere that’s created between staff and clientele.
“Atmosphere and chill vibes is what it’s all about,” Johnson stressed.
Elias said he has a reservation system in place that he will only use when absolutely necessary, ensuring he can always seat who he promises to seat.
“It’s an everyday thing (assuring a worthy experience),” he said. “People have loved their food and we’re very focused on cuisine right now. It seems to be paying off.”
His customers seem to agree.
“The food, the service and the view were all worth the visit. We were spoiled by Peter Elias and his staff,” said Kim Hudson, an Ocean City resident, who recently visited the wine bar for a friend’s retirement celebration. “The view is spectacular. The dining experience they want you to have is explained by the knowledgeable servers or a manager at the table when you order your drinks. The charcuterie boards, the tapas, and the entrees are all extremely well done and the homemade sangria is amazing.”
“When you visit, make sure to note all the stunning artwork spread throughout the restaurant,” she added. “All of the artwork has been created by Golie Miamee, Peter Elias’ girlfriend, and it is absolutely beautiful.”
To keep Tequila Frogs running, Natoli said it’s imperative to “capture the confidence of the locals.”
“It’s an important role to play, he said. “If you want to be here, established here, in the long run, you really have to focus on that audience as well. I feel we have really done that.”