Over his 54 years, Tim McNamara has gone by many titles.
“Lieutenant Commander” was his rank after two decades of active and reservist duty in the Navy. “Mr. Mac” is what his middle school students called him during his long tenure as a history teacher in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, from which he retired two years ago.
But to the hungry masses in wet bathing suits who line up each summer at the beachside corner of 59th and Pleasure Streets in Sea Isle City, McNamara is simply known as “Bubba,” the convivial, well-tanned wiener master behind Bubba Dogs, the hot dog cart he has captained for 20 straight summers.
“Time flies when you follow your passion and do what you love while breathing in salt air,” says McNamara, who, with his teenage crew of part-time employees, is clearly having a blast as they chat with customers, selling Bubba Dogs’ merch and passing around the house guitar between orders.
Drawn by the giant red banners flapping high above his ketchup red cart and a nearby dune, customers come for the all-beef Nathan’s links that get griddled brown and transformed into locally-themed frankfurter whimsies. Like the 59th Street (with bacon, melted cheddar cheese, and crunchy potato sticks), or the Philly Dilly (bacon, Cheez, and house hot sauce) or the Double Doink, a chili and cheese combo that can be upgraded with potato sticks into the Jason Kelce, named in honor of McNamara’s favorite Eagle. The Mummer-ific All-Pro center also happens to be an occasional customer.
“There’ve been a lot more New Yorkers lately,” McNamara grumbles. “If they show up in Yankees caps, I charge them double.”
But most Bubba Dogs customers are longtime Sea Isle regulars whose families he’s been serving for generations.
“There are the Murrays, the Korevyas, the Whitenecks, the O’Neills, the Spaders, the DeLucas, the McKees, and the Magarities,” he said, rattling off a few. “Just today there was a girl named Morgan who’s been coming for two weeks every year since she was 7. Now she’s 25 and married.” She reliably orders a fresh-squeezed strawberry limeade to go with her 59th Street and Double Doink.
“A major part of my business model is teaching the kids [that work for me] how to interact with people the proper way,” he said. “Don’t talk about yourself, inquire about others, be interested in what they have to say — and listen. Our success is about human interaction... and it keeps people coming back.”
McNamara turned to hot dogs as a young father on break from his teacher’s salary. He needed a sustainable summer income and decided his longtime gig as beach patrol lifeguard wasn’t going to cut it.
Once he was able to secure one of the eight vending licenses Sea Isle City reserves for military veterans, McNamara never looked back, eventually building his cart by hand from birch wood and settling on this spot where he works from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every sunny day possible between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
And this summer’s weather has been exceptionally cooperative.
“We Islanders like to call it the Sea Isle Bubble,” he says, noting the 42 straight days of sunshine into early August. “The bubble is holding strong.”
McNamara won’t divulge how many thousands of dogs he sells each summer from his little cart, where the prices top out at $4.75. “We keep that close to the vest,” he says, just as 30 customers happen to be lining up for lunch. “But we’re blessed.”
Bubba Dogs supports numerous local philanthropies each year, especially those helping families to deal with cancer. Among the other titles that McNamara has held, “cancer survivor” is the one for which he’s most grateful. McNamara was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer in October of 2015, and despite five major surgeries in January 2016 followed by three rounds of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation, he was determined to make a comeback in time for summer.
“Having the cart to look forward to, that was my goal,” he said. “I was back by Memorial Day and never missed a beat.”
Clear and healthy now for the past six years, McNamara says running the hot dog cart keeps him going, hopefully for another 20 years.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “This is far and way the most gratifying career choice I could ever have made. It really is my bliss.”