The twin Carbon’s Golden Malted waffle irons had been waiting for weeks in the kitchen at the Doo Wop Drive In in Wildwood Crest. Their round coffered plates gleamed with nonstick newness. Quarter sheet pans beneath braced to catch runaway batter. A tin shaker labeled “Canela” in Sharpie-d masking tape was ready for sprinkling.
The waffle station got its first workout last weekend, the official kickoff of summer down the Shore. “Would I have ever thought my soft opening would be Memorial Day weekend?” Doo Wop owner Jason Kramer said after turning off the irons on Tuesday. “No. I wanted to be open a month ago.”
After running the 1950s-themed Doo Wop Café at the Tangiers motel for 15 summers, Kramer, a Wildwood local and 44-year-old father of three (with a fourth on the way), teamed up with longtime friend Bryan Grant to buy the defunct Tony Luke’s on New Jersey Avenue. They started renovations on the eyesore last fall, running a new vascular system of utility lines; widening narrow entries into ADA-compliant doorways; scraping the fossilized Wiz stains off the cheesesteak griddle; installing a projection screen in the parking lot, a promise of future movie nights with free popcorn and dollar dogs. The Doo Wop’s custom sign and red neon piping sizzled to life in March, just as many of the Shore’s businesses began to emerge from hibernation and into a hostage crisis dictated by the novel coronavirus.
In a non-pandemic year, Shore businesses warm up as the weather warms up, getting fit and limber in time for Memorial Day weekend. COVID-19 clouded that usual ramp-up to summer, as city and state officials contradicted one another on reopening strategies and locals and second homeowners sparred over bridge closures and plundered supermarkets. “In March, the Cape May Acme was doing July numbers,” Fudge Kitchen owner Joe Bogle said outside his flagship shop on the Washington Street Mall, but that spike in quarantine migration didn’t necessarily boost nonessential businesses cinched to the Shore’s tourism wagon. During the slow spring, “You could have rolled a bowling ball down the Mall or Wildwood boardwalk.”
Nationwide shipping and curbside pickup helped Fudge Kitchen weather the slump, and for the first time since last fall, a familiar sight filled the front windows at all six locations in Cape May County: an employee theatrically whipping ribbons of glossy, molten fudge with a long, wooden paddle. In-person transactions resumed as well, with customers ordering with an employee stationed at the entrance. There was no browsing the baskets of molasses paddles and saltwater taffy ziggurats, but “fortunately most people are familiar with what we have. They were coming up, ‘I’ll take a pound of chocolate pretzels, a pound of vanilla-nut [fudge].’ The weather wasn’t great, but it was an OK weekend — on Sunday at one point, I even had a little bit of a line.”
Stripes of green tape marked social distancing points along the line leading into A Little Café, a cheery Crest newcomer with a living herb wall, cold brew on tap, and owner Michael Popdan’s mother’s crunchy-capped poundcake in the pastry case. Popdan and partner Lori Lane saw eager crowds during their two-weekend soft opening in mid-May. “Oh, my God, this is gonna be our place all summer long,” the queen of a group of tweens told her friends through a face mask. “We’ll text each other: smoothies, our place, at 12.”
The smoothie zoomers returned for the holiday weekend, but the gloomy forecast curtailed the previously long lines. “The weather wasn’t great, but we did what we expected,” Lane said.
The lines seemed thinner than normal at Britton’s Gourmet Bakery, as well. On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, the early birds would normally be snaking up Buttercup Road to buy the bakery out of its famous apple fritters. There were only a handful this year around eight in the morning, each stepping up to the table outside to take a number from a red deli-style dispenser and scan the laminated sign mandating face masks and social distancing. (The apple fritters were as delicious as ever.)
While “the weather stunk,” Kramer had “a good weekend” at the Doo Wop, navigating the challenges of opening with takeout only. (“No mathematician has yet to make a container that keeps French fries crispy until you get home,” he said.) “With COVID and not being able to seat people inside, I’m happy I can pay salaries and bills right now, but nobody is putting money in their pockets as owners. I have a business plan based on 90 seats. I need those seats.”
Crest Mayor Don Cabrera and his counterparts on Five Mile Island have eased occupancy laws and outdoor seating restrictions so restaurants can meet social distancing guidelines until Gov. Phil Murphy green-lights dine-in service. “Our lifeblood revolves around tourism,” Cabrera said. “We have to help find opportunities for [restaurants] to be successful.”
Catercorner from the Doo Wop, Wildwood’s 50-year-old Ravioli House turned its parking lot into an outdoor dining patio in a furious blitz of churning concrete and power washers. A Little Café is planning to put tables on the sidewalk, and Kramer transferred half his indoor seats to a pop-up tent. Cabrera thinks the state may clear dine-in services by mid-June and is hopeful businesses cannot just survive, but thrive, this season.
“We’ve had washouts in the past for Memorial Day weekend, even slow rainy starts in June, and our businesses have always recovered. I view this [season] as similar to that,” Cabrera said. “We have some restrictions, but one thing is for sure: Kids aren’t in school, and we didn’t have a bad winter where everything is pushed [back]. We could have a very busy June and make up what we may have lost in last April and May.”