Fishheads, the popular Atlantic City food truck, evicted from Gardner’s Basin in dispute with state
The only Black-owned business in Gardner's Basin was towed by the city in a dispute over N.J. Green Acres regulations. Supporters are rallying.
ATLANTIC CITY — For seven summers, Gregory “Dredgie” Wood has served fish platters and sandwiches from his Fishheads food truck set near the back bay in Atlantic City.
Now, the only Black-owned business in picturesque Gardner’s Basin, an Atlantic City jewel at the end of the brand-new extension of the Boardwalk, is facing eviction at the hands of the State of New Jersey and the City of Atlantic City, in a dispute over state Green Acres rules.
“Listen, I’m going to tell you,” Wood said in an interview this week. “I have the best crabcakes in Atlantic City, the best shrimp. I give good-quality seafood to people.
“They need to know these people are going to be mad and frustrated that I’m not open.”
Why would anybody or anybody in government or tourism want to push out a beloved seafood institution run by an Atlantic City native that draws tourists and locals who get a to-go platter with Wood’s signature “Soul Slaw,” and watch the epic sunsets over the back bay (and Borgata and Harrah’s)?
Fishheads has been in Atlantic City for 25 years, and was at the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Adriatic Avenue prior to moving to Gardner’s Basin seven years ago, where its food truck replaced Scales Restaurant, which had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
On Saturday, the city made good on its threat and towed the Fishheads trailer to its impound lot, where Wood paid $350 to get it out.
Gardner’s Basin is designated a state Green Acres area, a preservation program run by the Department of Environmental Protection, which subjects it to open-space restrictions that previously led to the 2017 eviction of a handful of crafters. The city received $300,000 as part of the designation.
But two other restaurants have been allowed to stay, Back Bale Ale House and Gilchrist, a popular breakfast location, which bid for the two allowable spots. Both draw people to Gardner’s Basin, which is surrounded by commercial and charter fishing boats, a seawall popular for fishing, the Atlantic City Aquarium, and whale and dolphin tour boats.
Scales’s Woody Bar has operated out of a shipping container across from Fishheads. The city said that it was consulting with its legal team and that the bar, now run by Back Bay, would also likely not operate this summer.
“There are three businesses up there serving food, serving the community,” said Steven Young, a local Black activist who is president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, and who helped organize a protest.
“Out of the three, you mean to tell me the Black one has to leave?” he said.
Wood and more than 1,390 other people asked that in a petition seeking to stop the eviction.
Wood also has the support of other restaurateurs in town, most prominently John Exadakolis of Ducktown Tavern, State Sen. Vince Polistina, former Mayor and current Assemblyman Don Guardian, and plenty of loyal customers.
“It breaks my heart,” said Kim Turner-McDuffie, an Atlantic City Realtor who greeted Wood with a big hug Wednesday outside the Fishheads sign. “You not only have a great restaurant, and great food, but the people love you.”
She said Wood has hired the children of her clients from Pennsylvania who have bought summer homes in nearby neighborhoods. “He’s a pillar,” she said.
The state has a say both because it regulates Gardner’s Basin through the Green Acres program, which seeks to preserve open space and places restrictions over land designated as Green Acres, but also because it has authority over Atlantic City government actions through the state’s municipal takeover act.
Mahen Gunaratna, Gov. Phil Murphy’s communications director, said the governor had no comment “at this time” about whether he supports removing Fishheads, or sees a possible resolution.
But it has been the city that has been notifying Wood that his Basin time is up. Mayor Marty Small Sr. says the city attempted to help Wood move to a different location, either by the nearby seawall, a popular fishing destination, or at the Walk, the city’s downtown outlet mall.
The city says Wood did not bid on the two existing slots for restaurants allowed by the state. Wood says the slots were always going to the other restaurants.
Wood says that none of those negotiations ever progressed, and that he wishes to simply stay in the Gardner’s Basin and open seasonally. He said he was open to another possible location, or taking his operation truly mobile. Some in Atlantic City think the mayor is retaliating against Wood due to an unrelated personal disagreement, which Small denies.
The Fishheads season was set to start Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday, with an electrical hookup all that was left of the memorably festive Fishheads scene at Gardner’s Basin, Wood said he would take the chance to “reinvent” himself, work on the truck, and hopefully go to festivals this summer.
Polistina said in an interview Wednesday that he thinks the DEP statement left some room for compromise, in that it noted that the Green Acres agreement allows for food trucks at events. He said he has been trying to work with the state to reach a resolution.
“He’s been in Atlantic City for 25 years,” Polistina said. “There’s no reason why we should be forcing him to move. He should be part of Gardner’s Basin.”
Polistina said it would be difficult to get Gardner’s Basin out of the Green Acres pact, because the 12-acre waterfront parcel would be too valuable to substitute other land. But he said putting these restrictions on what has been a lively and beautiful gathering spot makes no sense.
In 2017, a similar dispute involving Green Acres and National Park Service regulations led to the eviction of 10 crafters who occupied little wooden huts, which currently stand empty, along with several other nearby buildings.
Caryn Shinske, a spokesperson for the state Department of Environmental Protection, noted it was the city that issued a Request for Proposal in March to lease the two primary restaurant sites.
“The Department understands that the City then advised the Fish Heads food truck operator that remaining on site would not comply with the Green Acres and National Park Service restrictions, and that the food truck would have to move elsewhere,” she said.