ATLANTIC CITY - After running out of food on July Fourth and having "crazy, nonstop" business every day since then, one pizzeria owner in this tourist town is rethinking his numbers for the rest of the summer.
"I don't want to go through that again," Michael Hauke said of the experience of turning away potential customers who had trekked to his Tony Boloney's, off the beaten path at Oriental and Vermont Avenues in the resort's Inlet section.
It had been an extremely busy holiday weekend, and by 4 p.m. Monday, Hauke and his crew had run out of everything from cold cuts for sandwiches to the flour, cheese, and spices they use to make pizzas. Hauke had to stop food preparation, but he stayed until 11 p.m. to apologize to would-be patrons.
"I couldn't just run out to a big-box store and buy random-brand cheese or dough. We have certain types of cheese we use, and we make everything by hand," said Hauke, who did three times the business he expected over the weekend and four times what he did at the same time last year. And the gangbuster numbers have not stopped.
It's a refrain being heard up and down the Jersey Shore, where tourism officials and business owners consider the July Fourth holiday a fairly reliable gauge of how the season will shape up.
Thanks to Mother Nature, it could be a blockbuster. "Hot and sunny" makes the cash registers jingle at shops, sends lines out the door at restaurants, lights no-vacancy signs at hotels, and creates blanket-to-blanket conditions on beaches.
"Great weather for Memorial Day weekend and Fourth of July weekend certainly did us a lot of good," said Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.
But other factors also are playing a role, he said.
"The fact that people are hearing some great things about Atlantic City, like the fact that we have 16 new restaurants opening this weekend, is getting rid of old perceptions and bringing in new demographics that include young people, families, and others," Vasser said.
After recent music festivals featuring Dave Matthews and a hip-hop lineup at Bader Field and last weekend's huge fireworks display, Atlantic City is becoming known for large-scale events unrelated to gambling, he said.
Throughout the area, attractions and businesses have benefited. Casino hotels including Resorts, Trump Plaza, Trump Taj Mahal, and Tropicana had sellout weekends. Non-casino properties such as the Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City and Carisbrooke Inn in Ventnor also were booked solid.
Even Lucy the Elephant in Margate saw a jumbo increase in visitors, up 20 percent from last year at the same time.
"Even though gas prices are high, I think people are staying closer to home and discovering, or rediscovering, us," Vasser said.
North and south of Atlantic City, officials also report tourism increases.
"For a lot of businesses it was a record-breaking Fourth of July," said Barbara Steele, director of Ocean County's Department of Community Affairs and Tourism. "Visitors are becoming less concerned about the economy and more interested in taking a chance and coming down to see what we have to offer."
They're taking advantage of coupons and deals being offered for amusement rides, hotel stays, restaurant meals, and other goods and services, Steele said.
Tourists with lodging in one Shore town have grown more willing to travel to another community for an attractive deal, said Diane F. Wieland, Cape May County's director of tourism.
In a survey last summer, 87 percent of Cape May County visitors said they would be willing to drive from where they were staying for a free concert, to use a meal coupon, or to visit a free attraction such as the Cape May County Zoo, Wieland said.
That was up 70 percent from what tourists reported four years ago, she said.
"People nowadays want to feel they are really getting a lot of value for their money," Wieland said.
Through no hard numbers are in, businesses in Cape May, Wildwood, and Ocean City say they had record sales last weekend, according to Wieland.
Back in Atlantic City, at the Absecon Lighthouse down the street from Tony Boloney's, director Jean Muchanic said her attendance numbers indicated a boffo summer.
It costs nothing to visit the re-created lighthouse keeper's home and gift shop at the 1857 historic site. But for $7, an adult visitor can climb to the top of the 171-foot tower - and get a coupon for a free slice of pizza at Tony Boloney's. About 38 percent of visitors make the climb.
Since 2005, the annual number of visitors at the attraction has increased 120 percent. And instead of 86 visitors last July 3, this year on that date the lighthouse had 246.
"From what we've seen already this year, I think it's going to be a great summer," Muchanic said. "There's a buzz about Atlantic City and the whole region happening this year that we haven't seen for a while."