The Resilient Reading Terminal Market

American Road Trip


Reading Terminal Market Sign

The Resilient Reading Terminal Market

Reading Terminal Market Sign

The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia had its struggles in 2020, so JerseyMan and I gave it some well-deserved props for the January 2021 issue. You can see it on JerseyMan’s website here, or see the magazine article here.

Reading Terminal Market Sign

The Resilient Terminal Market

The Reading Terminal Market was hit hard by the pandemic, losing over half its foot traffic throughout the tourist season in 2020. The merchants, locals, and even some outsiders came together to help keep the lights on, but the quality of the goods is ultimately what keeps the Market going.

A visit to the Reading Terminal Market is well worth any travel expense and hassle, but it always presents an exasperating conundrum:

“What the hell am I gonna eat?”

Human stomachs are insufficiently sized enough that in every trip to Philly’s venerable marketplace, it’s impossible not to miss out on something amazing. It’s particularly rough for tourists, who may only manage one or two visits.

The Market sometimes seems to cause more culinary heartache than pleasure. Sure, have one or three of Beiler’s doughnuts…but unless you have a committed sweet tooth, that means foregoing Dutch Eating Place apple dumplings, Flying Monkey whoopie pies, or Termini Bros. torrones.

Beilers Donuts philadelphia

Sorry, what were those other choices again?

If you’ve ever experienced this distress, you’re not alone.

You’d think the Market’s general manager would have sound advice for this situation, but unfortunately Conor Murphy isn’t much help. Murphy visits the Market every day, and even he struggles mightily with the question.

“There’s just so many great sandwich options,” he says. “You’ve got a fantastic sandwich at Smucker’s, DiNic’s is obviously incredible. I’m an unapologetic carnivore, but there’s great sandwiches too at Luhv Vegan. Whether you want a chicken sandwich or a beef sandwich or a fresh deli sandwich…Hatville Deli does a great job…there’s just too many choices almost.

“It can be a challenge sometimes to choose your lunch. Phenomenal options, the classic Philadelphia specials, and also obviously great healthy options too.”

London Faust is the digital media manager at Bellevue Communications, the firm that manages the Market’s PR. She is a bit more willing to risk choosing a go-to vendor; she recommends Olympia Gyro.

Olympia Gyro reading terminal market

Just for the record, she’s right.

“It’s well balanced and a good bang for your buck,” she shares. “Their gyros are really good and fresh, and don’t fill you up to the point where you’re so uncomfortably full, but they also have the biggest, freshest salads I’ve ever seen.”

Okay, that helps a bit. Murphy also offers a small but valuable piece of advice: Don’t look over your shoulder.

“Sometimes if you’re standing at DiNic’s, and then you look over your shoulder and you see Hershel’s, well then suddenly the decision just became much harder. You go to Olympia where London likes to go, and you turn over your shoulder and there’s Kamal’s.

“You kind of have to come in with your blinkers on almost. Make your decision and get it done. Because if you turn your shoulder, you might have to change your mind.”

This extreme gastronomic agitation is the true appeal of the Reading Terminal Market. For locals, the substantial selection of food staples keeps one returning, again and again. For frustrated tourists, it may inspire a better-planned return visit to Philadelphia. The Market is equal parts tourist attraction and favorite local destination, and it does both very, very well.

That balance has been key to its survival in the toughest of times. Which 2020 unquestionably was.

Masks at Reading Terminal Market

We will get through this, for the Market’s sake.
(photo courtesy of the Reading Terminal Market)

Throughout the history of the Reading Terminal Market, it seems to have been positioned to survive world instability. That doesn’t just include a depression and two world wars. The Market has weathered other storms too, like the decline of the railroad industry.

The “Reading Terminal” part of the name comes from its location, as a key hub for the Reading Railroad. The rise of the automobile drove the Railroad into bankruptcy by 1971. The Reading Company remained overseeing the Market, but they instituted higher rents for already struggling merchants, driving many of them away.

Decline and crumbling infrastructure continued until the Convention Center Authority purchased the Market in 1990. With that deal came $30 million of public funding for upgrades. To secure that kind of cash, you’ve probably got some clout with the locals.

So where does a worldwide pandemic rank among the tribulations the Market’s endured in its 128 years?

It’s probably top three.

Bassett Ice Cream RTM

People never stay away from Bassett’s because of the quality of the ice cream.

“The Market has been through a lot,” Murphy says. “But I’m looking back through history, talking to different merchants and historians, and there’s a general sense that this is certainly up there with those past experiences.

“Usually from April through Thanksgiving, food and beverage options around the city get a lot of foot traffic. On a Friday or Saturday the Market would have anything from 35-40,000 people a day coming through. This year, it was anything from 55-60% drop in those numbers.”

The difficulty of social distancing in a tight city venue doesn’t help. “As an old train station, you can imagine the building is equipped for lots of people coming through,” Murphy adds.

Like every establishment in the country, the merchants have had to adapt to survive. But just as every difficult period in our history has revealed the strength of the Market, the challenging times caused folks to rally behind Philadelphia’s favorite food destination.

Even from as far as Boston.

As efforts grew to help the Market stay operational, including adding a GoFundMe page, it attracted the attention of Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports. Despite being a Beantown area native, Portnoy is a Philly food enthusiast and passionate about supporting the cause. He arranged for Penn National, the owner of Barstool Sports, to donate $100 for every $100 deposit made by fans in the Barstool Sportsbook app.

It was a significant factor in the GoFundMe campaign’s success, which has totaled $211,597 as this sentence was written, contributed by 4,773 Market fans. The funds will be enormously helpful for day-to-day operations.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic,” Murphy explains, “we’ve offered support to merchants in the form of rent deferments. One of the other things that we do a lot is events, and we are able to cover a lot of our costs through some of those events. So without the events, and with some deferments in place for merchants, we wanted to make sure we were able to remain available and open seven days a week.

“Simple things, being able to pay utility bills, and all the extra sanitation costs that we now have to keep customers safe.”

Hershels Deli reading terminal market

Keep the lights on for Hershel’s sandwiches.

Murphy is overwhelmingly appreciative at the reminder of how beloved the Market and its peddlers really are.

“The Market has such an incredible presence for everyone that lives in the city,” he says. “Some of the personal stories were really, really fantastic. I think ultimately the Market is here because of Philadelphia, and because of the loyalty that shoppers have to us.”

Speaking of what he calls the camaraderie and spirit of the Market, you can hear the emotion in Murphy’s voice.

“With the essential service designation for public markets…nobody at the Market had to be told what that meant. They all just love to serve people. They fundamentally understand what it means to serve customers.

“I grew up in a small business in Ireland. People who run small businesses, they’ll always be my first heroes. They’re just fantastic people, you know, they really are. Small business is so, so important, especially now.

“I moved here six and a half years ago, and it’s amazing to see how people have been so supportive. It’s fantastic to see Philadelphians wanting to support the Market so much.”

Faust shares Murphy’s reverence for the outpouring of civic pride. “The Market’s really a family,” she adds, “and it’s really heartwarming to see everybody support each other.”

By George Pizza Reading Terminal Market

By George, I think I’ll have some pizza!

While 2020 was as tough on our favorite marketplace as it was on everyone, the difficulties may ultimately become growth opportunities. Murphy says merchants have greatly improved their ability to take online orders and deliver the goods for hungry fans. The virus may have revealed how much these iconic vendors underestimated their popularity outside of the building.

“We have worked really hard to get people onto delivery platforms. We’ve got a great partner, Mercato, that helps us on the food delivery side. Then the lunch counter merchants, trying to pivot their businesses to delivery apps, the Caviars and the Doordashes of this world.”

Murphy admits, however, that the ability to order delivery from so many wonderful vendors can’t match actually visiting a Market so abounding with edible excellence that you can’t even look over your shoulder. That exasperating whirlwind moment of indecision between Carmen’s and Keven Parker’s is the Reading Terminal Market at its alluring best.

Down Home Diner

Social distancing is worth enduring for down home cooking.

“Pandemics end,” Murphy reflects, “and I think there is some light at the end of the tunnel with all the great news recently about vaccines. The best experience of the Reading Terminal Market is to come and visit us yourself. Ultimately, what we love to see here is people come through our doors to visit, because it is such a great food experience.”

That it is, even if it’s a torturous dilemma to choose from dozens of world-class eateries. Fortunately, Murphy is confident we’ll have many more opportunities to experience it all.

“There’s obviously a very clear love for the Market. That love has been built over 128 years, and our plan is to build it for 128 more.”

And Down Home Diner’s scrapple alone could keep us coming back until 2149.

 

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taste of philly food tour

The Market has all you need.
(photo courtesy of Carolyn Wyman)

The Market Sampling Tour

The Taste of Philly Food Tour people can help you a tiny bit with the agonizing challenge of what to get at the Market. You can book an inexpensive tour of the Market on Taste of Philly Food Tour’s website, although as of this writing tours are still suspended.

Author Carolyn Wyman runs the site and tour, and she knows a bit about food in our fair city. She’s the author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, the definitive guide to classic vendors of Philly’s signature sandwich. The very well done book even mentions 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry’s costly cheesesteak faux pas.

The tour is not actually through Philadelphia but is simply a tour of the Market itself; Carolyn or one of her friends leads visitors through the Market and shares stories of its history…along with, of course, tastings.

Millers Twist Pretzels Philadelphia

Miller’s pretzel cheesesteak anyone?

According to Wyman, samples that patrons get to try (based on group size and dietary issues) can include:

– A piece of a Miller’s Twist pretzel
– Scrapple from Down Home Diner or Dutch Eating Place
– Snapping turtle soup from Pearl’s Oyster Bar
– Butter cake from the Flying Monkey Bakery
– Jewish apple cake from Hershel’s deli
– Butterscotch vanilla ice cream from Bassett’s
– Wilbur Buds and Goldenberg Peanut Chews from the PA General Store.

Wyman adds, “The tour definitely includes ideas on other great foods and best finds in the Market…the most popular donut at Beiler’s, the unique Philly cream cheese cheesesteak at Carmen’s, the summer-only lemon cooler cake at Termini’s etc.”

Certainly enough to assist in that blasted decision process, and samples are small enough that you’ll still have room to order a full version of what you liked the most.

The Market’s website calls it “fun history that has nothing to do with government”. Something to consider for the next field trip with the kids.

reading terminal market national treasure

I looked behind the counter. Diane Kruger wasn’t there.
(photo courtesy of Martin’s)

A True National Treasure

The Market has made a few appearances in American cinema, most notably in the 2004 hit National Treasure.

You may remember the scene: Abigail (Diane Kruger) and Riley (Justin Bartha) temporarily escape from villain Ian Howe’s (Sean Bean) henchmen in the Market, and Abigail temporarily hides behind the counter of Martin’s Quality Meats. The woman working behind the counter, after initially informing Abigail that she doesn’t belong there if she’s not a steak, lets her stay believing that she’s running from her ex-husband.

The movie crew brought in close to 50 extras to pose as customers (the woman behind the counter was an actress named Sharon Wilkins) and spent 14 hours on two Sundays filming the scene. Gabrielle Giunta, daughter of Martin’s owner Martin Giunta, told JerseyMan about it.

“The market was closed on Sundays, and they asked us to open and set the case on a Sunday to do the filming. The producer put an actress behind the counter for ‘customer service’ and they had to film the scene a bunch to get it right.

“A lot of people did ask us about that in passing – was pretty cool as a kid to hear people ask my dad about being in National Treasure.”

The chase scene, like the rest of the movie, turned out superbly. But the movie makers seriously screwed the pooch on feeding the crew. They brought in a trailer from an outside caterer, rather than letting the crew dine on the countless offerings from the Market itself.

If you’ve never seen the movie, you can view the scene on YouTube. (But check out the whole movie…it’s good.)

Becks Cajun Cafe

Now delivering to your area!

Bringing The Market To You

As Conor Murphy points out, the Market has partnered with Mercato, the online grocery delivery service. Thanks in part to the pandemic, you can now order food from most any Reading Terminal Market merchant, and have it delivered within a reasonable radius.

Be warned; the process of choosing isn’t any easier…but at least you can take some time to think about it. The merchants’ logos are featured in a rotating slider, enabling you to choose one and view their delivery offerings. Order a blackened chicken platter from Beck’s Cajun Café, a vegetable lasagna from By George, and a pound of smoked wings from Dienner’s. Add three chocolate swirl banana puddings from Sweet Nina’s for dessert, and you’ve got a few days’ worth of fantastic food in the comfort of your own digs.

It’s not cheap; the shopping excursion just described will set you back just over $75 if you’re sending it to Turnersville. But it spares you the gas, tolls, parking, and travel time, and Mercato will bring the fabulous flavors of the Market to your front door. Mercato offers discounted delivery when you join their Green service.

It’s a great way to experience the Market without leaving your home, which, as we’ve all recently learned, is something that could afflict anyone.

 

philbert reading terminal market

The ever-pleasant Philbert, collecting money for the hungry in Philly’s favorite food market.
(photo courtesy of London Faust)

Philbert, The Reading Terminal Market Mascot

If you’ve visited the Market, you may or may not have noticed Philbert, the life-sized pig statue that sits on a box of coins in the center of the market. Philbert is named for Filbert Street, one of the streets adjoining the Market.

Philbert was sculpted by Eric Berg, who passed away of heart disease in May of 2020, at the age of 74. Other Berg structures in the city include the Drexel dragon, the panda at the Children’s Hospital, and the African Warthog at the Philadelphia Zoo. You can view his impressive body of work here.

In addition to being a popular Market meeting spot, Philbert is in fact a piggy bank; visitors can drop coins in its mouth, which eventually lands in the glass box on which Philbert sits. The money in the box is then donated to a different charitable organization each month, as determined by the Philly Food Trust.

You can rub his snout for good luck too, as many do; maybe it will help you make that all-important food choice at the market.

Source: Atlas Obscura

 

sarcones bread philadelphia

It’s All About The Bread – Sarcone’s Bakery, Philadelphia

sarcones bread philadelphia

The world’s best bread? Maybe. JerseyMan sent me to write a piece about Sarcone’s, the fifth-generation Philadelphia bakery. A lot of fun to write, and an iconic place to visit and pick up some truly amazing bread. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.

 

sarcones bread philadelphia

Bread worth waiting in line for.

It’s All About The Bread

Sarcone’s Bakery is in its fifth generation of baking bread for Philadelphians.

If you’re wondering just how good the bread is from Sarcone’s Bakery, consider that the winner of the Travel Channel’s “Best Sandwich in America” changed their rolls to Sarcone’s…after taking the prize.

In 2012 Adam Richman’s popular show spent ten episodes—with several elimination rounds—deciding which offering of meat on bread was the best in the nation. DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market won the hotly contested honor.

“The day after he got that trophy,” says Louis Sarcone Jr., the fourth generation owner of the venerable bakery, “the first thing he did was switch his bread to Sarcone’s.”

A bold move, to say the least.

“People were blown away by it,” Sarcone remembers. “You just won best sandwich in America. Not Philly, America! His answer was, we want to stay the best. How do you improve our sandwich? We improved our bread.”

To those familiar with Sarcone’s Bakery on South 9th Street, though, DiNic’s switch isn’t as earthshaking as it appears. The irony is that in changing a national award-winning formula, DiNic’s turned to an institution that hasn’t changed anything in 96 years.

At least they went with someone who has the technique down.

 

Louis sarcone bakery

Three generations of bread-making Sarcones.

Sarcone’s has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and every recession since. But perhaps more remarkably, it has survived what can be the toughest challenge several times…the next generation.

Sitting relaxed on the store’s window ledge, Lou Jr. shares the secrets of the family’s continued success. His son, Louis Sarcone III, stands patiently nearby, occasionally offering his own thoughts but seemingly more to learn the art of the interview from Dad…who is clearly versed in giving them.

“If you don’t listen to the generation before you, something gets lost,” Lou Jr. says. “You have to pay attention, and that’s the hardest thing for generational businesses, listening to the one before you. Even if you disagree with that person, you can really screw up a family business if you don’t listen.

“My grandfather, the first thing he told me was, if you put too much food in your mouth, you can’t chew. The younger generation sees a business, they see financial, they see money, they see an opportunity for the brand. If you try to expand too much, you lose something. You lose control of a business, you may lose a recipe, you may lose the quality of the product.

“But if you keep your product the same and keep trucking along, your customers will always come in because you make a great product.”

 

sarcones deli philadelphia

If you’re going to expand, do it next door.

This isn’t to say that there’s never been attempts to expand the name, or even ill-advised ones. Sarcone’s Deli just up the street uses the bakery’s bread, and they are doing just fine. But opening delicatessens elsewhere proved a challenge. Possibly with his grandfather’s words in the back of his mind, Lou Jr. pulled back the reins.

“My first cousin, Anthony Bucci, was an executive chef for the Wyndham Plaza. He got tired of working for big companies. He opened his own deli in Limerick; he’s been there 28 years. We opened the deli about 12 years ago. I let him run it. The only thing I’m involved in is paperwork and making bread.

“We expanded; we had five delis not including our own. My father had gotten sick at the bakery, and my cousin had a heart attack and was out for a year and a half. I couldn’t do day-to-day operations for two businesses. We put too much food in our mouth, I did.”

The younger Sarcone adds: “You have to keep an eye on the franchises, because you want everything to be the same. They’ll start adding things that don’t belong.”

Lou Jr. agrees. “We use Di Bruno cheese. They might go to the supermarket and get it a dollar cheaper. Stuff like that happens. You don’t want it to happen, but it could happen. So before we had that black eye, we closed the deli.”

 

sarcones bakery bread

The key ingredient. Actually pretty much the only ingredient.

So while Cherry Hill residents may have been disappointed, Lou Jr. was content to go back to running the bakery. No reason to change what worked for four generations, be it the nature of the business or the recipe for the bread.

“I’ve never changed the recipe,” he notes. “Sometimes the quality of the flour may change, maybe protein levels aren’t there and you have to add a little bit of protein. We do have to adjust for that. But as far as changing the recipe, no. It’s water, flour, salt and yeast.”

But lest anyone think they can bake bread as good as Sarcone’s once they know the ingredients, Lou describes the craftsmanship of the baking process. The real secret? Time.

“It’s a six hour process. We have a guy that comes in at 12:00 every night. The dough sits for two hours. The bakers start coming in at 2:00 AM, processing the dough, the various shapes, sizes, and measures. It takes two hours to do that, so that’s four hours. Then they have to turn it into a loaf of bread, turn it into a roll, so by the time the bread is mixed and comes out of the oven, it’s six hours.

“No commercial bakery shop is going to wait six hours; they’re going to put in preservatives and meet the demand.”

 

sarcones bakery brick oven

Ovens made before “planned obsolescence” was a thing.

Brick ovens make a difference too, as the younger Sarcone points out: “What also makes us unique is our ovens. They were built in 1920; you can’t find them anywhere anymore.”

Dad continues. “The alternative is metal, an oven that revolves. The only thing that revolves in a brick oven is our bakers. We go in with 15-foot sticks and move the bread around ourselves, to the hot spot in the oven.

“Ever see trucks that say ‘hearth-baked bread’? That’s baloney, because nobody uses brick, especially in a commercial bakery. Ours is hearth baked, there’s no metal in between the bread, the dough, and the hearth.

“It’s an art. There’s no timer, no thermostat on the oven. Well, there is, but they’re untrue. So it’s all knowing the dough, how loose it was or how cold it was or how warm it is out, how long it’s gonna take. And the sound; you pull a loaf of bread out and tap the bottom, you hear a certain sound, you know it’s done.”

It takes time to master the craft, so Sarcone keeps people around that do. “Bakers have been here at least ten years or more. They like what they’re doing, so they stay. I treat everybody like we’re family. Morale is good here, considering people are getting up at 2:00 in the morning.”

As Lou Jr. freely shares, the secret isn’t an ingredient or brand of yeast…it’s taking the time, sticking with what works, and not putting so much food in your mouth that you can’t chew. That’s the family formula that has kept the store in Philadelphia for nearly a century.

There have been plenty of awards and gushing press through the years, but Lou Jr.’s proudest moment was the locals’ response to a debilitating fire.

 

Sarcones Bakery sign

Beloved enough to inspire civic pride.

In October of 2000, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window, burning the front of the store down. The culprit was never captured nor the motive revealed—“there’s a million stories out there, pick one,” Lou says—but the city came together to literally lift the bakery from the ashes as quickly as possible.

“The fire department, the city council, the mayor, they came here to help us get open because they didn’t want to see us leave. Contractors, electricians, inspectors, zoning people, they were all here the next day. We didn’t have to wait. They were waiting for us.

“We were open a week next door. We moved our storefront into the packing area. It wasn’t pretty, but people actually liked that better. They saw men work, they saw the flour, they saw everything. We spent thousands to replace the store; they wanted the old way!

“That was something I’ll never forget, the way the neighbors and the city came together to help us.”

 

Louis sarcone bakery philadelphia

The first Sarcone, still overseeing the bread tradition.

Fourteen years later, Sarcone’s remains a beloved institution in Philadelphia—and a must-visit for tourists. Customers gather daily outside like music fans once waited for concert tickets before the Internet. Lines begin forming at six in the morning and sometimes extend for blocks.

To Louis Sarcone Jr., it’s the definition of success.

“Remember Springdale Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill, used to be called the Point View Inn?,” he asks. “A little house. That guy had lines for years back in the 70s. He turned it into what it looks like now. Because he got massively big, he closed within a year, then it was Pizzeria Uno, now it’s a PJ Whelihan’s. That place, I could always remember, it was the longest lines ever for a family restaurant.

“You want lines. You want people to have a hard time getting in. Why is that line two blocks long? We gotta try it!”

 

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sarcones bakery store

Chugging along since 1918.

Sarcone’s Bakery has been a Philly institution longer than…

…the Flyers, Eagles, and 76ers
…the Ben Franklin Bridge
…the 215 area code
…the Daily News
…WIP, WFIL, and WCAU radio
…the PSFS Building
…30th Street Station
…SEPTA
…the Schuylkill Expressway
…Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks (and all of their successors)

 

sarcones best of philly

Their Bestness probably reaches beyond Philadelphia.

Accolades for Sarcone’s from Yelp Nation:

In 64 Yelp reviews, Sarcone’s averages four and a half stars out of five. Some quotes from the bakery’s fans:

“In footie pajamas I offer night time prayers thankful that Sarcone’s exists and it’s so close to my house…’cause good bread they got…you seriously could put just about anything on that seeded Italian bread and it would be glorious.” – Kathleen D., Philadelphia

“It’s that alluring smell that makes you just want to rip off a piece and eat it. It doesn’t need butter, it’s perfect as is.” – Vinny P., Philadelphia

“My local farmer’s market has a small place in it that sells sandwiches. My Dad found out they were using rolls from Sarcone’s and asked to buy whatever they had leftover at the end of the night, and offered over triple what they originally paid for them. The Best Bread. Period.” Michelle M., Wilmington, DE

“You, along with many others, will line up to hopefully buy a long seeded roll, sandwich rolls, or anything else that comes fresh from their ovens. It’s a work of delicious, crispy crunchiness that cannot and will not be denied.” – Tyler R., Philadelphia

“Dear Sarcone’s – I miss you dreadfully. Whether I ate your bread fresh as I walked home, turned it into a hoagie or slathered it with garlic butter and baked it to soft yet crispy perfection, it always made the meal. There is no way to express the sadness I feel in my heart and in my mouth at now living so many states away…Love, Amelia” – Amelia L., Brighton, MA

“This place is why Philly can make a case for being the sandwich capital of the world.” – Chris W. Philadelphia

“I don’t even consider a Hoagie a Hoagie unless it’s made in a Sarcone Roll.” – Bruce B., Philadelphia

 

sarcones bakery pizza

Yes, you can get some fine pizza here too. With a great crust.

Staples of Sarcone’s:

Seeded Italian Bread – “We’re known for putting seeded Italian bread on the map,” Lou Sarcone Jr. says. “If I stop making seeded bread, if I only made plain bread, Liscio’s would have to change their bread to plain bread. They couldn’t fake it out being Sarcone’s.” Primo’s Hoagies started out with Sarcone’s seeded Italian bread, until the expansion made it impossible for Sarcone’s to keep up the supply. “Once they establish their name they leave me,” Sarcone says.

Tomato Pies – Sarcone’s tomato pies on their garlicky baked Sicilian crust are actually a popular breakfast item with locals; as the Zagat website mention of Sarcone’s describes it: “The end result is almost like what you get when sweeping up leftover spaghetti sauce on your plate with the end of your bread.”

Pepperoni Bread – The pepperoni rolls (or sausage rolls, if you prefer), contain a generous amount of meat for such a delicacy, and the soft crust of the bread contains just the right amount of olive oil. If they’re out of pizza slices in your next visit, try one of these.

Bread Crumbs – There isn’t often leftovers in a bakery that usually sells out its products in the early afternoon, but Lou Sarcone knows what to do with them. “We let it get stale for four or five days, then grind it up and sell it as bread crumbs. Restaurants buy them by the hundred pounds; walk-in customers buy it by the pound,” Lou says.

 

The New Improved Hospitality Business – Airbnb

Airbnb has experienced some seriously explosive growth since three struggling tech guys rented out their San Francisco apartment during a convention. JerseyMan asked me to tell their fascinating tale and explain how Airbnb became so successful for the Spring 2017 issue. You can view the PDF of the article here.

 

airbnb image

Yes, with just your phone, you can rent a sweet place like this.
(photo courtesy of FOTOGRAFIN on Pixabay.)

The New + Improved Hospitality Business

Airbnb has made it possible for millions of travelers to stay in residents’ homes all over the globe…and help residents pay the rent.

I reside in Turnersville, NJ, a middle class suburb whose biggest attraction is an auto mall. It’s not exactly a bucket list destination. No one I know takes a vacation to buy a car.

So you can imagine my surprise upon learning that even Turnersville city slickers could earn a few bucks towards the mortgage…just by letting travelers use a spare bedroom.

See, the town actually has something going for it, aside from multi-gigawatt illumination of car dealership lots. It’s a short drive from the city where this nation was born, millions of tourists visit that city, and hotels are expensive and boring.

All a Turnersvillian needs to do is overcome the uneasiness of strangers staying in their home. Easier said than done, perhaps. And that trepidation works both ways. How many people would spend a vacation in the home of someone they’ve never met?

That might sound like a rhetorical question, if the answer wasn’t 60 million. That’s how many guests have used Airbnb.com for their travel lodging since the site’s debut in 2008.

Here’s some exponential growth: Airbnb celebrated its millionth booking in February 2011. Less than a year later, in January 2012, that number reached 5 million. That June they passed 10 million. There might be some calculus-related phenomenon for that line on a graph, but there’s little question that Airbnb has demolished the trust barrier.

The business model is simple enough. Travelers choose from sometimes thousands of residences to rent at their destination, often at far more reasonable rates than local hotels. Hosts can offer the use of a room or their entire home, including the refrigerator and stove, homemade breakfast, free parking, whatever makes the sale.

Both parties benefit. The guest has a greater variety of affordable lodging choices, and the host makes a few dollars to pay bills…no small thing in tourist destinations where the cost of living can be abominably high.

Airbnb’s cut…3% from the host and 6-12% from the guest for each booking…keeps the company going substantially well. With 60 million bookings, that 9-15% works out to…carry the exponent symbol…a boatload of money. (If you want the real number, Airbnb was recently valued at about $30 billion.)

It all started with a couple of young dreamers needing to pay rent. And several air mattresses.

 

brian chesky airbnb

Brian Chesky (right), who gets interviewed a lot because he’s very rich.

It’s doubtful he planned it that way, but one of Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s entrepreneurial lessons is this, which he shared in an interview with Gigaom: “Being broke brings an incredible amount of discipline and focus.”

Chesky and his friend Joe Gebbia, now the CPO of Airbnb…and like Chesky, is now wealthy enough to buy the Yankees…moved to San Francisco in 2007 to create their startup, with no jobs, ideas or money.

That turned out to be key component of a savvy business plan.

Just as the rent was coming due, San Francisco hosted a tech convention that caused all the hotel rooms to be booked. To pay their landlord, the two offered a stay in their apartment on air mattresses, which attracted three paying visitors. You can almost hear the ding of the bulb switching on. Airbedandbreakfast.com was born.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Finding investors was difficult enough until they managed to win over Paul Graham at Y Combinator.

When Chesky and Gebbia, and their friend and tech expert Nathan Blecharczyk, needed to fund an eBay-style couchsurfing idea, Graham initially balked for obvious reasons. But he changed his tune when he saw the Obama O’s and Cap’n McCain cereal boxes that the young executives had designed and sold during the 2008 election. Graham was so impressed he even tried unsuccessfully to persuade his VC friends to buy in just on the basis of their drive.

Graham advised the founders…and funded the trip…to visit hosts in New York, where Airbnb had become a popular alternative to astronomical hotel rates. Chesky and Gebbia spoke face-to-face with hosts about their needs.

Ever since then Airbnb has striven to better the user experience in every way, from sending a professional photographer to hosts’ homes (a service Airbnb offers at no extra charge), to allowing users to sign up using Facebook accounts and simplifying the payment process. Airbnb requires verifiable information like phone numbers, and guests and hosts can publicly rate each other.

The timing didn’t hurt. The way had been somewhat paved: by the time Airbnb came along, eBay and Craigslist had already taken advantage of the Internet to make classifieds obsolete.

 

airbnb smartphone

All you need is a smartphone and a willingness to trust a stranger.

If eBay’s success has taught us anything, it’s that most of us are decent people who instinctively know that theft and assault is wrong. That’s why exceptions make the news. In the age of Facebook, it’s a great deal easier to learn enough about someone to feel comfortable riding in their car or even buying a car from them. For every story of fake Super Bowl tickets sold on Craigslist, there are a million stories of satisfied users who got something they wanted at a great price or made a profit selling something they no longer use.

It’s called the “sharing economy”, and given the meteoric rise of eBay, Uber and now Airbnb, apparently we’re comfortable with the odds. Airbnb users often gush that transactions often result in friendships and great experiences for travelers and hosts.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some nightmares.

The most notable story is of the Bay Area woman whose home was ransacked by a guest in 2011. She lost cash and valuables, and other items were burned in her fireplace with the flue closed. She was traumatized enough to start an anonymous blog, documenting Airbnb’s failure to address the devastation. It took some bad press, but Airbnb did apologize publicly and profusely and took steps to improve safety, including a damage guarantee for hosts that is now $1 million.

There was also the terrifying ordeal of a 19-year-old man staying in Madrid with a transgender man living as a woman, who locked him in the apartment and refused to let him out until he submitted to a sexual act. The story appeared in the New York Times, describing Airbnb’s arguably insufficient efforts to stop the assault. Airbnb quickly publicized that they would be instructing employees to call the police if they believed a crime was imminent. The victim advised Airbnb users to take precautions, like making the host’s address available to family members.

Those aren’t the only stories of bad actors, but that such tales are rare among millions of stays is pretty impressive. It’s not enough to give too much pause, obviously. But Airbnb also has legal issues to contend with these days.

 

airbnb san francisco

Marching for the right to rent one’s home.

The hotel industry isn’t happy about Airbnb cutting into their business. They might have a legitimate gripe. Part of the expense of running a hotel is following cleanliness and safety statutes that an Airbnb host doesn’t usually need to observe.

When you think about it, the stay on air mattresses that was the inspiration for Airbnb could arguably have been illegal. Zoning laws in many municipalities prohibit businesses to operate in residential areas, and running a hotel from home might qualify.

San Francisco had been one of the more stringent cities about such laws, even placing eviction notices on the doors of quite a few hosts. New York City, with almost 30,000 Airbnb hosts, has also taken issue with the service, citing a 2010 law that disallows apartment rentals for under 29 days. Lawmakers insisted it wasn’t targeted at Airbnb, but they did fine one host $7,000, a total eventually reduced to $2,400.

San Francisco eventually reconfigured the laws to make hosting legal, once Airbnb agreed to have hosts pay the 14% hotel tax. See, governments can be reasonable.

But the Big Apple continues to be a thorn in Airbnb’s side, recently passing legislation–signed by Governor Cuomo–that imposes stiff fines on property owners who don’t follow housing regulations while renting their homes. Politicians frequently used hot button words like “threat to affordable housing” in their support of the bill; Airbnb angrily accused them of protecting the hotel industry.

Now that they can, Airbnb has armed themselves with a strong legal team of their own, to fight the NYC battles and other regional disruptions that will likely keep ensuing.

As Gebbia was quoted in Inc. magazine, “The car had incredible opponents from the carriage industry. It would have been a big ask to get people to understand them overnight. But their value was proved over time.”

It hasn’t taken long. Every couple of seconds or so, a booking happens on Airbnb, and that interval keeps shrinking as the reputation for trust grows with each successful stay. Occasional ugly experiences and regulatory battles won’t likely stop the juggernaut.

Once one gets past the trust barrier, they’re getting the same deal as in any hotel…a room with a bed and a TV. Perhaps the most appealing part of all is lodging with a true local who…for business purposes…wants you to have a great stay. Unlike a concierge reading from a typewritten list of restaurants, a resident will actually know where to find the best Italian food or ideal parking spot.

Or where to buy a car.

 

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airbnb skylit bed

A skylight over the bed? Super!

Being A “Superhost”

If you get enough positive feedback from visitors to your abode, Airbnb may make you a “Superhost” … the equivalent of an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau.

According to Airbnb’s website, to become a “Superhost”, you have to, in one year, host at least 10 trips, maintain a 90% response rate, and receive a five-star review from at least 80% of the travelers who use your place. You don’t have to apply for the badge, they will give it to you automatically.

On the website, Airbnb lists some examples of Superhosts and what makes them stand out. One couple in Sydney, Australia put off the sale of their home rather than cancel a booking that they had made; a woman in Rome, Italy always invites her guests to join her and her friends for meals or conversation. Airbnb points out what makes a Superhost: going the extra mile and doing things one wishes hotels would do.

The Superhost gets a shiny badge on their listing showing their status, and there are some other perks too…like a $100 travel coupon for maintaining your status, priority support, and exclusive invitations to product releases and events.

Best of all, potential guests can filter their search to have only Superhosts show up in the results. Kind of like filtering only one-star reviews of a product on Amazon.

 

airbnb treehouse vt

Yes, you could once rent this lovely treehouse in Vermont.

“You’re Staying Where?”

Admit it, you’ve probably never stayed overnight in an igloo before. But that’s the beauty of Airbnb…a different style of lodging. But an igloo, you ask? Yes, and check out some of the types of residences that are currently listed on Airbnb:

Igloo – You can stay inside of an igloo by a lake in Norway for $181 a night; the listing says that it can sleep 2-3 people and to bring your sleeping bag. It doesn’t have any reviews, so apparently, the igloo thing hasn’t caught on yet. Airbnb removed a Brooklyn igloo listing in 2016, saying it didn’t meet the occupancy standards. Someone will get it right.

Castle – On the other hand, castles are pretty big on Airbnb…an article on the Conde Nast traveler site listed 11 of them, with stunning photos and equally stunning prices. The Castello Dal Pozzo in Piedmont, Italy goes for $4,029 a night, and the Martello Tower in Dalkey, Ireland brings in $518 a night. If you search for “Airbnb castles”, you can see top 20 listings in France and Ireland alone.

Tree House – Thrillist recently published an article listing the “25 Coolest Treehouses on Airbnb”. #1 is in Atlanta…it’s three separate rooms connected by a rope bridge and goes for $375 a night. Airbnb says it’s the “most wished for listing in 2016”. Others include a luxury treehouse on the Bayou in Baton Rouge, a Bay Area treehouse with a wraparound porch and food delivery, and a treehouse in Swallowtail studios “with 360-degree views of surrounding vineyards. The nice thing is that they all have stairways.

An Airplane – Airbnb was the site for a contest to win a stay in a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines airplane…the plane had been retired from service and furnished with a living room, bedrooms and two kitchens. There were some comical rules to follow, like “No Smoking when the non-smoking sign is on”, and “No marshmallow roasting with the jet engines”.

They offered movies with your stay too…one of them…no, I’m not making this up…was “Snakes On A Plane”.

 

brian chesky with hosts

Brian Chesky (center) isn’t just the co-owner of Airbnb…he’s also a client!

Eating Your Own Dog Food

Brian Chesky isn’t just the co-owner of Airbnb, he’s also a client.

In 2010 Chesky decided to finally move out of the San Francisco apartment that housed the first Airbnb travelers. To a new mansion? Nope. He spent several years staying with Airbnb hosts in San Francisco and elsewhere.

As he said on Twitter, “I am still homeless (most of the time), and living on Airbnb.”

In other words, Chesky is so dedicated to his craft that he lives it; he stays with Airbnb hosts every night and continues to do what he and Gebbia did in New York City at the start; stay with hosts and learn from them how to improve the experience. In entrepreneur-speak, it’s called “eating your own dog food”.

After all, why buy a house you won’t be in most of the time? Chesky has pointed out that the sharing economy was all about avoiding buying something you won’t use. The average power drill, he is quoted in Traveller as saying, gets used a total of 13 minutes in its lifetime, but there are 80 million of them out there.

Chesky still lists the San Francisco apartment as his primary residence…and incidentally, as recently as 2015 you could still book a $50 stay on the couch.

 

paul graham y combinator

When Paul Graham (left) tells you about a startup, you should listen.

Missing The Boat

Another of Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky’s tenets for entrepreneurs is “conventional wisdom is overrated”.

Venture capitalists know this better than anyone…they all know the stories of products that no one believed would sell, like the Beatles, bottled water, or a Donald Trump presidency. But you can imagine that even they might balk at the idea of a website that enables people to rent out rooms to strangers for a night. At least until they see how dedicated to overcoming that mistrust barrier these entrepreneurs really were.

Paul Graham saw that…his friend Fred Wilson didn’t. Despite repeated e-mails from Graham pleading with Wilson to at least meet with the Airbnb guys, Wilson reluctantly balked at an investment…the proverbial definition of missing the boat. To Wilson’s great credit, he published his mistake on his  blog.

According to Wilson, his mistake was focusing on the idea and not the people. He just didn’t see air mattress stays taking off. Paul Graham, through a series of e-mails, tried heavily to convince Wilson to meet with the founders. Graham believed that Chesky and Gebbia had what it took to become billionaires…a willingness to make an unusual idea work, and to do what it took to make that happen.

Today Wilson still has a box of “Obama O’s” that Chesky and Gebbia created and sold to fund their startup in his office. Why? So he can tell the story to entrepreneurs who don’t know how to raise money for their own startup.

“It’s a story of pure unadulterated hustle,” he says. “And I love it.”

 

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Photo credit: Kevin Krejci on Best Running / CC BY

All Aboard! – Northlandz, Flemington, NJ

Sometimes JerseyMan lets me come up with my own assignments, so I got to visit Northlandz in Flemington, NJ … the Model Train Capital of the World! This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of JerseyMan; click here to see the PDF.

 

Kind of like the railroad version of the I-295/I-76/I-676/NJ-42 interchange.

All Aboard!

The Northlandz Railroad Museum in Flemington was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest model railroad. Bruce Williams Zaccagnino’s creation is now the beneficiary of new ownership, an expensive makeover, and finally, the marketing respect it richly deserves.

Julie Parker’s occupation was to tell people about businesses worth visiting in Flemington.

And she had never heard of Northlandz.

That’s roughly the equivalent of being in charge of Philadelphia tourism, and not being aware of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Art Museum, and the Reading Terminal Market.

It wasn’t Parker’s fault, though. The genius behind Northlandz is an excessively modest man, who cared more about creating his art than promoting it.

She fondly remembers meeting him.

“I was doing the Flemington Information Center. Somebody told me, you’ve got to go see Bruce Williams, he just opened this place called Northlandz. I said, okay, maybe I can promote him. I had a group of businesses that would pay me and I would promote them all over Flemington.

“He actually had me go through it, and I came out and I looked at him and I said, ‘Oh my God, you built this whole place yourself?’”

 

northlandz model trains

This is about 1/100th of Northlandz.

If that story is remarkable, it gets better. This phenomenal exhibit of a hobby taken to an unimaginable extreme was almost decimated.

Thankfully, the building fell into the right hands…businessmen with more enthusiasm for putting smiles on faces than for profit.

Tariq Sohail, one of the new owners, was equally shocked and amazed in his first visit to Northlandz. He was minding his own business looking for a storage warehouse, and came upon a large gray building off Route 202 that might work.

“We drove past it so many times. I never knew what it was. Our real estate guy said, if you don’t like what’s inside, you can always demolish it.”

As Sohail describes his reaction to seeing what was inside, Parker chuckles, as if fully appreciating the astonishment factor.

“We started going through the whole tour,” Sohail continues. “We were like, in our lifetime, nobody has ever built something like this. We’ve traveled throughout the world, we’ve never seen anything like this.

“So we decided to take a risk and invest into it and promote it.”

That they’ve done. Northlandz needed work, to be sure…read reviews from a few years ago and you’ll see a lot about the state of disrepair it was in. Sohail and his partners have thus far poured several hundred thousand dollars into cleaning it up, and the results are nothing short of remarkable.

“There are people that came three or four years ago and they say, we can’t believe the difference,” Parker says proudly.

The new ownership has a larger vision for Northlandz too…it includes shuttle buses from New York City, a hotel, a banquet hall, and much more. All revolving around a toy train set.

That said, it is one truly amazeballs train set.

 

northlandz model train display

People like to live dangerously here.

Northlandz is, simply put for brevity, the world’s largest model railroad, according to the Guinness folks who are experts on such things. It spans over 45,000 square feet and 16 acres. The walkway just to go through it is over a mile.

To give you an idea of just how staggering its size, this observer had taken over a hundred pictures before reaching a sign that reads: “You are now 25% through Northlandz”.

Every moment is sheer model railroad wonderment. Huge displays filled with mountains and bridges, offering backdrops to bucolic still life of homes, factories, rivers, and neighborhoods. There’s “Iron Valley”, with its multiple iron bridges gracefully leading through mountain tunnels. There’s “Joycetown”, with churches, homes, and model trucks decorated with staples of American commerce like Kodak, Dollar Tree and Valvoline. There’s a fully detailed city mockup featuring an aircraft carrier. And a display of mountain life with busy railroads throughout that literally occupies three floors of the building. Tunnels? Northlandz features over four hundred of them.

On and on and on.

 

northlandz train wrecks

Like a scene from The Fugitive, isn’t it?

Any one of these displays could be the highlight of nearly any museum in the country. You could literally spend hours in one spot, watching a toy locomotive charmingly meander through a perfectly scaled-down neighborhood.

And this marvel was nearly all built by just one person.

Sohail estimates that Zaccagnino spent 17-19 hours daily, seven days a week, for close to four years building a miniature world. As one can imagine, he received little to no support from family members…as if spending eight hours a day and five days a week in a cubicle somehow makes more sense. According to Sohail, only Bruce’s wife Jean always supported the venture.

You could probably be forgiven for thinking your neighbor was crazy for devoting even sleeping hours to building a model railroad.

Then you see the finished work, and you realize crazy people are awesome.

“You won’t believe your eyes” is Northlandz’s slogan, and despite seeing it every day…Parker is currently the Northlandz Marketing and PR Director…she repeats those words herself often, with genuine passion that every employee shares.

“I just feel it’s magical,” she gushes. “How can somebody have conceived this? It’s incredible. You go through it and you start seeing all these little trains going in the little villages and the different themes and the different venues.”

“Everything is built by hand,” Sohail adds. “He told us one of the bridges that he built is 40 foot long, 23,000 small wood pieces, that he put together one by one by one by hand.”

 

northlandz new jersey

Yes, I would go to church before crossing that bridge too…

Ask anyone working at Northlandz what the appeal of a huge model train set is and you’ll get a different answer.

Parker thinks it’s the glimpse of history.

“I think it goes back to the industrial revolution. Trains made our country great. They transported everything. Food, industry, it’s like the backbone of our economy. Buses, trains and cars, they’re what makes the economy tick.”

Sohail believes the appeal reaches us on multiple levels. He refers to young people who come to work at Northlandz and help with the layouts out of pure passion.

“Within the train layout, you have to have more than one skill. It’s architecture, it’s engineering, it’s electrical, it’s design, it’s scenery. Basically doing one hobby, you’re learning all different skills.”

Ken Vogel, a train technician, generously took time to point out multiple intricacies of Northlandz during this interview. He remembers his own days of building model trains, and bringing one of his fellow hobbyists to Northlandz for the first time.

“Bruce signed a box car that we brought here from my nephew. What I said to him at that time was, I know a lot of people that are remodelers who always wanted to build an empire and never did it. I said, you’re the only one that did.”

 

northlandz flemington

Who knew miniature life could be so much fun?

Sohail thinks the moving train gives life to a piece of art. “You’re looking at something beautiful going up and down, and all of a sudden the train comes.”

Worth putting over $300,000 into preserving? No question for Sohail. “Every time I come, it excites me as well, even when I own it. I see the people coming out of the place and I see how big the smiles on their faces and how happy they are to see it.

“That’s made me happy.”

Walking through the magical railroad empire that is Northlandz, one gets a sense of needing to be of advanced age to fully appreciate the endeavor. The longer you’ve spent on Planet Earth, the longer you’ve gone without witnessing anything like it.

But even this observer’s little ones can’t wait to go back.

 

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northlandz model railroad

Isn’t “largest miniature railroad” like “light heavyweight”?

If You Go (And You Should)

If you are at least enough of a model train enthusiast to, say, put a little track under your Christmas tree each year, you have to visit Northlandz. In most any search for “largest model railroad in the world” or “largest model train display”, you will find Northlandz in the list.

The most important piece of advice for going is this: devote an entire day to your visit, whether you’re bringing the grandkids or not. You may be able to enjoy all of the exhibits in an hour, or you may want to take more time to fully appreciate the astonishing level of detail…and that can truly take a full afternoon.

There is a kids play area in the middle of the museum, which features an organ that Zaccagnino would play for visitors from time to time. Zaccagnino is retired now, but there is still enough to give the little ones a break before they see the rest of the museum.

You can find a few complaints online that Northlandz is on the pricey side, although it’s well worth every penny in this observer’s opinion. That said, there are online coupons to take a few bucks off of the price…just search for “Northlandz coupon”. Military, teachers and seniors get discounts, and persons with disabilities get in for free.

It’s easy to get to Northlandz in less than an hour or so from the Philly area, but should you need to spend the night, there is a Travel Inn & Suites just steps away down the road, and a Hampton Inn a bit further away in the heart of the shopping area of Flemington. The Hampton tends to get better reviews.

If you’re hungry there’s McDonald’s, Chick-Fil-A, and multiple other restaurants where U.S. 202 meets NJ-31 just a short drive away.

One last thing…if you take the kids, they’re going to want to go back. Not that you’ll mind.

 

bruce williams zaccagnino

The genius behind it all. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

The Man Who Built It

Bruce Williams Zaccagnino got started in the same place most all model railroad enthusiasts do: in his basement. More correctly, in a basement of a house that was being constructed, according to the Northlandz website. The construction workers would leave for the day, and he would build mountains and tracks in his new basement.

Like today, nearly everyone who saw his work was quite impressed, to the point where he would open it for the public on weekends. He purchased the land on Route 202 as the popularity grew, and the rest is history.

Zaccagnino was no stranger to artistry, incidentally. He made a decent amount of money in the video game industry, including winning several awards as a developer/designer. He was, according to Sohail, quite the accomplished musician as well. “I watched him play the organs that we have over here. I never saw anybody play that well.”

But Northlandz was his passion, obviously. To the point where he spent his time building his dream, rather than marketing it. Sohail compliments his modesty, but expresses regret that his people didn’t meet him sooner.

“We would have promoted this throughout the world,” he says.

“He’s been interviewed with CNN and Fox, all the major, you know, and he never made a big deal out of that. He’s in the Guinness world records, this place, and he never even promoted that fact. We saw the certificate, it’s sitting on the exhibit and anybody could take it.”

“Bruce didn’t really advertise; he let itself advertise,” says Ken Vogel. “The point was, it was a guy who had a dream about building a great layout and actually pulled it off. The dream is accomplished.”

Zaccagnino is retired now…traveling, according to Julie Parker, so one guesses he’s actually riding trains instead of building them. But he’s appreciative that his art is going to live on.

“I think he was starting to see that a lot of stuff was falling apart,” Sohail reflects. “He had a feeling like if somebody doesn’t save it, it’s going to go away. When we bought it and we started repairing it and cleaning up and everything, he was very happy, you know, my art is being preserved.

“He said, this is my gift to the world.”

 

tesla chargers cape may court house

The Electric Road Trip

tesla chargers cape may court house

The technology keeps improving with electric cars, and it’s becoming much easier to take long trips without concern for being stranded. Yours truly explored and wrote about this for the Fall 2019 issue of JerseyMan magazine; you can view the PDF of the article here.

 

tesla chargers cape may court house

Plenty of juice available.

The Electric Road Trip

Car charging stations are springing up rapidly everywhere these days, making long-distance travel much easier for electric vehicle owners.

Sure, I want to save the planet from carbon emissions. Our children’s future depends on it. But is it really worth being stranded on I-95 on the way to Florida in my electric car?

Okay, maybe we’re not that spoiled. Despite some limitations compared to fuel-powered vehicles, electric vehicles are selling pretty well these days. We just need to solve that range problem.

As recently as 2016, McKinsey Industries, a firm dedicated to sustainability solutions, listed limited availability of charging stations as the third biggest barrier to electric vehicle sales, after the price of cars and limited driving range. Most EV owners still charge their cars at home, and owners of less expensive EVs with shorter ranges generally use them only for daily commutes and short trips.

But we are a nation of doers, and that situation is changing fast.

In May 2019, the Department of Energy reported that there are now more than 68,000 charging units in the U.S., nearly 11,000 of which are fast charging stations that can “fill up” an EV in less than 20 minutes. The Tesla superchargers appearing in many spots, including Wawas in the area, are only compatible with Tesla vehicles. But other networks are growing for the rest of us.

You may not have heard of EVgo, but you’ve probably seen the name NRG on the Broad Street Line’s Sports Complex station. Same company. EVgo offers DC fast charging…the fastest form available as of 2019…in 66 metropolitan markets from their considerable grid. As EVgo states, you can charge your car to 80% in approximately a half hour, while you stretch your legs, grab a bite, and take care of other business.

With new apps like PlugShare and ChargeHub available to route you to the next charging station, your biggest challenge on long road trips now is not spilling coffee on your phone.

 

2016 Tesla Model S

The Tesla Model S.
(photo courtesy Greg Gjerdingen at Wikimedia)

Bill Evans, the CEO at Liberty Fox Technologies and one of our esteemed Legacy Club members, is the proud owner of a Tesla Model S.

The Model S isn’t cheap…it currently carries a price tag of $75K. If you’re a tightwad, you can drive a Model 3 off the lot for under $40K. If it helps, remember you’re going to be saving a lot of money in fuel over the long haul, even without the free supercharging for life offered to Model S owners.

Evans likes a lot of things about his Model S, but he considers the fuel savings to be “a nice perk”.

“I tend to drive between 1,800 and 2,000 miles per month. In my previous vehicle, I was averaging about $250 a month in gas. For the same mileage, I am averaging $80 per month in electric. So I am using about 1/3 the cost in electricity as I was in gasoline.”

The cost savings is generally typical of EVs. A Chevy Bolt currently averages 25.21 kWh (kilowatt hours) per 100 miles. So at 13 cents per kWh (the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Energy), then 100 miles would cost about $3.25. Even for the most fuel-efficient cars, that soundly beats gas prices.

But if you’re considering buying an electric vehicle to save money, we’re not quite there…yet.

In July 2019, U.S. News & World Report listed the cheapest electric vehicle as the Smart EQ Fortwo, at nearly $27K. The Fortwo is aptly named…attempting to shoehorn three people into one of these might make for a humorous YouTube video. Second is the Nissan Leaf at just under $30K, which is more spacious and offers 150 miles of range on a charge. Good for daily commutes…for longer road trips, maybe not so much.

But compared to the limited range technology of not very long ago, this is quite the improvement, and Tesla CEO and extreme visionary Elon Musk has stated that one of his company’s goals is making electric vehicles available at prices the 99% can afford. Given their great strides of late, this seems much more attainable than, say, colonizing Mars. (Which is also on Musk’s to-do list).

 

tesla parking station

While you’re waiting, give your Tesla manual a read!

While the convenience and cost of owning an electric vehicle continues to rapidly improve, longer trips still require more planning. It’s not terribly difficult, but it requires more than simply pulling off the road at a Wawa.

For one, it takes longer.

A Level 1 charge is the equivalent plugging your car into a 120V outlet in your home, and can handle your short commute within reason if you charge overnight. With a Level 2 charge in a 240V outlet, available at most charging stations or from an adapter for your home, it takes about 4-8 hours to fill up. A DC Fast Level 3 charge gets the job done in less than a half hour.

Evans describes charging his Tesla like this: “If you plug the Tesla into a regular 120-volt outlet like you’d plug in your television, the car could take up to three days to fully charge (which is absurd). If you use a higher voltage outlet, the car can fully charge in about 5 hours.

“But if you need the car to charge really fast, you can get a very powerful charge at the supercharging station in as little as 15 minutes…and Tesla is working to reduce this even further to about five minutes. At 15 minutes or less, I would say it is no less convenient than a conventional car.”

But it’s still not quite as fast as the gas pump, which is why Tesla has been smart enough to install Supercharger stations at gas station/convenience shops, including some Wawas, Royal Farms, and other stores in the area. It works great for the store owner…the charging EV owner can spend time in the store ordering a sandwich or coffee while they wait.

Another growing spot for chargers is an obvious one…hotels. As of this writing, Marriott offers Level 2 charging stations at 3,137 of their hotels, including the Courtyard on Presidential Boulevard in Philly. Something to consider when choosing where to sack out in South Carolina on your way to Disney.

One important caveat, though…plan your trip to avoid the isolated station on the busy highway if you can. That could be a busy place. It’s a problem that internal combustion engine cars had in their early days.

 

car charger turnersville nissan

Car chargers at the Turnersville NJ Nissan dealership, where charging is free to customers.

With a rapidly expanding network of charging stations and dropping prices of electric vehicles, we may all be able to hit the road to visit a few ballparks without emissions in the not too distant future.

As recently as April 2017, Eric Schaal at Motor Biscuit published a piece called “5 Biggest Problems With Electric Vehicle Charging”. In it he explained that it’s more challenging to charge your electric car…especially while you’re already on the road…than it is to simply stop at a pump and fuel up.

“It’s quite difficult to fast-charge your car in many U.S. cities, even when money is no object.” Schaal pointed out. “You have to drive through strange neighborhoods and try to locate chargers in vast parking lots where GPS is known to drop out of service.”

The apps help, but not as much as they should, according to Schaal. “You might need two or three apps just to know where a charging station is, and once you get there you might not be able to use it because it’s operated by a provider with whom you haven’t opened an account.”

Just two years later, Bill Evans can testify that Tesla owners, at least, don’t need to be concerned about being stranded on the highway.

“You really, really need to be neglectful to put yourself in this position,” Evans explains. “If you charge the car every day like I do, you start every single day with your full mileage range (240 miles or 330 miles depending on your model). Given that I rarely ever drive 240+ miles in a single day, this is really a fringe case.

“Secondly, as long as you are using the GPS feature of your car, the Tesla is fully aware of its range, and if it is concerned you won’t reach your destination, it will route the most convenient Supercharging location into your directions to make sure you stop and top off before continuing.

“To end up on the side of the road with a dead Tesla and no chargers requires that you ignore every single warning and recommendation from the car to force that situation to occur.

“If you started in New Jersey and wanted to drive to Disney World, the Tesla will route multiple supercharging stops along the way and include the charging time at each in the projected Estimated Time of Arrival. As long as you use the GPS, the car will plan the entire drive and charging locations.”

And once there are charging stations at South of The Border, it’s likely the Northeast will be all in.

 

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tesla car charger cape may court house

Stop waiting for the car to drain. It won’t help. Just do it.

Battery Myth No. 1 – Full Drainage

JerseyMan Magazine always goes the extra mile for its readers, so in addition to the useful information contained here, we can dispel a myth for you.

You’ve probably heard it before: let your smartphone drain completely before charging it up again. This will…supposedly…help your phone battery last longer. And it stands to reason people might find that useful with their electric car, too.

Here’s the real scoop from our friends at Mashable: “It’s better to charge your phone every day than to do a ‘deep charge’ from time to time. Lithium-ion batteries, like the kind used in Samsung and Apple products, fare better when they’re charged. If you constantly let them drain to 0%, they become unstable. Your battery has a finite number of charge cycles, and every time it fully dies, that’s another cycle out the window.”

Leaving aside that you would have to let your car idle for an extended period of time near a charging station, this applies to your electric vehicle’s battery…completely draining it can reduce its overall life too.

So there’s no need to time your car charging station visit to the kilowatt hour. Or wait for your phone to completely discharge, for that matter. A helpful tip at no extra charge!

 

freeze your car battery

The cold, equally efficient car battery.
(image courtesy of jpj2000nl at Pixabay)

Battery Myth No. 2 – The Colder, Longer Lasting Battery

In case you’re wondering, no, putting your EV battery in a freezer won’t make it last longer.

Like with gas-powered engines, EVs can suffer decreased performance and range in extreme cold weather. There are several reasons for this, including that the electricity running your car’s heater uses the same battery that is plowing a car through the snow.

But before you balk at buying a new Bolt out of concern for New Jersey’s sometimes biting winters, consider this: Norway…yes, Norway…is one of the world’s leaders in adopting the electric vehicle. Part of the reason is subsidies, but it’s hard to imagine Norwegians buying cars that don’t work in the cold.

Yes, there is definitely decreased range in electric vehicle batteries in below freezing temps, more so than in fuel-powered cars. But there are ways to overcome this, including “preconditioning”, or pre-heating your battery before it is finished charging, similar to remotely starting up your car before driving. Many EV models have this capability.

John Voelcker from the Green Car Reports blog also suggests bundling up and leaving your coat and layers on in the car. While it may be cringe-worthy to pay upwards of $30K for a car that still requires wearing a coat to drive, Voelcker adds: “Don’t worry if you think you look like a dork; the real dork is the guy stranded on the side of the road because he ran out of juice.”

Incidentally, extreme heat can do a number on your battery too, since batteries contain fluid that evaporates in high temps. Even more so than with fueled cars, it’s recommended that drivers park in the shade or in garage whenever possible.

 

car charge candlelight bnb wildwood

At the Candlelight B-n-B in North Wildwood, there’s only one charger. Don’t hog it.

Car Charging Station Etiquette

With charging stations still not quite as readily available at gas pumps, there is something of an unwritten code of conduct regarding their use.

One of the more common issues, according to Green Car Reports, is called “ICE-ing”. It’s when a car with an internal combustion engine parks in a spot with a charging station reserved for electric cars. If you can’t page security in the garage, the most you can do is leave a note for the driver.

Green Car Reports recommends other guidelines for using charging stations. For one, don’t occupy the space longer than you need to for a recharge, even if it’s a parking spot. If you can’t get to your car to remove the plug, you can leave a note for other drivers that they can remove it if they see your car is fully charged.

Also, if you can make it home, leave the charging station for someone else. They could be down to their last few miles and need the charge more than you do.

With their Supercharging stations, Tesla is somewhat enforcing charging station etiquette with an “idle fee”. If you keep your car at a busy charging station more than five minutes after your car is charged, a fee is charged on your account. Tesla states that this isn’t intended for profit…it’s working towards the goal of keeping charging stations as available as possible.

Basically it comes down to treating a charging station the same as a gas pump and not leaving your car there…but more so for now, at least until we go full electric.

 

mart pretzel bakery cinnaminson nj

The Best Soft Pretzels: The Mart Pretzel Bakery, Cinnaminson NJ

mart pretzel bakery cinnaminson nj

I have tried many soft pretzels, and none compare to the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson NJ, a former staple of the long-departed Pennsauken Mart. I interviewed the founder’s son for a JerseyMan blog post, but it’s now published here…

 

mart pretzel bakery cinnaminson nj

These are soft pretzels as God intended.

Soft Pretzel Excellence

If you’re as old as I am and you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Pennsauken, you remember the Pennsauken Mart. And the soft pretzels.

It wasn’t a bad place to get inexpensive clothes, stereo equipment, gifts that you’d never want for yourself, etc. The prices could be pretty nice and I did a lot of Christmas shopping there. Oh, and there was that head shop, too…but I don’t remember much about that…

It wasn’t exactly a pleasant or unique place. It was dingy, overly crowded, and you had to root through a lot of stuff to find anything decent. It was kind of like what an eBay store might look like, if such a thing exists.

The place had one monster thing going for it, though. Soft pretzels.

 

cass pretzel bakery

The new post-Mart sign.

Whenever I visited the Mart, I had two things in mind…finding something cheap and having a soft pretzel. And definitely not in that order. The pretzels were always worth the trip, the crowds and the depressing atmosphere.

There was always a line for them. While you waited you’d look at the pricing board or the newspaper stories proclaiming their greatness, decided how many you were going to get, and whether you’d deal with the salt or not.

Or you could just watch the pretzels being made…dough rolling out of the machine, experienced fingers flipping the dough into pretzel shape in mere nanoseconds, lightly browned pretzels coming out of the oven.

Once you bought your pretzels (no one ever just got one), there were two choices of mustard, one so super-hot it could sear the back of your brain. (That one was always my choice.) For some reason they never had napkins. Many times I wiped mustard off my face with the wax paper the pretzel came in.

 

pennsauken mart soft pretzels

“Okay, we got the sign, you can bulldoze the Mart now.”

One day, inexplicably, the soft pretzel shop closed. It seemed temporary…there was writing on the glass window that said “Closed due to illness”. But when the pretzel shop didn’t return for several months (I don’t remember the exact length of time, but I know I made many disappointing trips), soon there weren’t enough compelling reasons to visit the Mart anymore.

And not much later, the Pennsauken Mart, that staple of my youth, would be gone.

In the years since I have always believed that it was the closing of the pretzel bakery that caused the Mart’s demise. It was a brutally easy connection to make for anyone who was familiar with the place. It turns out I wasn’t quite right about that.

In a visit to the Mart Pretzel Bakery, I learned the whole story from Shaughn, the son of the owner. The Mart’s fate was already sealed before his father’s illness…it had been bought out through eminent domain. The illness was actually Shaughn’s father having a heart attack; a malady Shaughn believed resulted at least partly from the possibility of his longtime, popular business being shut down.

Indeed, it was a bummer for everyone—until the Mart Pretzel Bakery re-opened in a strip mall in Cinnaminson, and longtime patrons breathed a sigh of relief. No one misses the Mart too much now. (Well, I don’t, anyway. I can’t speak for fans of the head shop.)

 

mart pretzel bakery prices

Check out that deal on the Baker’s Dozen!

Not much has changed…except for a better selection of pretzels, including pretzel dogs, those “everything” pretzels that seem healthy, and the truly off the hook cinnamon sugar pretzels. You can still get a spicy or a very hot mustard. The hot mustard isn’t as blazing as the old one was, but that’s probably not a bad thing. And okay, they’re a tad more expensive. It’s not 1990 anymore after all.

The old sign with the pricing is still there, as is the sign that hung up outside the store in the Mart, which is a nostalgic thing for former Mart patrons. But the lines aren’t long anymore…the Mart Pretzel Bakery is built to handle the demand.

Mart pretzels are still always worth the trip, even if I’m no longer looking for a pair of pants that I can afford. And if you think I’m just waxing nostalgic, check out the Yelp reviews.

 

The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry – Curley’s of Wildwood

In the midst of the pandemic, I took a trip to Wildwood to check on the health of Curley’s Fries for the Summer 2020 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. You can read this article on their website, or click here to see the PDF of the magazine itself.

 

The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry

As the nation and the state wake up again, Curley’s Fries continues to serve its iconic, crinkle cut fries, from its two locations on the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s a sorely needed sign of Jersey Shore life beginning again.

 

curleys fries wildwood nj

Fried potato perfection.

It takes considerable strength of will, even for hardened Jersey folks, to find positives in a harsh weather day at the shore.

May 22 of this year, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, was one such day. The thick clouds effectively obscured any potential hint of sunshine. The rain, at times both spitting and heavy, became debilitating when mixed in with the stiff ocean breeze.

Despite the lack of seasonal cooperation, a hardy few were determined to get some steps on the Wildwood boards, most likely for the first time in 2020. It’s a need we natives have, especially this year, if only to have some normalcy again in what has been a monumentally difficult spring.

With an ongoing pandemic to go alongside miserable weather, there were precious few shops open on the boards, and little to help visitors feel like summer again.

Mercifully, there was one saving grace in it all…a ubiquitous French fry stand.

In this trying atmosphere, Curley’s Fries…on the otherwise uninhabited Morey’s Surfside Pier…opened its windows, as their employees showed up to serve their iconic fried potatoes to walk-up patrons for takeout. Or “takeaway”, as they called it, as if to suggest that things aren’t fully normal yet.

While the number of Wildwood visitors this day was very small, many of them…arguably most of them…still made their way to the long established fry counter.

Inside the window, save for the employees wearing masks, nothing was different. One person took orders. Another dropped baskets of chopped potatoes into a fryer and then dumped the finished ones into a tray. Another generously salted them and then scooped piles of fries into buckets for hungry patrons. Unremarkable and repetitive skills all, probably, but it’s an admirable bit of teamwork.

Most gratefully, even as Morey’s has temporarily laid off 80% of their staff, there has been zero decline in the quality of the fries.

They’re still piping hot when served, enough that some will tolerate the seared mouth flesh rather than spend an agonizing few minutes waiting to indulge. The fries have just enough of a crispy crunch on the outside and almost mashed potato level softness on the inside. They’re thick and crinkle-cut, with the skin still attached as required by unwritten boardwalk rules.

All with just enough sea salt for distinctive flavor, and available with multiple rotating dipping sauces, from Horseradish Cream to Old Bay Mayo among others. Along with the old constants of cheese sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, and ketchup.

And anytime some annoying health nut gives you grief about your love for deep fried potato perfection, you can inform them that Curley’s fries are vegan and gluten-free. That’ll shut ‘em up.

 

best fries wildwood nj

Making the Wildwood boardwalk famous for 46 years.

If you’re waiting with a friend at Curley’s for a bucket or the larger “barrel” of fries, you can have them hold your place in line and go read the story behind the most iconic fry stand on the Jersey Shore. It’s featured on a sign on the side of the building, but here’s a summed up version:

Yes, there was a Curley, so nicknamed for his curly hair. His full name was Joe “Curley” Marchiano, and he was both an army veteran and a linebacker at Miami University. Curley grew up spending his summers in Coney Island, where his father worked at the Surf Avenue Nathan’s. Indeed, Curley’s fries are similar to Nathan’s in size and structure.

After some years as a concessions manager in other resort towns, in 1978 Marchiano joined up with fried chicken vendor Dick Marchant at Morey’s Surfside Pier. Curley’s part of the deal was fried dough, lemonade shake-ups, and his own brand of French fries. (Incidentally, Curley’s lemonade is no slouch either.)

Almost immediately, it became clear that patrons came for the fries, and the stand was soon renamed for Curley, in a rare recognition of genius.

As the board telling the story notes, there isn’t any real secret to the greatness of Curley’s fries…it reveals right there that Curley used potato cutters from Germany, and cooked them in peanut oil. Maybe the potato cutters are really difficult to find or something, but there’s no more to it than that.

Marchiano passed in 2000; twenty years later, his recipe of fried potato greatness lives on…even on a windy and wet day on the Wildwood boards, in the midst of a pandemic and a crippled economy.

Sometimes success is simple. Get a German potato cutter, find a peanut oil supplier, and fry and sell sliced spuds at the beach.

 

wildwood boardwalk fries

Yeah, and seafood or something.

How much of a foodie staple is Curley’s? All you need to know is the reaction to a gag the Morey’s folks pulled a year ago. Most people well know that on April 1, they should have their antenna up for pranks. But Curley’s fans were taking no chances.

On March 31, 2019, Morey’s released a press statement announcing the retirement of Curley’s two locations, to be replaced by vegan stands called “Greenery’s”. Greenery’s would be offering kale chips, roasted chickpeas, and other healthy greens that no one actually likes. In an age where every institution from baseball to politics seems to care only about targeting “millennials”, it was actually a well-crafted April Fool’s joke.

The reaction was swift and severe. NJ.com, which had listed Curley’s fries among their “64 Most Iconic Jersey Foods” just two weeks earlier, reported that the accompanying Facebook post had 4,000 comments the next day:

“I go to the boardwalk just to eat Kale chips!! Said no one ever….”

“Kale chips? Who the F$&k wants kale chips? The one thing U looked forward to is now gone! New Jersey becoming the East Coast California!”

“I legit cried. Stupidest decision ever. This place is a Wildwood trademark…. Huge mistake.”

Even Curley’s subsequent “April Fools!” reveal on Facebook provoked an agitated response:

“Glad to hear that it was all a joke BUT…that was not nice to do, especially the day before April Fool’s day!”

“Threatening to take away my Curley’s Fries is no laughing matter!!”

“Not funny at all.”

You can still find the original “Greenery’s” press release on Morey’s website, (www.moreyspiers.com). Its politically correct tone is priceless. Here’s this writer’s favorite pull quote: “For the last fifty years Morey’s Piers has been growing and re-inventing itself to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace.”

Most businesses take themselves too seriously. Thankfully Morey’s isn’t one of them. But yes, that was a tense moment. Forsaking Curley’s Fries for kale chips probably would have caused a justifiable outrage.

 

curleys fries north wildwood nj

Stayin’ alive.

Much has been said and written about heroes on the front lines in recent months. First responders, doctors and nurses in hospitals, nursing home attendants…even supermarket employees, who had suddenly found themselves in a high risk occupation.

All of the accolades and appreciation, and accompanying hazard pay, is well-deserved. Yet when a flu virus not only causes double the death count as a typical flu season, but also devastates an economy, sometimes what we need more than anything else is to see something normal again.

As ruffled as South Jersey became at a mere joke suggesting Curley’s fries would be replaced in 2019, in 2020 we’re grateful for anything we love sticking around. When there isn’t even any baseball, things can seem especially bleak. Suddenly, the availability of world class French fries at the beach is appreciably more meaningful.

The celebrated Jersey Shore fixture that is Curley’s is still alive. The two-story fry-shaped signs still standing on the boardwalk, an iconic food stand remaining open on the most miserable of May days, is one anchor of hope that on the other side of all of this, our favorite institutions will still be here.

Curley’s 1, Covid 0.