American Road Trip
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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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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.
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.
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.)
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, 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
When it comes to Wildwood roller coasters, you shouldn’t exactly expect Six Flags-level entertainment, but Wildwood is more equipped for coaster thrills than any other Jersey Shore town by a long shot.
The Morey’s Piers people have done a fine job seeing to that, building large entertainment areas on each of their three Wildwood boardwalk piers, with coasters, water parks, haunted houses, and go-karts. And it’s definitely super cool to ride a coaster overlooking the ocean.
There are three larger-sized Wildwood roller coasters (and some smaller ones for the younger kids), and you can get a day pass to ride all of them. Again, they aren’t Kingda Ka or the Top Thrill Dragster, but they’re pretty good, and the best part is that they are all very different in structure and thrill.
So here’s my thoughts on the Big Three Wildwood roller coasters:
Wildwood Roller Coasters #1: The Great Nor’Easter – The Great Nor’Easter looked cooler when it was painted red in my humble opinion, but the ride is just as fun with white tracks. This one is on the outer edge of Surfside Pier, the northernmost of Morey’s Piers.
The Nor’Easter is a suspended roller coaster, meaning that the cars hang from the tracks rather than sit on them. This makes for wide swinging around the turns and through the loops, adding to the whoa factor. It slowly climbs to a level of 115 feet and then plunges into a 95-foot drop, followed by several loops, hard turns and a corkscrew or two before bringing riders back around. Its top speed is 55 MPH, which isn’t bad and saves fuel. It’s not a long ride, 2:05 with the long climb up the hill, but you won’t feel gypped on the thrill quotient.
The cool thing about the Great Nor’Easter is the way it just seems to be built around and through everything in the pier. The ride flies by several spots in the waterpark, and from the waterpark you can watch people screaming by you on the coaster from several platforms. At times it almost seems like riders could kick the log flume. It makes waiting in line or climbing up the steps at the waterpark much more amusing.
Click here for some point of view action…
Wildwood Roller Coasters #2: The Sea Serpent – There are several iterations of the Sea Serpent in amusement parks that I’ve seen, so it’s not exactly a Wildwood original, but I definitely remember being intimidated by it when it first appeared on Mariner’s Landing on the boardwalk many years ago. (It was out of service at the time, that’s why I didn’t ride it, I swear!)
The Sea Serpent is unusual in being a “Boomerang” roller coaster. It starts by lifting the cars up to a 125-foot height backwards, then drops them back down, through the station, then through a loop and a cobra roll before heading up the other hill. Once the considerable momentum has carried it as far as it can go, the train lifts the cars the rest of the way, and then lets them go again—backwards. If you’ve never ridden backwards on a coaster before…it’s pretty cool.
The Sea Serpent reaches a top speed of 47 MPH. Not fast on Route 55 on the way to Wildwood, but pretty darn fast when going loudly through a cobra loop.
Click here for Sea Serpent point of view action…
Wildwood Roller Coasters #3: The Great White – It takes a bit of a walk from the other piers to get to the Great White, which is on the southernmost Adventure Pier, closest to the Convention Center. (I believe if you get a day pass, you get free rides on the tram car until 5:00 PM or something.) Adventure Pier has definitely grown in entertainment value in recent years, and The Great White is well worth the trip. Even if it’s the only one of the big three that isn’t painted white (slaps head).
The Great White is an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster—the kind where the real thrill is wondering whether these old, rusty tracks and shaky wooden beams are going to hold the coaster while you’re riding it—not to mention those old cars with only the lap bar holding you in them. There aren’t any loops, but that first hill takes a long time and gets to 110 feet, with a steep drop to start a long ride. Great White gets to 50 MPH, which is pretty fast on those rickety tracks! Stay hydrated to help avoid the headache.
Great White has another really cool feature…at the start of the ride, there is a short 25-foot drop, and then you actually ride under the pier for a bit before going up the first hill. Very cool, especially at night, and especially if you’re not expecting it. (Which I guess you are now, sorry.)
Click here for some very cool Great White point of view action…
So there you go, your best shot at inducing bile while in the Wildwoods. All three of these coasters are well worth riding, and unlike the coasters in other Jersey shore towns, they’re big and fast enough to make it worth the trip for any coaster buff.
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Asking the question “Is PNC Park in Pittsburgh the best ballpark in baseball?” doesn’t offend too many people. At the stunningly beautiful home of the Pirates, you will often see signs around the ballpark proclaiming it to be “The Best Ballpark in America”. As far as I know, there’s no outrage about this from fans of other ballparks.
What if the Cubs put such signs around the outside of Wrigley Field? Might Red Sox fans sneer a little bit? And vice versa, if signs appeared around Fenway Park proclaiming it to be the best ballpark in the country, would that not get a reaction from Cubs fans? Just a thought.
As someone who has visited a few ballparks but not all of them, I can say that while the question of whether PNC Park is the “best ballpark in baseball” may be debatable, one wouldn’t have too much trouble making the case.
So What Makes PNC Park The Best Ballpark?
There’s a lot of obvious things to love about PNC. The view, for one.
From almost any section in the ballpark there is the stunning vista of the downtown Point area of Pittsburgh, linked to the ballpark itself by the Roberto Clemente Bridge painted in Pirates/Steelers/Penguins gold, crossing the Allegheny River.
And the approach to the ballpark from downtown is as classic baseball as it gets—a walk across the Clemente Bridge past vendors hawking snacks and apparel, with the open air and dark blue seats in full view while crossing the Allegheny River by foot. Few ballparks if any could match that.
Then there’s the ballpark itself—Kasota limestone on the outside; the statues of Bucs greats Clemente, Stargell, Wagner and Maz; the rotunda in left field with views of the ballpark and the city; and the intimacy of just 38,000 seats, painted dark blue in homage to Forbes Field.
And there are some not so obvious things too. There’s the matter of the price of tickets, which may not be a fair attribute to discuss given that the Bucs didn’t secure a winning season there until 2013.
But poor performance on the field didn’t stop the Cubs from charging a chunk of change to get into the ballpark for many years. From the most to least expensive seats, Pirates games are competitive in price with any team in baseball.
The architects of PNC Park did a tremendous job building intimacy into the place. The ballpark was not only built with a small amount of seats, it was done without raising the upper level to nosebleed height as it is in many new ballparks. The Pirates brag that the highest seat is only 88 feet from the field, and there’s no question that you’re still on top of the action even in the upper deck. This is something that no ballpark built since has achieved, at least none of the ones that I have visited.
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There’s food selections of all kinds, from the venerable Pittsburgh favorite Primanti Bros. to Chickie’s and Pete’s fries to the BRGR burger joint. You may not necessarily love the idea of a pulled pork sandwich with pierogies on it, but you can’t deny the Pittsburgh-ness of that. And there’s Iron City beer…nothing makes a ballpark like a bad local beer.
I’ve been to ballparks with better food and better access. But PNC is pretty easy to get to by car, and you have the option of using a bus, train or even a boat. Heck, you could ride a bicycle there along the Riverwalk and that would be pretty cool.
But to this observer that isn’t all that important. It’s not easy to get to Wrigley Field, but I don’t care once I see the ivy and ancient scoreboard. And when in Fenway Park, a Fenway Frank tastes as good as any gourmet meal anywhere else.
I have yet to see AT&T Park, Safeco Field, Target Field or Coors Field, all of which have been touted as the best in America. Of the ballparks I have visited, I’m partial to Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Fenway Park—and without doubt, PNC Park in Pittsburgh. On almost every level, PNC is as good as or better than all of them.
So if you ask the writer of Ballpark E-Guides whether PNC Park is the Best Ballpark in Baseball, my answer is: if you think so, I won’t argue with you.
It’s not that the Boston nine haven’t enjoyed considerable glory since, but the last day of the 2011 season was a tough one to swallow.
On September 28 of that year, Oriole Park at Camden Yards showcased the climax of an epic Red Sox collapse. It was a season when the Sox were expected to run away with the AL East, steamroll through the playoffs and win their third World Series in eight years. When the dust cleared in Baltimore, a 7-20 September crumbling saw the team missing October and letting go of a manager who ranks among the biggest titans in Boston sports history.
Game 162 in 2011 may have been a delight for baseball fans just about everywhere else in the country, but it was momentously awful for Boston fans, most of whom had endured enough frowning from the Baseball Gods for one lifetime.
But if the last few paragraphs were tough for you to read, maybe you can take some comfort in the Baltimore faithful having something to cheer about, in what continues to be a nightmarish era for them.
The revolutionary home of baseball in Baltimore is currently…and probably will be for at least another three to four years…the oldest in major league baseball to have never hosted a World Series. This is, for forty-something and older Orioles fans, something impossible to have conceived in the days of Palmer, Robinson, Murray, the young Ripken, and master button-pusher Earl Weaver.
The younger Orioles fan base…true loyalists who cannot fathom the concept of their team being competitive every season…has understandable antipathy for Red Sox fans that often take over their ballpark, especially in lean years. That’s to say nothing of their exasperation at having to pay more for tickets for games against the Sox and Yankees.
So pull for the Red Sox like a good traveling fan. But at least let the locals know how great their ballpark is. They don’t have much else these days.
Following a 115-loss season and a full commitment to a long overdue rebuild, the Birds aren’t likely to fill up Oriole Park very often in 2019. Not even for Red Sox games.
So now is the time to take advantage and visit a beautiful ballpark where you could experience some reverse sticker shock after years of attending games at Fenway. Even to see the Sox in a venue where you’ll be surrounded by your fellow Sox loving brethren, Camden Yards is a far less expensive outing…tickets for even the best seats will probably cost about a third of equivalent seats in Boston, great parking spots can be had for a double sawbuck or less, and even the food…well, okay, the food is still priced at a ballpark level. But you’ll have money left over for it after you park.
If you’re planning a weekend game in the summer months, it’s probably best to get your pasteboards in advance…not because they’re likely to sell out, but because you’ll have more choices. There will likely be a third party markup for weekend games, and the Orioles website allows you to actually pick individual seats. But during the week, try the box office at the north end of the B&O warehouse…you should still have plenty of seats to choose from, and you’ll save a chunk of change in online fees.
Camden is one of those ballparks where fans say there aren’t any bad seats, which is true, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t better than others. If you’re splurging for those cushioned premium lower seats (and you should), the visitors’ dugout is on the third base side. As is the straight ahead view of the impressive warehouse, Oriole Park’s signature feature.
But while the lower concourse features great Baltimore-friendly eats like crab cakes, you’ll also be as far as possible from Eutaw Street. So if you go this route, show up early and get your Eutaw stroll in to see the plates commemorating home runs that landed there, including two from David Ortiz. It’s an essential in any Camden visit…along with your handshake and pit beef from Boog. Or your Rain Delay IPA at Dempsey’s, if you remember the former O’s catcher’s rain delay antics at Fenway.
If your budget is limited, upper level seats at Oriole Park work just fine. They’re closer to the field than in most ballparks, and are cheap even by baseball standards. (Bonus tip: the Orioles offer two free kids’ tickets with every adult ticket purchase.) You’ll have an outstanding panoramic view of both the field and the warehouse blending in with the Baltimore skyline, and the upper concourse features a fine view of the brick structure of downtown Baltimore in every direction, including M&T Bank Stadium (Ravens) across the street.
The Eutaw Street bleachers in center field…especially now that they’ve added a sit down bar there…are a popular spot for visiting fans too. But should you catch an Orioles home run ball, don’t throw it back. That happened in a game in 2011. I’m not saying the Baseball Gods punished the Sox for that behavior, but I’m not saying they didn’t either.
With Baltimore being 400 miles from Boston, you’ll probably be spending at least one night in town. There are plenty of upscale hotels in downtown Baltimore, including the impressive Hilton across the street from the Yard. Just know that unless you’re staying at the Hilton or another hotel just a few footsteps away, you might not be comfortable walking to the ballpark, especially at night.
This is probably of no nevermind, since you have a plethora of parking options for Orioles games, from Orioles’ lots east of the ballpark to surrounding garages downtown. None of the lots and garages in Baltimore are gouging in price the way you’re used to at Fenway, but you will likely find a better deal near M&T Bank Stadium, especially if you don’t mind walking a bit. Parking east of the ballpark also makes for a much easier in and out.
If you’re not staying downtown, you also have the inexpensive and convenient Light Rail option…park for free along the route, and take the streetcar right to the entrance of the ballpark. It’s not just a good deal cheaper, it spares you the considerable headache of driving in downtown Baltimore, where red light duration can be measured in eons and could even cost you an inning of baseball. You can also take the Light Rail directly from Penn Station, should you be using Amtrak.
Fenway Park features lobster poutine, lobster rolls, and lobster melts. Oriole Park has crab cakes, crab kettle chips, and crab waffle fries. Not a big adjustment for Massachusetts natives.
Yes, people rave about Boog’s BBQ here and rightly so. Just know that Boog’s amazing pit beef and turkey sandwiches aren’t your only option. In the lower level concourse, you can find a baseball-sized crab cake (the Orioles tried about 50 recipes before hitting on the right one for it), kettle chips with crab meat piled on, or crab dip waffle fries that are worth grabbing a fork and sitting down to eat. And pile on some Old Bay at the condiment stands.
It’s all great for a taste of Maryland, but don’t forget about the eats and libations outside the ballpark too, especially across Washington Boulevard from the Left Field Gate. The pre-game watering hole tandem of Pickles Pub, Slider’s and the Bullpen all offer dogs, sausages, burgers, and yes, crab cake sandwiches at prices much cheaper than inside. You can wrap this stuff and bring it in, incidentally. And like inside the ballpark, there will be enough Red Sox fans at the pre-game party that have your back. (Not that O’s fans will give you any trouble.)
Speaking of libations…the establishments across the street continue to offer a brew that the Orioles amazingly do not sell inside the ballpark…National Bohemian, affectionately known as Natty Boh. How vital is the one-eyed Natty Boh logo to the Baltimore baseball experience? When this team was consistently good (yes, they really were once), it was the brand sold at Memorial Stadium…because the owner of the team happened to be the owner of National Bohemian.
You’d think the Orioles would respect that. Maybe someday. But for now get your Natty Boh on across the street and salute the…wait for it…“once proud Orioles franchise”.
One of the multitude of features the designers of Camden Yards got right was its location…in the heart of downtown Baltimore, just steps away from the beautiful Inner Harbor. Out of town visitors can enjoy a ballgame, a delightful pre- or post-game meal, and visit the top tourist attraction in the city in one day.
If you haven’t yet crossed a Red Sox game at Oriole Park off your bucket list, 2019 is the year to do it.
A Name You Should Know
On the website “This Great Game: The Online Book of Baseball History”, former commissioner Bud Selig is quoted as saying that Baltimore’s revolutionary ballpark “may be one of the two or three most powerful events in baseball history. It changed everything. It really did. I’m not sure people grasp the significance of it.”
Selig is probably correct. Yet it’s doubtful that it would have been the case without the prominence of the B&O Warehouse, however impressive a new ballpark otherwise might have been. The Warehouse gave Camden Yards a striking, standout visual element that was comparable to Fenway’s Green Monster. It made a great venue into a phenomenal one.
Yet the man arguably most responsible for its preservation never received any official credit.
Eric Moss was an architecture student at Syracuse University who spent a year developing a model for Baltimore’s ballpark that included the long, bulky, old brick structure…his design even featured the Warehouse as part of the playing field, suggesting that the Orioles would have to budget for window repairs.
His design was seen by one of the firms competing for the Oriole Park contract, Ayers Saint Gross. The firm actually brought Moss and his design to Baltimore. At the time, the warehouse was set to be demolished, an idea that had the backing of even the Orioles. Moss’s design showed how the building could not only be preserved, but also be an integral component of the ballpark itself.
Moss’s idea to build the ballpark around the warehouse survived…but Ayers Saint Gross lost the contract bid to HOK Sport, who ultimately designed not just Camden Yards, but dozens more sports venues in the wake of Camden’s success.
Eric Moss’s name is not on any of the official design documents. But he landed a nice career out of it. He is still today an architect at Ayers Saint Gross.
One Year To The Day
Every baseball fan remembers what happened at Camden Yards on September 6, 1995. Cal Ripken Jr. took the field for the 2,131st consecutive time, and single-handedly restored a country’s love for a sport that had been badly damaged by its participants’ greed. As the ballpark’s history goes, it’s not likely that anything short of an Orioles World Series victory could top the moment.
One year to the day later, longtime Orioles star Eddie Murray made September 6 extra special for Orioles fans, launching a home run into the center field seats following a rain delay that caused the early exit of several thousand fans. This wasn’t just any home run, by the way…it was number 500 of Murray’s storied career. He would finish with 504.
Murray and Ripken were arguably the two key members of the last Orioles team to reach the top of the baseball mountain. Both of them were relatively young stars in 1983, the year the Orioles took the crown against the Phillies. The two teammates and friends battled for the MVP all season, with Ripken taking the honors and Murray finishing a very strong second. (Carlton Fisk finished a distant third.) Neither would play for a World Series winner again in their careers.
Ripken credited Murray as one of the reasons he played in every single game for over 16 years. It was Murray, he said, that stressed to a young Ripken the importance of always being ready to play.
Today both players have statues and retired numbers 8 and 33 at Camden Yards, immortalizing their careers with the Birds…and the seat where Murray’s 500th home run landed is now painted orange to commemorate the occasion.
The Peanut Church
As stated in this article, you can bring food and non-alcoholic drinks into Camden Yards. This lenient policy of the Orioles has been a great boon to nearby people of faith.
The Old Otterbein United Methodist Church, located near Conway Street adjacent to the ballpark, discovered in the early days of the new ballpark that Orioles fans would be happy to pay a dollar for a bag of peanuts rather than quadruple that price inside.
They’ve been selling peanuts to fans heading to Orioles games since the ballpark opened in 1992…and they’ve used the proceeds from peanuts and water sales to restore an organ, replace the roof, fix crumbling brick walls and repair the electrical and HVAC systems.
According to the church’s website, “The best sales are always when the ‘Yanks’ and ‘Red Sox’ are in town.” So when you buy peanuts from the Old Otterbein, you’re not only saving money on everyone’s favorite ballpark snack, you’re helping a local house of worship maintain their home.
So there are some Baltimore natives that always will be happy to see you, even if you’re wearing Red Sox gear.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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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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
…the Schuylkill Expressway
…Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks (and all of their successors)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
“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”.
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.
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.”
Photo credit: TechCrunch on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: sebastien.barre on Best Running / CC BY-NC-SA
Photo credit: Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta on Best Running / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: geremology on Best Running / CC BY-ND
Photo credit: Kevin Krejci on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: TechCrunch on Best Running / CC BY
Photo credit: Kevin Krejci on Best Running / CC BY
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.
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?’”
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 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.
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.”
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.”
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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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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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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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!
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 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.
You can race some serious go-karts – or even your own car – at several venues in the Philadelphia region. I wrote this piece about them for the Fall 2017 issue of JerseyMan. You can read it on their website here, or you can view the article PDF here. With all respect to a great magazine, I liked my title better…
Let’s Go Racing!
“Flat out till you see God, then brake.” – Anonymous
If the closest you’ve come to channeling your inner Jeff Gordon is running a #24 car in a boardwalk go-kart at the shore, it’s time to broaden your horizons. If you don’t need to at least let up on the hammer to get through a turn, it ain’t racing.
Philly-area racing fans not only have two high-end venues a short drive away, both of which feature various experiences for would-be racers, but we also have the option of racing electric karts inside a converted retail store. True.
Boardwalk go-karts might be fun for the kids, but you’d get some strange looks if you suggested it for a team-building event.
Two hours north of our fair city is Pocono Raceway, a track unique enough to have a nickname: The Tricky Triangle. The Triangle hosts NASCAR’s top series twice a year, and its scalene layout boasts the longest straightaway on the circuit. That lengthy stretch would lead to the highest speeds, if drivers didn’t have to stand on the brakes to survive the 14-degree banking in Turn 1.
Courtesy of Jesse Roverana and the crew at Stock Car Racing Experience, you can run the Triangle yourself…either as a student in a 600HP stock car, as part of a team in a go-kart race, or even…get this…in your own car.
The student experience includes an hour of safety instruction before one gets into a firesuit and inside a racecar, driving behind a professional who leads the way to speeds as high as 160 MPH. It’s a life-transforming event, according to Roverana.
“When they walk out to the racecar, their shoulders are down, they’re very meek, very quiet, because they’re a little scared. When they get out, their chest is puffed out, their shoulders are up, they’re smiling. We have them fill out a survey, and their hands are shaking like crazy.”
There’s also a road course for go-karts inside of the famed racetrack, and lawnmower engine karts these are not. They ride an inch off of the ground and go as fast as 50 MPH…helmets required…and races are run with three-man teams for a full three hours. If you’re planning a corporate event, nothing builds team spirit like firesuits and driver changes.
“Every time I sell this to a corporate, they’re calling me back next year because employees want to do it again,” Roverana says. “Smack talk goes on all day long.”
Car guys like to bring their own to race that long straightaway too. “It’s grown tremendously over the last five years. We have a Z06, we have BMW M3s, a whole lot of Mustangs. Every once in a while you get that little Fiat, or a WRX.
“Fortunately, we haven’t had any incidents. They all own a car that is $60K to $160K in value, and none of them want to go home and say, honey, I ran my car into the wall.
“That’s the thing that keeps those guys under control out there.”
Millville, NJ, isn’t just the birthplace of WAR-demolishing ballplayer Mike Trout. It’s also the home of New Jersey Motorsports Park, where two road courses host events from ARCA to American Superbike to NASCAR’s K&N Series.
Marketing director Ashley Freas calls NJMP the “Premier Motorsports Entertainment Complex”, and it’s not just for spectators. If you get tired of only turning left at Pocono, you can bring your car to the road course here.
“One of the most common questions we get asked is ‘How do I get my car out on the track?’ Challengers, Chargers, I’ve seen all kinds of cars,” Freas says. “I’ve seen Honda Civics, I’ve seen Priuses. There are four on-track sessions throughout the day, and progressively, you build up speed and go faster and faster.”
If you enjoy it enough, you can become a Driver’s Club member…NJMP sets aside track days where only members can pilot their car through the road courses. Members say it’s a great way to entertain clients, and track days include a superb breakfast and lunch at the Finish Line Pub on the grounds. “Drink some water to stay hydrated, but no beer until after you’re done,” Freas says with a laugh.
But for those not yet of such means, the go-karts here are no slouch. They carry 9HP Honda engines and reach speeds of 55 MPH on either of two small road courses that even feature elevation changes. Like at Pocono, karts include transponders, and NJMP tracks your lap times, with the best time of the day written on a board inside the entrance.
Make a day of it, Freas says. “The road courses here always have activity, you can go go-karting but you can also watch unique and fun racing going on. You can eat at the restaurant, we have paintball so you can do that. We have a pool too, if you get hot and sweaty and want to relax.
“It’s like an amusement park. There’s something for everybody.”
So you are probably thinking, this sounds great, but isn’t this October? Racing season is more or less over. Where can I host the holiday team-building racing event?
The Speed Raceway geniuses are way ahead of you. They saw the opportunities as electric cars emerged at the same time retail stores began to close in the wake of the Amazon explosion.
In the days before the electric go-karts that Speed Raceway uses, it probably would have been too noisy to run gas-powered karts indoors, to say nothing of the collective heart failure that the EPA would have had about the pollution. Electric karts are quiet and don’t cough up smoke, making them ideal to run indoors…which is, as Speed vice president Eric Armstrong points out, a huge advantage for them.
“We’re open seven days a week, 363 days a year. We’re incredibly busy throughout the week and that’s because a day like right now, where it’s raining hard, we’re open. When it’s hot, we’re open, when it’s cold, we’re open.”
And electric karts don’t have to build up to speed, either.
“When you turn on your vacuum, it’s on full power. That’s very similar to our go-karts. They have a lot of torque and they go quick.”
The vice president isn’t exaggerating. When a driver is first let out onto one of the two Formula One style road courses, after donning a head sock and a helmet, the kart moves slowly. Once out on the track, as if someone flipped a switch, stepping on the accelerator suddenly whiplashes the occupant into a focused racer, picking up speed, braking through turns and hitting marks. Speed records lap times, but you won’t reach top speed in MPH terms. Not even Armstrong can tell you what the karts’ top speed is…meaning they’ll go as fast as you can handle.
“If you had an absolute perfect, flat surface, these could easily beat the cars on the highway. But in here, they can’t, because there’s not enough space and you’re turning all the time. You’re always zipping, but you’re never on a flat surface hitting high MPH marks.”
Speed has two locations, in Horsham, PA, and in Cinnaminson, NJ. The Cinnaminson location is located in a large strip mall on Route 130. It’s a marvel of progress for anyone old enough to remember the Clover store that occupied the space for many years.
“With so many retail establishments closing, there’s a lot of big buildings like this, and a go-kart facility like ours really fits,” explains Armstrong. “Five or six years ago, there was maybe ten facilities, now there’s easily 250-plus across the country.
“I guess we can thank Amazon,” he says with a chuckle.
The Speed Raceway experience is thrilling enough to draw occasional celebrities, even from as far as Baltimore. “Joe Flacco and his family come in here quite often. Especially with football players, people don’t recognize them because they wear helmets, until they put their names up on the scoreboard and they say, that is Joe Flacco right there!”
Like the folks at New Jersey Motorsports Park and at Stock Car Racing Experience, Speed Raceway knows exactly how best to promote high speed, edge-of-seat racing for ordinary Joes…as a corporate team-building event, or for a bachelor (or bachelorette) party. At Speed, they’ve even built sound-proof conference centers, so the long-winded manager can spend just enough time thanking the team for the pizza to get cold…but the karts stay ready to run.
The exposure has helped Speed Raceway bring over a million racers through their doors in just over five years.
“It allows groups to blow off steam and do something unique,” Armstrong says.
“There’s really nothing like this as an amusement ride. If you compare it to a roller coaster, you sit in the car of the roller coaster, they strap you down and you hold on. Here, it’s similar, except you’re the one driving. You actually get to control the ride.”
If one of these racetracks starts selling Curley’s fries, they may just make the shore obsolete.
The Mark of Excellence
If you’re a big time car guy and like going fast, you might even be able to lend a hand to the engine guys at General Motors.
As Jesse Roverana says, people bring all sorts of cars to race at Pocono Raceway. And some guys even act as techs for manufacturers. Roverana tells one story:
“We have a guy who’s all about Corvettes. Last summer he bought a new Z06. He brought it up, had problems, at 160 MPH it was shutting down and going into fault mode. He went through a lot of things with GM, and finally about a month ago they wired his car up so that the telemetry was going back to Detroit. He came out for another session, same thing happened, they received the telemetry, they made a change in the tune to the cars.
“I have a feeling that there may end up being a tune coming out that is gonna be mandatory across all 2017 Z06s, because he found the glitch in their system. It was General Motors trying to meet the EPA numbers for that car. They leaned it out a little too much on the tune for 170 MPH,” Roverana says with a chuckle.
“We don’t keep any speed records on the drive your own, I think the fastest that we’ve been told is the gentleman with the Corvette. He’s hit 172. You can go on YouTube and search for ‘drive your own Pocono Raceway’ and you’ll find this guy, Paul Stephens. You’ll find all those videos from the track pack of his Corvette.
“How many people are buying Z06s and going 170 MPH for any period of time? They’re not. But we offered that opportunity.”
When the Woodcrest Country Club became open to the public, I spoke with Jamie Berman, the marketing director for First Montgomery Group, who had purchased the course. The article was published in the December 2013 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the magazine article PDF here.
Reading the Green
After 84 years as a private club, Woodcrest Country Club is available to the public…and building for the future.
As she shows this observer around the Woodcrest Country Club, Jamie Berman is clearly on top of the ongoing progress.
“We’re looking to make some modifications,” she says, admiring the view of the 18th hole from the shaded patio. “There’s a deck closer to the pro shop, and we’re looking to extend that around to the patio. There’s a versatile outdoor area attached to the club, and a tented patio area for summertime events. We’d like to add a small secondary event area to the ballroom.
“Just looking to make the club more event-friendly and less ‘country club staunchy’,” she says with a smile.
Berman is the marketing director for First Montgomery Group, the real estate outfit that purchased Woodcrest in May for $10.1 million. Shortly after the acquisition, the announcement was made that the private 84-year-old golf course would be made available to the public, with semi-private memberships available.
It’s been an unqualified hit so far: “People have been calling like crazy. We’ve had 35-40 messages come through in just the last few days. We brought on an additional team member just to be a membership director. It’s managed by ownership now, so if we make modifications to the club, we won’t be charging the members.
“The marketplace for golf now is very different than it used to be,” she explains. “The private country club model isn’t as relevant in this economic climate.”
As Berman points out, Woodcrest is being made over for more family-friendly and affordable outings, both on the inside and outside of the clubhouse. There’s still work to be done—like acquiring a proper liquor license—but thus far they have received great reviews from folks that have held events there.
And the golf course itself is no slouch. In the reviews on golf websites, Woodcrest is nearly always rated as “challenging”. That might be an understatement.
The course was designed by William Flynn, which, if you’re an avid golfer, is pretty much all you need to know. If you’re not familiar with the name, Flynn, who lived in the Depression era, was considered one of the greatest golf course architects of his day. Of the 80 courses he designed, five are listed in the Golf Digest list of the 50 best ever.
Flynn’s strength was in designing courses to fit the land they were on, which Woodcrest does, in a location that is hilly for South Jersey. Several holes on the course appear ready to punish a less than ideal tee shot with a rolling hill or a sizable bunker. A recent Courier-Post supplement about the course describes the difficulties of each hole—the tee shot must avoid a stand of white pines on Hole 8, an annoying pine tree just to get within 200 yards on Hole 14, or a sunken fairway and trees on Hole 16. If you’ve given up profanity for Lent, you might want to skip a round at Woodcrest until Easter.
“Flynn had a mantra that every hole should develop its own problem,” says Bill Torlucci, the Woodcrest golf director. “He really gave players something to deal with on every hole. The green design, the size of the greens, it’s a lot of elevation for South Jersey. Tree-lined fairways, well-bunkered, fast greens, combine all that and it makes for a very challenging course. If you shoot par or better here, you’ve played a really good round of golf.
“I’ve been able to do it a few times, not as much as I’d like to.”
Berman adds, “This course has been private for almost a century, so some people were finding it really difficult, because it has intricacies that private clubs have that public ones don’t necessarily. We don’t want to disrupt the challenges, but we want people to come back!” she laughs.
“But everyone thinks it’s beautiful. They’re always amazed at the beauty. We have slopes that are more defined, split greens; the bunkers are so well done they look like they’ve always been there. We were lucky; Performance Golf Management maintained the course impeccably through the bankruptcy proceedings. We were able to open it right back up in June.”
Even with the enthusiasm of the new owners, First Montgomery’s acquisition of the course hasn’t been without controversy.
In October, news stories hit about the possibility of a housing development being built on the land, which included low-income housing mandated by the Cherry Hill government. It being election time, local politicians made sure they were quoted heroically taking on the big, bad real estate developer. To read the quotes, one would have thought First Montgomery’s only purpose in buying the land was to demolish a beloved, historic golf course and build a new Pottersville.
Berman, who admits to some frustration at the news reports, offers her opinion on the media firestorm. “It doesn’t look like we’re closing the club, does it?” she asks.
“I know it’s election time and there’s a lot of emotion surrounding this golf course, and I know there’s an issue in Cherry Hill with keeping open space. When they were initially looking at this land, it was always the intention to keep it an 18-hole golf course. There are two extra holes, so there is an opportunity to develop a piece of it and still maintain the golf course the way it is. I think when people hear housing and development, it has a lot of charge to it.
“I’m not gonna step over the fact that we are real estate developers; our main business has been the multi-family housing industry. I’m sure it’s an easy connection to make. But we are diversified, and like to look at purchasing aspects to enhance what we can do in a community. The owners are people with a 30-year untarnished reputation. There’s such an appreciation for these men, they’re good people and they give back a lot.”
So if Berman is to be believed—and she certainly comes off more believable than any grandstanding politician you’ve ever met—this classic, William Flynn course will remain intact. And golfers no longer need to befriend a member to play a round on one of the most picturesque and challenging golf courses in South Jersey.
In addition to making a superb golf outing available to everyone, First Montgomery’s focus is to make Woodcrest more family-friendly. Perhaps even with outdoor fire pits, for events any time of year, Berman muses. Politics aside, both Berman and Torlucci think the future looks bright for this old relic of a country club.
“I’m pleased with the hard work that the startup team put in. We’re booking weddings for 2015 already,” Berman says. “I’m just so proud that we’ve hit the ground running, and we haven’t skipped a beat regardless of what’s going on in the media. We’ve stayed the course, so to speak,” she says with a grin.
Torlucci adds, “There was a mystique about being able to play here. It was pretty restricted, now it’s semi-private. It’s really rewarding for me to be here and see so many people come through that door and that they enjoy it.
“It’s a special facility, it really is.”
And today a golfer doesn’t need friends in high places to see for himself.