South Jersey Life
Precision Pistol shooters are phenomenal at focus…it’s quite a feat to be able to consistently nail an eight-inch wide target from 50 yards. JerseyMan sent me to cover the annual State Outdoor Pistol Championship for the December 2015 issue. I learned some amazing stuff. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
Shooting For Greatness
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols.”
At the end of “Rocky III”, Apollo Creed challenges Rocky to a rubber match between the two of them…to settle the score of who is the best, once and for all. As Apollo explains to Rocky, it’s only to prove it to himself…“no TV, no newspapers, just you and me.”
Because in the end, that is all that matters to a true competitor, at any level. Self-respect.
Rich Kang, a surgeon from Maryland, has had his picture added to the New Jersey Pistol website, as the Winner of the 2015 State Outdoor Pistol Championship. His name is now engraved on the Madore Trophy.
And that’s pretty much the extent of his recognition for this exceptionally difficult achievement. The top result of a Google search for “Rich Kang” is the LinkedIn profile of a California product developer with the same name.
Precision Pistol excellence isn’t something one pursues for stardom, applause or financial gain. There wasn’t much in the way of an audience or media…other than a lanky, curious writer for a popular men’s magazine…present at the championship event. Shooter Frank Greco likens it to golf: it may not be the most exciting spectator sport, but among participants, there is an unwavering admiration for the best.
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols. In the shooting world, badass is snipers,” he says. “In the pistol world it’s precision shooters.”
Greco is the Regional Vice President of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, based in Highland Lakes. A portion of this event took place at the Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club in Jackson. Greco didn’t participate in the competition, but he was there to explain the mystique of it, right down to the effect of donut consumption on shooters. True.
“The sugar raises the blood pressure and affects the steady hand,” Greco says, while offering a donut to this observer. “Sugar and caffeine in excess can be Kryptonite to a shooter.”
It’s that demanding?
To say the least.
Picture how far 50 yards is. 150 feet. Half of a football field. Now fathom being able to steadily aim and fire a pistol from that distance and consistently hit a target eight inches wide.
That’s just for an eight-point shot. For a 10-pointer, that target is just three inches wide; for a bull’s eye…which is used as a tiebreaker if two shooters have the same score…it is just an inch and a half.
Can that even be done with normal human vision? Yes, and the shooters on the firing line this day are proving it. With multiple types of firearms and various types of shooting…moving targets, rapid fire, timed firing.
It’s a three-gun match, with .22, centerfire and .45 caliber pistols. With each type of pistol, a shooter takes 90 shots. Those 90 shots are broken down into four matches: Slow Fire is two strings of ten shots each over ten minutes; National Match Course is ten Slow Fire shots, followed by two strings of five shots each at 25 yards; Rapid Fire is two strings of five shots each over ten seconds; and the Timed Fire Match is four strings of five rounds each, with 20 seconds per string.
All day long, the barrage goes on. Casings litter the ground. Wisps of dust float from the dune behind the targets. The unmistakable odor of gunpowder fills the air. Wrists snap back in recoil with larger pistols. The noise is thunderous and deafening at times, but that’s the only aural distraction allowed. No talking or other sounds behind the line. During one match a ringing smartphone is immediately shut off; only in church could that be more embarrassing.
It’s grueling, this full day of shooting. Comfortable footwear is a must.
Between rounds a horn sounds and a red light begins flashing. When the light is flashing, guns must be down, and must remain untouched until the flashing stops.
Ed Glidden, the director of the match, calls out instructions to the shooters, obviously with safety as the top priority. Cease fire, magazines out, make the firing line safe. Empty chamber indicators installed. Check your gun; check your neighbor’s gun. And so on, dozens of times. Glidden’s role looks boring to someone witnessing the action. But needless to say, it’s an essential one.
Part of Glidden’s occupation is training shooters in gun safety, including teaching youngsters in the club’s highly touted junior program. “Individual training,” he says, “is keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction at ALL times and treating every gun as if it were loaded. Constant awareness of the range officers and other shooters, to prevent and/or correct the slightest infraction until safety becomes a habit. Any unsafe practice will result in expulsion from the match and the range.”
The Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club people have a reputation for their focus on safe handling of lethal weapons. They are frequently praised for it in online reviews. It is particularly impressive to see younger people on the firing line, some barely in their teens, completely comfortable handling firearms. Partly because of Glidden’s repetitious direction, safety is second nature in this competition.
Besides, with the concentration required at tournaments like this, competitors have more than enough to occupy their minds.
Watching the shooters it appears as though they are cool as ice, with the focus, the concentration, the steady hand. But as one of the better shooters on the line can tell you, it takes years to develop this composure. And even he still grimaces at the occasional subpar shot.
Lateif Dickerson is the master instructor at the New Jersey Firearms Academy. His resume of other titles is very impressive: Certified Pistol Instructor, Range Safety Officer, Combat Handgunner at the School of Defensive Firearms, the list is long. He’s been training civilians, police and military for 19 years in various weapons usage and self-defense.
Dickerson can tell you a bit about becoming adept enough for this competition. There are three stages, he says…know how, physical conditioning and mental conditioning.
Know how is mastering the fundamentals… like stance, breath control, and recoil management. Stance “should be as comfortable but as stable as possible. Think like a crane; your legs are the outriggers, your arm is the boom.” Breath control is “basically holding long enough so you aren’t moving.” Recoil management is the ability to “consistently recover to the same place when shooting.”
Then there’s the physical conditioning.
“A match can go from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, or longer. If you start fatiguing during a match your performance will fail. You must be able to hold the weight of your arm and gun up all day – and steady. Holding steady requires an isometric tension that needs to be developed also.”
But the mental preparation is by far the toughest part.
“The ONLY thing that should exist in your mind is that your sight is where it’s supposed to be as the trigger moves rearward…this is very hard. We all have a lot of noise and distractions, so conditioning your mind to focus is a process. That process is largely the challenge in shooting.”
Frank Greco emphatically agrees, sharing a story of his own self-defeat in the mental aspect of the game.
“When you’re in it, on the line, loading, in the zone, improving your score, it’s incredibly intense and extremely difficult mentally.
“One of my first times I experienced the ‘mental game’ was in the NY State Championship. The match director came over to me and asked me if I knew I was shooting better than most of the Experts and Masters. I said no, and got accidentally sidetracked, thinking I was going to win the match. The lost focus immediately showed; my shots were random and my scores went down.
“It’s vital to maintain a positive outlook and to speak to yourself in positive statements. It’s important to train your subconscious mind and create a positive self-image.”
He pulls out his smartphone and shows this observer a picture of a target, the high-value section of it riddled with bullet holes. Sometimes, he says, he needs to look at it during a match, to remind himself what he’s capable of.
It’s all undeniably worth the effort.
The true reward of Precision Pistol, as Greco relates from his own personal experience, is self-respect…the realization of one’s hidden abilities and the ability to meet the most difficult of challenges. Once a person can hit that one-and-a-half inch bull’s eye from half of a football field away, it’s hard to imagine how monthly bills could faze them.
“Great shooters have an almost Zen-like approach to shooting and how they approach their daily lives, jobs, etc. Since I started, my ability to focus has sharpened dramatically, and it’s positively benefited other areas of my life. The ability to focus on what matters, and disregard unimportant matters, literally frees your mind.
“The benefits are real, and to that extent, shooting has made me a better person.”
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Get Started With Precision Pistol Shooting
If you’d like to try Precision Pistol Shooting, there is a website dedicated to helping you get started, with several informative pieces from top shooters. The site is called “The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol”.
Among the articles is a piece by site owner John Dreyer about essential equipment. There’s a lot to know when laying out the considerable funds for pistols…like whether they are mass-produced or hand built, or the differences between high performance and convertible pistols. Not to mention other necessary equipment, like eye and ear protection, scopes and cleaning supplies. Pistol shooting is not a cheap sport, so spend wisely.
Another piece by Dreyer quotes several Zen philosophies and describes the achievements in pistol shooting in how they relate to such quotes. One example: “A man who has attained mastery of an art reveals it in his every action.” Dreyer compares this to pistol shooting in the sense that once a shooter can sustain an “empty mind”, he can see “underlying principles in everyday life and life in all things”.
Another piece from top shooter Jake Shevlin reveals the “secret” to shooting high scores. It’s the same secret one learns about how to get to Carnegie Hall…practice, practice, practice. The shooter must sacrifice…sacrifice time, money, convenience, and priorities in life to excel at just one thing. Top marksmanship requires a level of commitment unmatched by few endeavors. That, says Shevlin, is the “secret”.
The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol website also features a discussion group, e-mail updates, and links and maps to shooting clubs and ranges.
Multiple Champion Dave Lange on Dry-Firing
Dave Lange’s name appears a lot on the NJ Pistol website. He has won the overall state outdoor championship nine times since its inception in 2001; the only other shooter who has won it more than once is Ron Steinbrecher, who has captured the title just twice. Lange was also the NJ resident champion in 2015, though he lost the overall title to Rich Kang.
Lange is the author of a piece for Shooting Sports USA, linked to the NJ Pistol website, detailing the benefits of dry-firing…firing a weapon without ammunition. With dry-firing, a shooter can focus on weaknesses, like maintaining consistent grip. Lange states in the piece that he practices his dry-firing three times a day, 15 minutes each time.
With dry-firing, a shooter can run a mental program through his mind of executing a successful shot; Lange’s program involves picturing a red dot in the center of the bull’s eye and then picturing the bull’s eye with the bullet hole in the center.
Dry-firing can address any shooter’s specific problem, Lange says. The key is being willing to commit to it until a shooter’s scores improve. Given his success, he’s probably got a point.
The Best in the Nation
The NJ State Outdoor Pistol Championship, according to Frank Greco, is the 3rd largest of such events in the nation; the national event, known as the “World Series of the Shooting Sports”, takes place in Camp Perry, Ohio, 40 miles east of Toledo. Events have been held there since 1907.
The overall National Pistol champion for 2015 is Keith Sanderson from Colorado Springs. He scored an incredible 2,655 points out of a possible 2,700. Second was Brian Zins with a score of 2,641. Sanderson is an Olympic gold medalist; Zins was the 2007 NJ State Champion.
To put those scores into perspective, do the math: 2,655 divided by 270 shots equals an average shot score of 9.83…so Sanderson’s average shot was almost always in that three-inch range for ten points, with maybe one or two in a hundred falling outside of it for a nine-pointer.
The difference between Sanderson’s and Zins’ score was just 14 50-yard shots out of 270 that covered a five inch range instead of three.
One wonders if Zins thought about having a donut the week before the match.
So some years ago…2012 in fact…I wrote a post about going gluten free in Wildwood for my entertaining and informative “Beaches And Boards” blog. I had no idea that post would do so well – as I write this it’s #7 in Google for “gluten free wildwood NJ”.
Anyway, that post is fairly outdated…Westy’s and Juan Pablo’s, sadly, no longer exist…and the situation is much improved for celiacs in the Wildwoods, so I thought I’d share an updated report.
This is by no means a complete list of eateries in Wildwood that offer gluten free menus, but my celiac-afflicted wife and I have tried many of these places, so hopefully it’s helpful to you.
Finally! Gluten Free Pizza on the Wildwood Boardwalk!!
Yes, you read that right! There are now at least three pizza joints on the Wildwood boardwalk with gluten free pizza, and while I am very grateful for this development, it does present a small dilemma.
Here is my minor but significant issue: in my opinion, the gluten free pizza at 3 Brothers is superior to the GF pizza at Sorrento II, but the regular pizza at Sorrento II is superior to 3 Brothers. I haven’t tried any pizza at the Original Hot Spot yet.
Thankfully, the Sorrento II and 3 Brothers aren’t far from each other, so we can often do one or both. Or we take turns. But at least I can finally eat pizza on the Wildwood boards again without feeling bad for my wife. So this is a good problem to have. All of these places deserve a shoutout.
Sorrento II. I rank Sorrento II among the best pizza shops on the Wildwood boards for their regular pizza. It was the winner in a pizza-off my brother and I did one night, just edging out Sam’s Pizza Palace…which is also very good, but doesn’t offer gluten free yet. Sorrento II isn’t popular with Yelpers, so I added my two cents there.
Sorrento II is one of those places where you can try some unusual pizza toppings, like BBQ chicken, and it’s a nice thin crust with decent crunch when re-heated (as most boardwalk slices are). You get a decent sized slice for your coin here.
However, while I’m extremely grateful that they offer it, their GF pizza leaves a bit to be desired. It isn’t horrible, but it isn’t great. Given the choice of gluten free pizza in Wildwood only, I’d go with 3 Brothers. But it is nice to be able to go to Sorrento II and have no problem with the wife.
3 Brothers Pizza. 3 Brothers, as of this writing, probably makes the best gluten free pizza in Wildwood. Certainly so on the boardwalk, where Sorrento II and Original Hot Spot currently their only competition. I believe they use a crust made from rice, and it’s even edible by traditional pizza standards. My little ones actually prefer it to their regular pizza.
But 3 Brothers’ traditional pizza offering is just okay…and just okay is not okay in a spot where there are dozens of pizza shops that offer very good pies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s adequate and I can enjoy it, but given the choice for non-GF pizza, I’d probably go elsewhere.
Original Hot Spot – The Original Hot Spot offers gluten-free and cauliflower pizza on their menu. We haven’t yet tried it, but I’d avoid this place. My wife and I have eaten there before their GF pizza was available, and while they were able to accommodate her allergy with a roll-free cheesesteak, the food in general was not good.
They are also, according to Yelpers, adding 20% tip charges automatically to the bill. Not wise in times like these. However, again, I haven’t tried the GF pizza yet, so if it’s good, maybe it’s worth that 20% automatic tip for you. They deserve credit for that. Just be mindful.
There’s a reason there are no long lines in front of Original Hot Spots on the Wildwood boards, unlike, say, Sam’s Pizza Palace or Curley’s Fries.
Someone say Curley’s Fries?
Curley’s Fries – GLUTEN FREE!!
My favorite Wildwood food of all is Curley’s Fries – they’re so great that JerseyMan magazine let me do a piece on them and their survival during the Crappiest Year of 2020. Every trip we make to Wildwood includes a stop at Curley’s. But what really makes this iconic fry stand a blessing from God is that they do fries…just fries.
That means that their vats aren’t used for anything trivial like chicken fingers or jalapeno poppers, making them free of contamination and Curley’s fries safe for celiacs to eat. Hooray!
Plus they’re outstanding fries, the best on the Wildwood boards. If there’s one reason for celiacs to vacation in Wildwood, it’s that they’ll be making no sacrifices when it comes to French fried potatoes.
Gluten Free Breakfast in Wildwood
You can go to any of several Wildwood diners and eat breakfast safely…we’ve eaten at the Vegas Diner, Adam’s Restaurant, and Pompeo’s without incident…but none of them have specific gluten free menus. They’re all accommodating places, though, so you can generally feel safe.
But there are a few joints that do have a heart for gluten free Wildwood visitors:
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. Learning of Uncle Bill’s offering gluten free French toast was an exciting revelation, because this is another favorite spot of mine. I love their pancakes, and the wife loves the GF French toast. Incidentally, Uncle Bill’s isn’t just in Wildwood…they have locations in a number of Jersey Shore towns.
Incidentally, I don’t see the GF French toast on their menu; I’ve e-mailed and asked about it. I’ll let you know as soon as I get a response.
Bonus tip: Just for your situational awareness. Uncle Bill’s gets very crowded (like I said, it’s a great place), and their parking lot and the one across Pacific Avenue are small and often full…because most people don’t know that there is a larger lot behind the restaurant! Turn onto East Andrews Avenue, go around the block and use that lot.
There you go, a pro tip at no extra charge. (This blog’s full of them!)
Key West Café. The Key West Café is located across East Andrews Avenue from Uncle Bill’s; it’s easy to find. Just look for the colorful bird on the side of the building. Again, you may have some trouble finding a parking spot; don’t use the Uncle Bill’s lot for the Cafe.
I confess that I haven’t tried the Key West Café yet, but they do offer gluten free pancakes, which, like the Café itself, gets positive reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m confident this is a good place to go for celiacs. Hopefully I’ll try it out next time I’m in town.
Stuey’s Juice Bar. We haven’t tried Stuey’s yet either, mostly because we usually stay in North Wildwood, which is a couple of miles away. But Stuey’s is a breakfast spot on the Wildwood boardwalk, at the southern end just north of Wildwood Crest. If you’re staying in one of the hotels on the beach in the Crest, this would make a nice morning spot.
There’s not much in the way of sit down dining, but Stuey’s does offer a wide variety of celiac-friendly stuff, including gluten free pancakes, breakfast sandwiches on gluten free bread, and a bunch of items that wouldn’t have gluten in them to begin with.
Stuey’s also offers smoothies and gourmet coffee, so it’s a win-win.
Gluten Free in Wildwood – Some Other Restaurants That Get It
Here’s a couple of other joints we’ve visited in Wildwood that get the gluten free job done:
Alumni Grill. I love the Alumni Grill, and I especially love that there’s now one in Glassboro, just ten minutes away from my house!
The Alumni Grill is perfect for celiacs – the food is great, it’s cheap, and they’re very careful about ensuring that food isn’t contaminated. They actually have a gluten free menu – which includes four types of fries (sweet potato!), and multiple burgers and sandwiches on Udi’s rolls. Their fries are excellent too…they’re not Curley’s, but they’re really good.
The Alumni is great for a cheap takeout (it’s not a great sit down atmosphere), and we use them a lot. It’s a real find in Wildwood for gluten free options.
Bandana’s Mexican Grille. It’s been a long time since we’ve visited Bandana’s, but as I remember it the food was decent. And they are definitely aware of allergy issues. They don’t have a specific gluten free menu, but their menu does state which options are gluten free or can be made so. There’s also a page on their website dedicated to allergens, including gluten. That alone makes Bandana’s worth a visit.
They’re pretty reasonable too as Wildwood restaurants go, and Mexican joints are in fairly short supply here. So it’s a solid pick.
Gluten Free Desserts!
The Wildwood boardwalk can be a diabetic nightmare, with nearly every other store offering fried or fattening desserts by the truckload.
But going gluten free? No problem! With most any joint that offers ice cream in Wildwood, you can generally get something safe, and the water ice and fudge shops are usually safe too…at least the flavors that don’t include cookie crumbs or whatever. Just avoid fried Oreos, ice cream sandwiches, and stuff like that obviously.
There is one joint that goes the extra mile for those of us afflicted or married to the afflicted:
Cool Scoops Ice Cream. Cool Scoops is a classic 1950s style ice cream shop, with a wide variety of very cool variations of sundaes, and that in itself is cool enough. But they also take the simple step of offering gluten free cones. (Not hard to do!!)
It’s not the cheapest ice cream joint (most of them are pricey here), but it’s worth it…you can get an amazing sundae in a fold-up 50s car, and the classic diner atmosphere is fantastic too. A great place to visit with the kids, but especially if you’re a celiac who misses ice cream cones.
We’ve tried Banana’s Ice Cream Café, which supposedly offers GF cones, but we were underwhelmed by it as I recall. Far prefer Cool Scoops, but Bananas deserves a mention.
A Few Other Places We’ve Tried Without Issue
We’ve been to Wildwood many times, and for going out we usually just look for a general place that understands enough to leave out the roll. At times the wife will just bring her own roll, and make a sandwich with that.
I’ve already mentioned some breakfast joints. Here’s a partial list of places where we have been able to eat without incident, so I presume you could go there and be accommodated:
Urie’s Waterfront Restaurant. The food here is unspectacular, but the atmosphere is great, right next to the marina. Be sure to ask for a table there for a terrific view. The wife has never had a problem there.
Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza. Poppi’s doesn’t yet have GF pizza unfortunately, but they have a lot of things they can go gluten free, and their pizza is fantastic for non-celiacs.
Mr. D’s Pizzeria And Subs. Mr. D’s moved since we tried them (don’t expect the storefront to look like this photo) – its former location is where Poppi’s is now. But as I recall I believe the wife got a sandwich without the roll and it was fine, and they make pretty good sandwiches for non-celiacs too.
Piro’s. An Italian joint on New York Avenue in North Wildwood. Excellent food, terrific atmosphere, and they have plenty of options for food without bread in it. We like this place a lot.
There you go my friends; hopefully you now have some doable choices for going gluten free in Wildwood. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if anything has changed.
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My article about the amazing Duck Donuts and their history was published in the Summer 2018 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. Click here to see the article on their website, or click here to see the PDF magazine version. Thanks for reading.
Duck Donuts began franchising just five years ago. Today they have sold more than 200 stores, including new openings in Marlton and Avalon. The donut-buying public is ecstatic.
We should all love our jobs as much as Ted Gill does.
It’s refreshing to hear a business professional, with franchise ownership aspirations, unashamedly spout three “really”s describing his product.
“People really, really, really love the idea of fresh, made-to-order donuts,” he says, when asked how business has been since the opening. “Business has been great.”
There’s no measured, calculated tone with Gill. His enthusiasm leads to unabashed exaggeration. “There is a little bit of a wait, but it’s definitely worth it. You get a warm donut, and it’s a million times different than if you got one just sitting around the shelf somewhere.”
Ted Gill is the general manager at one of the newest Duck Donuts locations. He runs the show in the recently opened Marlton store in the Marlton Crossing strip mall, as the rapidly expanding chain of made to order donut shops makes a splash in the Garden State.
A former owner of an East Brunswick pizzeria, Gill found the opening for the Duck Donuts position on Facebook. He spoke with the franchise owners, who probably had an easy time deciding to give him the job. In an age where one bad customer experience gets halfway around the world before a good one gets its pants on, Ted Gill gets it. “People want a fresh, delicious product, and customer service is key. We want everybody to leave here with a smile.”
He plugs his employer like a winning racecar driver. “That’s what we strive to do at Duck Donuts.”
Duck Donuts President Gary McAneney, who is overseeing the company’s ludicrous-speed expansion, shares Gill’s enthusiasm for customer happiness as part of the big picture.
“It is a detail-oriented business. You have to pay attention each and every day to the small stuff,” McAneney says. “I think that’s with any food business, but ours is a little different…we’re discretionary spend. People have choices on whether they’re gonna buy donuts or not. It’s not a must have, so we need to be on top of our game with each and every experience.
“Our franchisees have to understand that. They cannot take their success for granted. Even if the first month or so, lines are out the door and sales are going great, they can’t take their foot off the gas pedal delivering that customer experience.”
During the interview with Gill, customers filter in and are greeted warmly by the staff. Employees behind the counter assist them in the challenging decision of how to coat their donuts, send the brand new donuts through the fryer, and carefully cover them with the requested toppings and drizzles, creating dazzling donut artwork that looks as great as it tastes. All in full view for customers…many of them excited children…to watch.
It’s fair to believe that the experience is rehearsed enough that it isn’t just a show for a writer of a popular magazine. It’s also fair to say the experience is different from well-known large donut chains, who have rested on “acceptable” customer service laurels for decades.
So yes, the quality of service at Duck Donuts is noteworthy. But let’s not discount the quality of the donuts as part of the business plan.
Sitting on the counter is a cake container filled with cinnamon sugar donut pieces, which patrons are welcome to try. Usually the taste results in approval for the complete, paid version, with any of a “duckzillion” combinations of coatings, toppings, and drizzles.
Your fresh and warm donut can be coated with strawberry frosting, Oreo crumbs and hot fudge drizzle. Or try peanut butter frosting, with shredded coconut and blackberry drizzle. And so on. Imagine choosing a dozen combinations like this for your team at work. Imagine your suddenly improved stature within the company as you open the box to display them at the meeting. Can’t think of the right combo? Duck Donuts suggests favorites: maple frosting with chopped bacon (bigger than bacon bits) is beloved of course, as is the Key lime frosting donut with graham cracker crumbs, which is only available in the spring.
When this writer’s arm is twisted enough to try one (resulting in a fairly easy “uncle”), he opts for a breakfast sandwich…a maple covered donut sliced in half, with egg and cheese inside and bacon pieces on top. After some thoughtful consideration of the additional bicycle miles required to work it off, I follow up with the aforementioned Key lime edition.
The verdict? Let’s just say that with Duck Donuts in Marlton now, you’re within an acceptable radius anywhere in South Jersey. Go try them. If you can find a better donut, contact me so I can ask Ken to let me do a story on them too.
The fresh coffee is no slouch either, in case one still thinks that’s a reason to frequent the “leading brand” donut stores.
Duck Donuts founder and CEO Russ DiGilio simply wanted to make the world, or at least the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a better place.
DiGilio, who at the time owned several assisted living facilities, frequently spent vacations with his family in the resort town of Duck (you see where this is going, right?), which, according to Wikipedia, offers “outdoor recreational activities, summer events and concerts, watersports, fine dining, shopping, art galleries, and a nationally known jazz festival.”
The only thing missing from that list, DiGilio noticed, was a fresh donut shop. And so the first Duck Donuts was born.
Well, okay. Don’t quit your day job thinking it’s that simple. DiGilio and his family spent months developing the right combination of batter and shortening…“from absolute scratch”…and researching the market before opening the first store in 2007.
“There are a lot of different food options out there,” DiGilio notes, “and if someone wants to come up with something, they need a niche. They need something unique, a hook to bring people in. You can’t just be any Joe Schmoe hamburger shop. There’s just way too much competition.
“In our days as kids, going to boardwalks and hole in the wall places, we used to get donuts, and they were made to order. You walked up to the window, they made some donuts and you go on your way. Our reminiscing of times when we were on vacation prompted us to do this in a much different way.”
“Fortunately for us, made to order wasn’t very prevalent.”
Nor did it become prevalent in Duck for the first couple of years after the store’s opening. As every business owner knows, success doesn’t come without a struggle. It took some time.
“The first year out of the gate…nobody knew what we were about. On vacation you’ve got a lot of options. It took word of mouth. The third year was the first year we broke even, that’s when it kicked in and we said this has legs. By the fourth year, we knew we had something special.”
To say word of mouth has been an effective marketing tool for Duck Donuts would be quite the understatement.
It’s one thing to inform your soon to be vacationing friend about the amazeballs donut shop on Osprey Landing. It’s quite another level to repeatedly pester the founder about franchising. Duck Donuts gets so many such offers that there is a prominent page on their website about how to do just that.
“It was surprising to me how much a donut impacted people,” DiGilio recalls, “but when you think about it, the whole idea is family based. People were on vacation enjoying themselves, and it just elicited these memories of while people were on vacation of an enjoyable time.
“It was almost like we had a cult following. We had people write in all the time, telling us how much they love our concept, the donuts were out of this world, and they just loved it. They prompted us, year after year, to come to their hometown or teach them how to do what we do.
“Over time it became so overwhelming that we said, we’re gonna kick ourselves if we don’t test the waters and try to franchise this concept.”
Today Duck Donuts is operational in 13 states, with contracts to open in ten more. The actual number of stores is growing so rapidly that an exact number listed here would likely be inaccurate at press time. There have been 200 locations sold since 2013, with 30 stores likely to open this year alone.
Some pretty impressive numbers in just five years of franchising. But to DiGilio, that first franchise opening, in Williamsburg, VA, is still arguably the proudest moment.
“That couple dipped their toes in the water before anyone else and took a huge risk, which we’re eternally grateful for. But the fact that that store opened with such fanfare and has done so well and continues to this day, in the big picture, set us on our way.”
And if Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme aren’t looking over their shoulders yet, they ought to be.
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Quack Gives Back
Duck Donuts didn’t invent the Chemo Duck, as is easy to believe when one initially views the Quack Gives Back page of their website. Which is why the two entities are a perfect fit for each other.
Chemo Duck is a program dedicated to helping children with cancer overcome their fear and anxiety through the inevitably trying therapy. Children are given a “Chemo Duck”, a stuffed yellow duck with hospital scrubs and a chemotherapy port. Parents can use the Chemo Duck to help their children see what their therapy entails and to help ease the child through treatments.
“Obviously what caught our attention was the duck,” DiGilio explains. “Their whole program is based on childhood cancer awareness and education. They’re not really working for a cure, but they are helping the families who are dealing with this type of illness, who need a lot of support and comfort and education.”
This last September (September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month), all of the Duck Donuts stores gathered together and raised $75,000 for Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program.
“We deal with families, they’re one of our primary customers, mothers with children. This was a nice tie-in, because it’s children dealing with an illness, and they have a duck as their mascot, so it just seemed like a natural relationship. And all families can benefit from what we have to offer and this is our way to give back to those struggling with illness.”
Duck Donuts strongly encourages franchisees to give back, which they are happy to do, through their Quack Gives Back program. The King of Prussia store alone raised over $4,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We challenge our franchisees to be connected with their local community,” DiGilio says. “We want our stores to be connected with whomever, nonprofits, baseball teams, high schools, churches, etc..”
If you’d like to learn more about Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program, you can find the website at chemoduck.org.
The Staff’s Favorites
With all of the duckzillion combinations available to choose from, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. But the management team at Duck Donuts is willing to offer their opinions. It’s a testament to the Duck Donuts recipe how even the people running the show sometimes just love the naked cinnamon sugar Duck donut.
Russ DiGilio, Founder and CEO: Personally, when I’m on vacation, I get pretty basic. I like a cup of our coffee, a cinnamon sugar donut and a crossword puzzle. That’s what I do when I wake up in the morning. When I want some fun I’ll do vanilla icing with coconut shredding and raspberry drizzle. Or lemon icing with coconut shredding and raspberry drizzle, they’re my favorites.
Gary McAneney, President: I’m a little more traditional, I just like the lemon with the raspberry drizzle. When I am, on vacation I’ll do the chocolate just with the rainbow sprinkles are traditional. I think that’s one of our best, to be honest.
Kristin Kellum, PR Manager: It’s really simple, but it’s the cinnamon sugar with vanilla drizzle. That warm donut with the cinnamon sugar is just the perfect combination in my opinion.
Nora Branconi, Co-Owner of the Marlton Store: S’mores, which is chocolate icing, graham cracker crumbles and marshmallow drizzle.
Ted Gill, Marlton Store Manager: My favorite is the cinnamon sugar…it’s simple, there’s a million choices you could choose from, but when the warm donut comes out, and the cinnamon sugar sticks to it, it is absolutely delicious. Now, I like all the donuts. The bacon maple donut is delicious. What’s not to like about bacon?
The Critics Rave!
Just a few months into the opening of the Marlton store, Yelp has 37 reviews as of this writing, averaging four stars. Here’s what a few of the customers are saying:
“They don’t make the cheapest donut or the fastest donut, so if you want that, Duck Donuts isn’t for you. But if you want the best donut you ever had, no doubt partially because you got to pick the topping and drizzle on it, Ducks is for you.” – Matt W., Williamstown, NJ
“Trust me when I say you are in for a treat when you come to Duck Donuts. The staff is friendly and the donuts are amazing! This is my favorite donut place in South Jersey!” Nicci G., Burlington, NJ
“I’m so glad you’re a part of the neighborhood. Really. Your donuts are made fresh, on the spot, and your staff is so nice…GREAT DONUTS. GREAT PEOPLE. Thank you!” – Ashley T., Philadelphia, PA
“I had the pleasure of first trying Duck Donuts but from their KOP location. Last year when I found out they were moving into a Marlton location I couldn’t control my excitement. I have been counting down the days to the grand opening and here it is.” – Abigail W., Evesham Township, NJ
“This is a hot new location that will be buzzing for months! Yelp will assist in blowing this up even more and bringing attention to these amazing holes of deliciousness!” – Jason D., Marlton, Evesham Township, NJ
“If you gave this place any less than 5 stars, I don’t think you actually went here. It was busy at 5pm, on a Thursday, in the rain! C’mon people, this place is off the hook. Come one, come all, put all the Dunkin Donuts in the area out of business!!!” – Christopher C., Marlton, NJ
If you were apprehensive about a South American vacation because of the absence of Duck Donuts, that’s no longer a problem for you. As this article goes to press, Duck Donuts has recently announced an expansion into the Southern Hemisphere, with ten stores opening in Chile.
According to the official press release, Duck Donuts has signed an international franchise agreement with OBX Alimentos SpA. Their CEO, Marcial Dieguez-Acuna, is quoted as saying “We look forward to having Chileans adopt this new concept with open arms and for Duck Donuts to become a significant player in the sweets industry in Chile. We will offer a superior product to current market standards and with the highest level of quality service.”
Given that the business model is working pretty well in America, it’s not hard to imagine that Chileans will take to Duck Donuts just as quickly. Russ DiGilio says the company is pursuing more international franchising opportunities.
In a few years, you may be able to get a Duck Donut wherever your vacation plans take you.
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 South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League is a haven for men in their advanced years who still can and want to play some baseball. I wrote this piece for the August 2012 issue of JerseyMan; you can view the PDF from the magazine here.
The Old Ball Game
After 20 years, the South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League is stronger than ever.
On a picture-perfect Sunday morning at Doc Cramer Field in Manahawkin, the Hammonton Black Sox are playing hooky from church to play baseball, in a time-honored tradition that a Benevolent Supreme Being isn’t likely to mind.
With his team shorthanded, manager Mike Dunleavy must take the field and has enough to keep him busy, so he lets this observer keep score in their game against the Ocean Pirates. At one point a Sox player slaps a weak chop that travels about ten feet but successfully moves the runner on first over to second. There is a dispute over whether it counts as a sacrifice. “You’d be surprised at how much these guys look at their stats,” Dunleavy tells a writer who, as a former softball player, is sure he wouldn’t be surprised at all.
The team has several batters hitting over .400, but they’ve managed little offense in this game. “Junkballers,” the manager says, of his hitters’ performance against the Pirates’ Jeff Martin. “We always have trouble with them.”
In the bottom of the ninth, he calls a conference on the mound with his pitcher Tom King, to figure out how to pitch the Pirates’ Eddie Titley with a runner on second and the game tied. Over King’s objections, Dunleavy orders Titley to be put on intentionally. King, who has pitched a fine game, walks the next two batters, and the Pirates take a 3-2 victory over the Black Sox with two runs in the ninth. Despite its painful obviousness, the manager feels compelled to point it out: “Tough loss.”
Following the game there is a brief shouting match in the dugout between Dunleavy and King over the decision to walk Titley, which is fairly quickly smoothed over. It’s not a contract year, after all.
“From eight to eighty, the game is the same,” Dunleavy says. “It’s still about pitching and defense. There’s nothing I can tell these guys that they don’t already know.”
And so it goes in the senior fast pitch baseball world.
Dunleavy has managed Hammonton’s team in the 45+ American Division for seven years. When his team is shorthanded he will take the field, and occasionally he takes the mound to pitch. At his advanced age, he isn’t stealing bases or hitting bombs or overpowering hitters, but like most pitchers he can still pitch a successful game if he keeps the ball down. The Pirates, he says, are their friendly arch rivals—the Black Sox had lost to them two years before in the championship game, and had beaten them last year for the championship. It’s not Yankees-Red Sox, but it still fires up both teams.
On July 15 of this year, the South Jersey Men’s Senior Baseball League celebrated its 20th anniversary at Campbell’s Field in Camden. In a brief on-field ceremony, league president Lou Marshall and vice president Neil Hourahan presented league founder Bill Curzie with a plaque, as a thank you for being the indefatigable spark for the SJMSBL and a key ingredient of the glue that has held the league together for 20 years. Whether it is attributable to the league’s success is not certain, but Curzie does not appear to have aged at all in two decades, and at 77 still looks fit enough to play two.
In 1992, at the age of 57, Curzie met up with players of a Pennsylvania division of the MSBL, and asked about setting up a fast pitch baseball league in South Jersey, which had none at the time. National league president Steve Sigler enthusiastically gave Curzie permission, and off he went.
With the help of a story in the Burlington County Times—that began with the words “Curzie is serious”—Curzie spread the word quickly. It turned out that South Jersey was heavily populated with thirty-, forty-, fifty- and even sixty-somethings who still wanted to play ball—and didn’t mind faster pitches or nine innings, the way the game was meant to be played. In less time than it takes a superstar free agent to say “it’s not about the money”, there were enough players for four teams, and the league began with six.
With the help of Curzie’s equally dedicated assistant commissioner Gary Brown, the SJMSBL kept growing, and is now the second largest senior fast pitch league in the nation, with over 1,200 players in four age brackets. There’s been a 25% growth in the 18-year-old group, which bodes well for the long term health of the league. They are adding a 55+ division next season.
Curzie shares the story of his standing firm on the league moving to wooden bats, after the national disgrace of aluminum bats had been the norm for some years in nearly every league. Today, most fast pitch leagues are back to using wooden bats, and Curzie humbly accepts some of the credit for that. When asked the ridiculous question of why wooden bats over aluminum, he has a simple response: “It’s just baseball, man!” He does elaborate further, though. With the reflexes of players at this age, aluminum bats are more dangerous, and besides, there are too many cheap hits with aluminum.
Today Marshall and Hourahan now handle the running of the league. The list of administrative tasks is long. In the beginning of the season, Marshall must be in continuous contact with the national headquarters of the MSBL, ensure that fees are collected, manage schedule changes, work with the umpires’ organization, deal with the inevitable problems that teams will have with the schedule, and arrange the All-Star weekend in Camden.
It’s a lot of work maintaining the league and playing on top of it—a full time job, Marshall admits. It’s all worth it, of course. He echoes the sentiment of the players on the field: “you feel like you’re eight again.”
There aren’t hot dogs, exploding scoreboards or the roar of the crowds. You won’t see players at the level of Andrew McCutchen or Mark Teixeira here. But you might appreciate, as these fellows do, how difficult it really is to throw out a baserunner attempting to steal or to turn a double play. Dunleavy says, “Hunter Pence can throw out a guy at third base. We would need a couple of extra throws to get the ball there.”
Perhaps, but that’s an exaggeration that doesn’t give credit to the skills many of these fellows have.
They wear uniforms and cleats. They steal bases. They take advantage of fundamental mistakes. They throw the ball around the horn after a strikeout. They use leg braces and pine tar. Balks and infield flies are called. There are rundowns, pickoffs, and lots of spitting. There is pressure to win, real trophies, and real statistics displayed online that people from here to Cambodia can see.
Some players even look for that little bit of rule-bending edge. Marshall tells the story of a pitcher loading a ball with tobacco juice and snot; eventually he even bought a container of K-Y at the store with his wife present—assuring her it was for his “other slider”.
Being an umpire, which pays in the neighborhood of $80 a game, is just as thankless a job as it is at any level of baseball. Players gripe about calls throughout the game, which the ump, who wants to appear professional just as the players do, mostly takes in stride. Between innings an umpire shares stories about rare times where he’s ejected players. One involved a thrown bat making a loud clang; another involved foul language directed at him. But most times, he says, if he’s got to be out in the heat, then so do they.
The SJMSBL is a haven for men refusing to age—who desire to compete on the highest level they can, relive the playing days of their youth, and many times to do both.
Anyone can sign up and play. It’s a time commitment; players give up a day of their week, in this case a Sunday morning. They’ll need legs too; they’re going to be running the full 90 feet between the bases. Some of them will get hurt in battle; many of the Black Sox’s best are currently on the DL. During the interview, Marshall—who still plays while running the league—shows me elbow scabs from sliding.
Never once does it occur to any of them that none of the games will be on television, that they won’t be driving a Porsche with their contract, or that it’s highly unlikely anyone besides an insurance company will ask for their signature. They are playing a boy’s game again, and loving every second of it. Who wouldn’t leave it all on the field?
Dunleavy remarks: “I have seen in the faces of the older guys what men’s senior baseball has done for their spirit. They never thought that they would ever get the chance to actually suit up and play competitively again.”
From eight to eighty, the love of the game is the same too.
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.
I have tried many soft pretzels, and none compare to the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson NJ, a former staple of the long-departed Pennsauken Mart. I interviewed the founder’s son for a JerseyMan blog post, but it’s now published here…
Soft Pretzel Excellence
If you’re as old as I am and you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Pennsauken, you remember the Pennsauken Mart. And the soft pretzels.
It wasn’t a bad place to get inexpensive clothes, stereo equipment, gifts that you’d never want for yourself, etc. The prices could be pretty nice and I did a lot of Christmas shopping there. Oh, and there was that head shop, too…but I don’t remember much about that…
It wasn’t exactly a pleasant or unique place. It was dingy, overly crowded, and you had to root through a lot of stuff to find anything decent. It was kind of like what an eBay store might look like, if such a thing exists.
The place had one monster thing going for it, though. Soft pretzels.
Whenever I visited the Mart, I had two things in mind…finding something cheap and having a soft pretzel. And definitely not in that order. The pretzels were always worth the trip, the crowds and the depressing atmosphere.
There was always a line for them. While you waited you’d look at the pricing board or the newspaper stories proclaiming their greatness, decided how many you were going to get, and whether you’d deal with the salt or not.
Or you could just watch the pretzels being made…dough rolling out of the machine, experienced fingers flipping the dough into pretzel shape in mere nanoseconds, lightly browned pretzels coming out of the oven.
Once you bought your pretzels (no one ever just got one), there were two choices of mustard, one so super-hot it could sear the back of your brain. (That one was always my choice.) For some reason they never had napkins. Many times I wiped mustard off my face with the wax paper the pretzel came in.
One day, inexplicably, the soft pretzel shop closed. It seemed temporary…there was writing on the glass window that said “Closed due to illness”. But when the pretzel shop didn’t return for several months (I don’t remember the exact length of time, but I know I made many disappointing trips), soon there weren’t enough compelling reasons to visit the Mart anymore.
And not much later, the Pennsauken Mart, that staple of my youth, would be gone.
In the years since I have always believed that it was the closing of the pretzel bakery that caused the Mart’s demise. It was a brutally easy connection to make for anyone who was familiar with the place. It turns out I wasn’t quite right about that.
In a visit to the Mart Pretzel Bakery, I learned the whole story from Shaughn, the son of the owner. The Mart’s fate was already sealed before his father’s illness…it had been bought out through eminent domain. The illness was actually Shaughn’s father having a heart attack; a malady Shaughn believed resulted at least partly from the possibility of his longtime, popular business being shut down.
Indeed, it was a bummer for everyone—until the Mart Pretzel Bakery re-opened in a strip mall in Cinnaminson, and longtime patrons breathed a sigh of relief. No one misses the Mart too much now. (Well, I don’t, anyway. I can’t speak for fans of the head shop.)
Not much has changed…except for a better selection of pretzels, including pretzel dogs, those “everything” pretzels that seem healthy, and the truly off the hook cinnamon sugar pretzels. You can still get a spicy or a very hot mustard. The hot mustard isn’t as blazing as the old one was, but that’s probably not a bad thing. And okay, they’re a tad more expensive. It’s not 1990 anymore after all.
The old sign with the pricing is still there, as is the sign that hung up outside the store in the Mart, which is a nostalgic thing for former Mart patrons. But the lines aren’t long anymore…the Mart Pretzel Bakery is built to handle the demand.
Mart pretzels are still always worth the trip, even if I’m no longer looking for a pair of pants that I can afford. And if you think I’m just waxing nostalgic, check out the Yelp reviews.
In the midst of the pandemic, I took a trip to Wildwood to check on the health of Curley’s Fries for the Summer 2020 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. You can read this article on their website, or click here to see the PDF of the magazine itself.
The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry
As the nation and the state wake up again, Curley’s Fries continues to serve its iconic, crinkle cut fries, from its two locations on the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s a sorely needed sign of Jersey Shore life beginning again.
It takes considerable strength of will, even for hardened Jersey folks, to find positives in a harsh weather day at the shore.
May 22 of this year, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, was one such day. The thick clouds effectively obscured any potential hint of sunshine. The rain, at times both spitting and heavy, became debilitating when mixed in with the stiff ocean breeze.
Despite the lack of seasonal cooperation, a hardy few were determined to get some steps on the Wildwood boards, most likely for the first time in 2020. It’s a need we natives have, especially this year, if only to have some normalcy again in what has been a monumentally difficult spring.
With an ongoing pandemic to go alongside miserable weather, there were precious few shops open on the boards, and little to help visitors feel like summer again.
Mercifully, there was one saving grace in it all…a ubiquitous French fry stand.
In this trying atmosphere, Curley’s Fries…on the otherwise uninhabited Morey’s Surfside Pier…opened its windows, as their employees showed up to serve their iconic fried potatoes to walk-up patrons for takeout. Or “takeaway”, as they called it, as if to suggest that things aren’t fully normal yet.
While the number of Wildwood visitors this day was very small, many of them…arguably most of them…still made their way to the long established fry counter.
Inside the window, save for the employees wearing masks, nothing was different. One person took orders. Another dropped baskets of chopped potatoes into a fryer and then dumped the finished ones into a tray. Another generously salted them and then scooped piles of fries into buckets for hungry patrons. Unremarkable and repetitive skills all, probably, but it’s an admirable bit of teamwork.
Most gratefully, even as Morey’s has temporarily laid off 80% of their staff, there has been zero decline in the quality of the fries.
They’re still piping hot when served, enough that some will tolerate the seared mouth flesh rather than spend an agonizing few minutes waiting to indulge. The fries have just enough of a crispy crunch on the outside and almost mashed potato level softness on the inside. They’re thick and crinkle-cut, with the skin still attached as required by unwritten boardwalk rules.
All with just enough sea salt for distinctive flavor, and available with multiple rotating dipping sauces, from Horseradish Cream to Old Bay Mayo among others. Along with the old constants of cheese sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, and ketchup.
And anytime some annoying health nut gives you grief about your love for deep fried potato perfection, you can inform them that Curley’s fries are vegan and gluten-free. That’ll shut ‘em up.
If you’re waiting with a friend at Curley’s for a bucket or the larger “barrel” of fries, you can have them hold your place in line and go read the story behind the most iconic fry stand on the Jersey Shore. It’s featured on a sign on the side of the building, but here’s a summed up version:
Yes, there was a Curley, so nicknamed for his curly hair. His full name was Joe “Curley” Marchiano, and he was both an army veteran and a linebacker at Miami University. Curley grew up spending his summers in Coney Island, where his father worked at the Surf Avenue Nathan’s. Indeed, Curley’s fries are similar to Nathan’s in size and structure.
After some years as a concessions manager in other resort towns, in 1978 Marchiano joined up with fried chicken vendor Dick Marchant at Morey’s Surfside Pier. Curley’s part of the deal was fried dough, lemonade shake-ups, and his own brand of French fries. (Incidentally, Curley’s lemonade is no slouch either.)
Almost immediately, it became clear that patrons came for the fries, and the stand was soon renamed for Curley, in a rare recognition of genius.
As the board telling the story notes, there isn’t any real secret to the greatness of Curley’s fries…it reveals right there that Curley used potato cutters from Germany, and cooked them in peanut oil. Maybe the potato cutters are really difficult to find or something, but there’s no more to it than that.
Marchiano passed in 2000; twenty years later, his recipe of fried potato greatness lives on…even on a windy and wet day on the Wildwood boards, in the midst of a pandemic and a crippled economy.
Sometimes success is simple. Get a German potato cutter, find a peanut oil supplier, and fry and sell sliced spuds at the beach.
How much of a foodie staple is Curley’s? All you need to know is the reaction to a gag the Morey’s folks pulled a year ago. Most people well know that on April 1, they should have their antenna up for pranks. But Curley’s fans were taking no chances.
On March 31, 2019, Morey’s released a press statement announcing the retirement of Curley’s two locations, to be replaced by vegan stands called “Greenery’s”. Greenery’s would be offering kale chips, roasted chickpeas, and other healthy greens that no one actually likes. In an age where every institution from baseball to politics seems to care only about targeting “millennials”, it was actually a well-crafted April Fool’s joke.
The reaction was swift and severe. NJ.com, which had listed Curley’s fries among their “64 Most Iconic Jersey Foods” just two weeks earlier, reported that the accompanying Facebook post had 4,000 comments the next day:
“I go to the boardwalk just to eat Kale chips!! Said no one ever….”
“Kale chips? Who the F$&k wants kale chips? The one thing U looked forward to is now gone! New Jersey becoming the East Coast California!”
“I legit cried. Stupidest decision ever. This place is a Wildwood trademark…. Huge mistake.”
Even Curley’s subsequent “April Fools!” reveal on Facebook provoked an agitated response:
“Glad to hear that it was all a joke BUT…that was not nice to do, especially the day before April Fool’s day!”
“Threatening to take away my Curley’s Fries is no laughing matter!!”
“Not funny at all.”
You can still find the original “Greenery’s” press release on Morey’s website, (www.moreyspiers.com). Its politically correct tone is priceless. Here’s this writer’s favorite pull quote: “For the last fifty years Morey’s Piers has been growing and re-inventing itself to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace.”
Most businesses take themselves too seriously. Thankfully Morey’s isn’t one of them. But yes, that was a tense moment. Forsaking Curley’s Fries for kale chips probably would have caused a justifiable outrage.
Much has been said and written about heroes on the front lines in recent months. First responders, doctors and nurses in hospitals, nursing home attendants…even supermarket employees, who had suddenly found themselves in a high risk occupation.
All of the accolades and appreciation, and accompanying hazard pay, is well-deserved. Yet when a flu virus not only causes double the death count as a typical flu season, but also devastates an economy, sometimes what we need more than anything else is to see something normal again.
As ruffled as South Jersey became at a mere joke suggesting Curley’s fries would be replaced in 2019, in 2020 we’re grateful for anything we love sticking around. When there isn’t even any baseball, things can seem especially bleak. Suddenly, the availability of world class French fries at the beach is appreciably more meaningful.
The celebrated Jersey Shore fixture that is Curley’s is still alive. The two-story fry-shaped signs still standing on the boardwalk, an iconic food stand remaining open on the most miserable of May days, is one anchor of hope that on the other side of all of this, our favorite institutions will still be here.
Curley’s 1, Covid 0.
It’s never easy, especially when one is on vacation, to get out of bed early enough to see a sunrise on the beach. But some things are worth fighting sleep to witness.
I try to make a point to see at least one sunrise each time we go to Wildwood. It’s a special thing to me to walk on the white sand in near darkness to see the day begin, as difficult as it can be to pull myself from under the covers after an evening of boardwalking and ice cream.
Generally the sun emerges from the horizon somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 AM, depending on the time of year. Before the sun comes up, the beach is quiet and often cool, possibly requiring a jacket or long pants. Gulls are plentiful in search of bird sustenance, making tiny claw prints along the wet surface near the water, occasionally speeding up their pace away from cold waves that no doubt surprise them.
The Wildwood beach is uncharacteristically almost devoid of humans at this time of day, but it’s not quite deserted. Every square quarter mile or so of beach has one or two folks there to see the sunrise too. Joggers looking for the runner’s high without the sunburn eschew their mattresses to stomp on the walkways near the beach. It’s a good time to take a four-legged friend for a walk on nearby paths, as some do.
Often there will be a hardy fisherman, pants rolled up and feet in what must be extremely cold water. I’ve often wondered what sort of marine life they manage to hook when there aren’t legs everywhere scaring fish away. Or if maybe the fisherman doesn’t care what he catches, and that the important thing to him is just to channel his inner Hemingway.
Because of the shape of the island, the sun doesn’t appear directly in front of the beach. The island curves to the south and west, so facing the water, the sun appears on the left. Coming from the boardwalk, the farther north on the beach one goes, the better the view.
Just before God’s lamp shows itself on the horizon, you can see the day becoming gradually brighter. Even better, if there are a few clouds just above the horizon where the sun is, the bottom edges of them will be brilliantly lit, as if they were a warm-up act for the incredible show. The cloud edges become increasingly brighter, and then suddenly, the center of our solar system pops up.
For the bright round fireball to be completely above the horizon and in its full glory reflecting on the water takes just seconds, in stark contrast to the sun’s apparent stillness any other time we grab a look to gauge its location.
It’s awe-inspiring and humbling at the same time, and gives one a saddening sense of how quickly this day will be a memory. But somehow, its regularity and orderliness is comforting, too, as if to say that there will always be a new day, a new opportunity, a chance to make the future better.
Wildwood is known for crowded beaches, crowded boardwalks, noisy amusements and a recorded voice repeatedly clearing the way for the iconic tram car.
Yet in the midst all of that, it provides some of its most memorable, spectacular moments in the quiet solitude of a sunrise on the beach.