Fifty years is a very long time. In restaurant time, an eternity. That is probably why so few restaurants get the chance to celebrate 50 years in business like the Original Hot Spot on the Wildwood Boardwalk.
Haroula Karavangelos Rotondi, 37, is the owner of Original Hot Spot, along with her father, Harry Karavangelos, 74. With 68 seasonal employees, Rotondi does the ordering, the hiring, works behind the line and is the expeditor. Rotondi also does the business end of the restaurant.
"Chef (Gordon) Ramsey has nothing on me," Rotondi says. "I would rock him."
The Original Hot Spot is famous for Greek cuisine such as gyros and Greek salads, but also for Italian specialties such as pizza, fried seafood dinners and char-broiled steaks.
Some favorites include linguini ($9.95), veal cutlet ($15.95) and eggplant parmigiana ($13.95).
The breakfast menu offers a Greek feta cheese omelet along with all of the usual items from french toast to pancakes.
Early morning Boardwalk bicyclists stop by for the "build your own" breakfast sandwich ($4.95) with eggs and a choice of meat and cheese. Another favorite, the sunrise special ($7.95), includes two hotcakes, two eggs any style, and ham, sausage or bacon.
It was the elder Karavangelos who started it all, arriving from Greece at the age of 16 with $6 in his pocket and a dream.
Speaking no English, he would walk the Boardwalk with a toolbox offering to repair anything that needed it.
"He could fix anything," Rotondi says.
Working odd jobs, he eventually saved enough to buy the place that would be the first Hot Spot.
With only a few seats outside and 10 booths inside, Karavangelos worked around the clock, opening 24 hours a day, napping only as needed. When he made enough money, he gutted the building and began the first of many expansions.
In 1981, the entire Boardwalk block was razed by a fire. Karavangelos, now also a builder, rebuilt the whole block for cost, ensuring that he would always have a place for the Hot Spot.
Five years later, Hot Spot II opened in North Wildwood. Two years later, the Hot Spot III opened near Wildwood Crest.
"He would buy, build, sell and it all stayed in the family," Rotondi says.
There are seven total Hot Spots on the island. Six are on the Boardwalk and all of them have different names. Karavangelos built, opened and ran each and every one.
Karavangelos later branched them off to family members including Rotondi, her sister and their cousins, although Karavangelos still owns the rights to the name Hot Spot.
As Karavangelos' nieces and nephews left Greece for an opportunity in America, they would work for their uncle and eventually buy the business from him.
Rotondi, as the youngest daughter, is now a partner with her dad in the first restaurant that would become a large franchise.
Appetizer samplers at Original Hot Spot include the combo ($9.95) with chicken wings, chicken fingers and fried mozzarella sticks, or the family combo ($16.95) that also includes clam strips and jalapeno poppers.
Seafood platters are a Jersey Shore tradition. A homemade seafood combination ($18.95) includes flounder, shrimp, scallops and deviled crab served with salad, french fries, cole slaw, rolls and butter.
Shrimp in the basket ($11.95) comes with the same sides as the combo.
Thanks to Rotondi's husband, Joe, who also came from a local three-restaurant family, The Original Hot Spot also specializes in pizza of all types.
White pizza ($14.95), Hawaiian pizza ($17.95), Greek pizza ($19.95) and Buffalo chicken pizza ($19.95) are just some of the combinations available. The Original Hot Spot also makes a Sicilian pizza ($21.95) made with an assortment of toppings.
A children's menu includes all the classics such as ravioli, chicken fingers, meatball sandwich and grilled cheese for $5.95 each.
Rotondi is the first to say the restaurant looks nothing like it did 50 years ago; everything has been refurbished.
"When people come in they are like, 'Oh my God!'" Rotondi says.
Customers - many who have been coming for years - will often ask about the old man who used to sit at the register; that was Rotondi's dad.
Others remember Rotondi's mom, Anastasia, being pregnant with her. Now, Rotondi's daughter, 9, helps seat people as a hostess.
For Rotondi, their success is not just being a family operation that serves great food.
"The place has an amazing reputation. We are here every day, all day long," Rotondi says. "No matter what, one of us is always here."
With no manager, front or back of the house, Rotondi and her husband are clearly in charge.
"I like to be here, I like to see what is going out," Rotondi says.
That doesn't mean they don't treat their employees like family, too. The chef has been with the restaurant for 29 years. Now, three of the his children work for the Karavangelos.
One waitress has worked there for 36 years, another restaurant milestone that does not happen very often.
Customers, too, tend to be loyal to the Original Hot Spot.
People come to Wildwood for vacation for weeks at a time and they don't eat anywhere else.
Thirty people from three families might come in for dinner together, "and they know exactly where they want to sit," Rotondi says.
At the Original Hot Spot, the percentage of the clientele who return for a second and third meal is amazingly high.
"We take pride in what we do; it's not just an income," Rotondi says. "It's a big part of my life."
Original Hot Spot
WHERE: 3417 Boardwalk, Wildwood
WHEN: Open 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Open from Palm Sunday until Nov. 1. Hours change in offseason.
HOW MUCH: Appetizers $7 to $14.99, sandwiches $8 to $10, pizza $14.95 to $22.95, entrees $17.95 to $21.95
SERVICES: Most major credit cards. Private functions include church groups and birthday parties. Breakfast buffet $10.95, kids under five eat free. Kids menu also available. Seating: 395 people, with ocean views. In-person takeout orders. No off-premise catering.
MORE INFO: 609-522-4500 and Facebook
BETWEEN YOU AND ME: A specialty of the house, Greek gyros, were not sold on the Wildwood Boardwalk until Harry Karavangelos introduced them. Weekly dinner specials run Mondays to Thursdays: Monday, chicken tenders with mashed potatoes; Tuesday, fried flounder; Wednesday, seafood diablo; Thursday, chicken shish kabobs.