SEA ISLE CITY — When Busch’s Seafood opens in less than two weeks for Mother’s Day weekend, the busiest time in the restaurant industry, there won’t be any large parties in the sprawling complex’s many dining rooms.
After 132 years as a seashore institution, Busch’s is scaling back.
Instead of a colossal menu, the business will offer a selection of its favorites for takeout, including the she-crab soup that has served as its top attraction for more than a century, and a bar and package goods store.
“We’re the last one standing,” said Al Schettig, whose wife, Kim, is a fifth-generation member of the family to operate the seasonal establishment at 87th Street and Landis Avenue. “It’s economically not feasible to run a 450-seat restaurant for 90 days.”
An anchor in the community since 1882, Busch’s consists of a block-long main building, a separate structure that houses the kitchen, and parking lots around its periphery. The age and condition of the restaurant; the unlikelihood the Schettigs’ sons would become sixth-generation owners; and a shrinking labor pool — that in the past 10 years relied heavily on foreign students and the occasional menial laborer on prison work release — made it impossible for the enterprise to continue as it always had.
“In today’s world, all the demographics say a 150-seat restaurant would be ideal,” Schettig said, sitting in an office surrounded by pinned-up photographs of his sons, Tyler, 21, and Logan, 17, in their younger years. “With 150 seats, you could just run a bar and close it down to 50 seats for December for the Christmas season, expanding and contracting to accommodate the seasons and the customers.
“This is not that kind of place. This is the kind of place where everything that happens costs $5,000.”
“We thought we were going to lose the whole thing,” said Mike Stafford, the 84-year-old president of the city’s Historical Museum. “I’m thrilled to know the family is still going to be involved. If you had to pick one item of theirs to mention, their she-crab soup would be it.”
An album of Busch/Phillips family documents contains photographs, newspaper clippings and an undated Busch’s menu featuring slices of fruit pie for 30 cents and after-dinner cocktails, such as Grasshoppers and Stingers, for 90 cents each. Prices in 2010, the year the family produced a CD titled “Busch’s Famous Seafood, The First 128 Years,” were considerably higher, with she-crab soup costing $6.95 and a signature crab cake $27.75.
In fact, price is the reason Stafford said he was never a regular at Busch’s. “It was too expensive,” he said, “although I ate there many times.”
“When we heard they were closing, we flocked there,” said Katherine Custer, director of community services for the city. “We wanted to get as much as possible for fear of not having their food again.”
While that fear has been allayed for another season, Custer does see the tradition of dressing to go to dinner becoming a relic of the past as Busch’s shutters its dining rooms.
“The charm of the old seashore lived on in places like Busch’s,” she said.
Busch’s has been the subject of talk for the past four years, as one sale fell through and then another sales proposal entered protracted negotiations.
“It’s on, it’s off, it’s on, it’s off,” Schettig said of the sales status of the properties, which are assessed at $3 million. “Once we thought, ‘This is the last year’ but it fizzled when the buyer couldn’t obtain financing. We kept going, continuing to operate until we couldn’t do it anymore.”
Schettig said a development company that has “courted” his family for several years plans to raze the buildings and replace the restaurant with condominiums.
“Negotiations will continue while we operate a downsize version,” Schettig said. “Even if we hadn’t gotten an offer, we’d probably be doing the same thing.”
With 90 percent of Busch’s revenue historically realized during July and August, and the Townsends Inlet Bridge at the south end of Sea Isle closed last year due to damage from Hurricane Sandy, Schettig called such an undertaking “a career destined for failure.”
The leaner version of Busch’s will be staffed with 10 employees this summer instead of 100, and one of them has to be Schettig, keeper of the secret she-crab soup recipe.
“The she-crab soup has only been made by three people, and two of them are dead,” Schettig said.
He keeps the she-crab soup spoon in his office, and guards it almost as carefully as the soup recipe. “This spoon was passed on by Vincent Barbieri, who worked at Busch’s his whole life, and then David Christopherson who worked here for 42 years,” Schettig said. “He gave the spoon to me.
“I actually use the spoon to measure the dry ingredients, or it doesn’t have the magic.”
Schettig only would divulge it is a roux-based soup made in small batches.
“Lots of small batches,” he said, which together produce 50 to 80 gallons at a time.
The end of Busch’s will not mean the end of the soup, Schettig said. He and his family hope someday to open a takeout seafood market featuring favorites from the restaurant, including, of course, their famous soup.
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