LOWER TOWNSHIP - South Jersey Marina was still cleaning up after a devastating fire Aug. 18 when its stores, offices and restaurant were flooded by Hurricane Sandy.
Owner Rick Weber, of Lower Township, decided to make major changes to the infrastructure, the services offered and even the business strategy.
Weber grew up on Cape May Harbor in the business his father, Dick Weber, bought in 1980. He took over from his father last year.
"I've worked nowhere else," he said.
Last summer, the marina was getting ready for its biggest event, the Mid-Atlantic $500,000 fishing tournament, when the fire gutted the property.
Nobody was hurt, but Manager Mark Allen, of Cape May, said nobody could have picked a worse day on the calendar for such a disaster to strike the company.
"We were as well stocked as we are any time of the year. The next day was the big day," he said.
The company managed to pull off the tournament despite having its operations upended by the blaze.
"Everyone had to work harder," Allen said.
Two months later, Hurricane Sandy made landfall, flooding Cape May and much of the rest of coastal New Jersey.
"Flooding was the worst I've ever seen. It surpassed Gloria (in 1985)," Weber said. "I was upset we had wet wood and drywall, but the following day you find out what a real disaster looks like when you see what happened to Long Beach Island."
Weber decided to start over - gutting most of his building off Route 109 and renovating with a new restaurant, deli, ship store, bathrooms, laundry and offices.
Weber changed his business strategy as well. He opened a second store fronting Route 109, where thousands of cars stream past each day. His business welcomes boaters and nonboaters alike, he said.
"We have 1,000 feet of road frontage on the way to Cape May. So many people would wander into our store and say, 'I didn't know this was here,'" he said. "We're trying to change that."
The marina serves boaters who spend a day, a week or a season in Cape May Harbor. Many are on vacation. Some are traveling between Florida and points north. And some are taking an epic voyage called "the loop" via the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast.
Harry and Patti Connell, of Lancaster, Pa., spent a rainy afternoon doing their wash in the marina's laundry. They are spending a two-week vacation in Cape May Harbor aboard their 48-foot boat, Lucky 1.
"People can't believe we dock the boat for two weeks. But why leave? The marina has everything we need," he said.
The couple rented a car to drive to the Cape May County Park & Zoo and ride their bikes into Cape May. They see many of the same friends year after year.
"What does our customer look like? No one is more important than the other," Weber said. "I might have a transient boater who comes for one night or people who come back on vacation year after year."
The marina has 70 boat slips plus a deep-water dock for boats longer than 100 feet.
As part of the renovation, South Jersey invested in designer bathrooms featuring stone tile, granite countertops and fancy fixtures that resemble those found in luxury hotels.
The marina formerly leased its restaurant to an independent business, Dock Mike's. But after the renovation, South Jersey Marina opened and operates its own restaurant, the Saltwater Cafe, featuring breakfast and lunch menus.
The renovation allowed South Jersey Marina to add hallways connecting the gift shop and ship shop to the restaurant and offices. It was a small architectural change that reflected the company's all-in-one marketing strategy to attract more customers, Weber said. This summer they plan to add a delicatessen. Previously, each part of the business was accessed by a separate entrance.
"We want our marina guests to easily flow into the restaurant, marina store and gift shop," he said. "This hallway is a metaphor for how I want the business to run. Everything is connected."
Contact Michael Miller:
South Jersey Marina
Location: 1231 Route 109, Lower Township
Owners: Rick and Colleen Weber, of Lower Township
50 full time