Joe Romano Jr. has a simple way to explain what summer’s coming means to his business:
The same amount of ice that lasts his Sea Isle Ice Co. through three months of winter is about a three-day supply once the crowds head back to South Jersey’s shore for the local busy season.
To much of the world, one of the highlights of summer is a trip to the beach — or many trips. So to those who live in beach towns through the cold, quiet winters, that means a massive, instantaneous population explosion that tests the limits of their roads, boardwalks, bars, pizza parlors — and patience — for the three warmest months of the year.
Imagine going to bed in a sleepy town of 2,500 souls and waking up surrounded by 50,000 people — most of them strangers. That’s Sea Isle City’s standard, if unofficial, estimate of how its winter hibernation population balloons on those summer weekends when it seems that the whole world wants to pour into one little town.
“Sea Isle in the winter is the best place to be,” as Vince Powell, the co-owner of the town’s popular Basilico’s Ristorante, puts it. “When it’s summer, it’s the best place to be, too — but it’s two different towns. It’s two different realms.”
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People in every South Jersey beach town will swear that most of the world is getting off at their Garden State Parkway exit and blocking up the bridge into their town. And they all have the numbers to back up that feeling.
Ocean City goes from an off-season count of about 11,600 residents to almost 150,000 people on summer weekends, by Cape May County’s Planning Department’s figures.
The Wildwoods — that city itself, plus neighbors North, Crest and West — add up to roughly 13,000 people in winter. Come summer, that number blooms to 200,000-plus. Overall, Cape May County explodes from 95,000 year-rounders to 812,000 in summer, by that same county count.
That pattern carries into Atlantic County and beyond. Absecon Island — the towns of Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport — had almost 58,000 full-timers in the 2010 census. On summer weekends, a recent estimate had more than 200,000 people packed onto a strip of land just a few blocks wide at points.
Ocean County had no official seasonal estimates for the towns that stretch out along Long Beach Island, but the Planning Department offers a simple rule: Take the winter head count — and multiply by 10.
Some people say this happens overnight, but locals swear it’s way more sudden than that. The common description is the lightswitch: One day it’s off and then click, it’s on — full blast, with a 100-watt bulb.
On lots of local beach blocks, you can walk by whole streets one day and not see a single car parked. The next night — click, it’s Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they’re back — you go by again, and there’s not a single parking spot left.
That sudden, shocking reality leaves many beach-town veterans with a goal every weekend: They park their cars Friday night and try not to move them until Monday morning. If they have to go, they go on foot, or their bike becomes their best friend.
And that’s not just a way of protecting a precious parking space. It also keeps them from getting in the traffic jams that can take over some streets basically on a regular schedule.
In Ocean City and other Cape May County towns with huge stocks of weekly rental houses, there’s a standard tieup heading out of town about 11 a.m. every summer Saturday. Next comes an inbound jam in early afternoon —because most weekly rentals open up for the new week at 2 p.m. Saturday.
But even if variations on this invasion story play out all along the shore it’s also true that few local towns see their summer population multiply 20 times over, as Sea Isle does.
And at times, the visitors who came in all those cars are standing in lines that can stretch out the doors of businesses — doors that may well have been locked up tight for months before, when the air was cold and the beach was empty.
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At Basilico’s, in Sea Isle’s downtown, Vince Powell and his partner and brother-in-law, chef Scott Oliver, tried a radical new idea last winter. They stayed open, for the first time in 17 years.
Well, they opened Thursday to Sunday, in a town where Powell says up to 95 percent of the restaurants close up for the cold months. After that test run, here’s his rough read on how how the pizza business changes with the seasons.
“Friday night” — pizza night in many families — “is maybe 20 pizzas in January. It’s 200 on a Friday in summer.”
And in the sit-down restaurant, in the summer, “Every night is a Saturday night— whether it’s a Tuesday or a Wednesday. ... Wintertime, we’re rolling at 5 miles an hour. Summer, we’ll be getting to 180.”
Sea Isle is home to about 7,000 dwelling units, by the county’s count. And many are now duplexes, built to sleep 12, says Mayor Len Desiderio. About three-quarters of them sit empty most of the year — but definitely not in summer.
In the winter, “You know 90 percent of the people you see. You go into the Acme, the post office, a restaurant, you know everybody,” Desiderio says. “In the summertime, you’re just like another tourist.”
Not that Desiderio, who’s also a businessman, is complaining. Summer is busy, but it’s brief. And when it’s busy, the businesses that live on it love seeing those out-of-towners — even if some year-rounders hate the population invasion that turns a quiet, little town into a much bigger, much louder place. A different realm, even.
The town gets packed, especially on holidays, but basically every weekend — at least. And after a little post-Memorial Day lull before schools close for summer, it will no doubt get packed again shortly and stay that way until late August.
The number may be different, but the story is the same in most New Jersey beach towns. That’s just what happens when summer hits the shore.