Staff Writer

One by one the stores, restaurants and businesses in Hurricane Sandy-damaged shore towns have begun to reopen.

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But one business in particular remains closed in spots up and down the shore — much to the annoyance of locals.

“One of the big questions I get is ‘When is Wawa going to open?’” Margate Mayor Mike Becker said. “And as a Wawa regular, I miss it.”

The Wawas in South Jersey towns have long been busy centers of activity around the clock. But since the storm, Wawa stores in Margate, Avalon, Ocean City and Long Beach Island have remained closed, even as everyday life starts to return to normal around them.

The store on Ventnor Avenue in Margate — which was flooded with several feet of water during the storm — sits behind a chain-link fence, with rubble from the torn-up parking lot lying next to the entranceway.

The effect on local businesses, however, is not what some might expect. Many people aren’t working around the closings by buying coffee and cigarettes somewhere else in the neighborhood — they’re just going to another neighborhood entirely.

Often, said Jonuzi’s Pizza owner, they’re going to another, open Wawa.

“In a way, if you look at this, it’s hurting business,” Jonuzi said at his Margate store, one block from the closed Wawa. “People got their coffee (there) and then shopped locally. … Let’s say they’re getting a box of coffee, and they say, ‘You know what? Let me get a pizza at Jonuzi’s, or a sub at Dino’s.”

Now, he said, “They’re traveling all the way to Ventnor” — where two Wawas are open — “and they get their coffee and their cigarettes, and they do all their shopping over there. They’re not spending money around here.”

It’s the coffee that many people really miss, Jonuzi’s employee Josh Goldsmith said.

“I can’t tell you how many people we get here asking, ‘Have any coffee? Have any coffee?’” Goldsmith said.

At a store that does sell coffee, Hot Bagels, which reopened only two weeks ago, employee Lisa Currie agreed with Jonuzi.

“People do think we have more business because the Wawa is closed, but not really,” Currie said. “There is an increase in coffee somewhat” — especially, she said, among the construction workers working on the Wawa.

In Ocean City, meanwhile, it apparently helps to have coffee as a specialty. At the Ocean City Coffee Co. on Asbury Avenue, not far from the closed West Avenue Wawa, “I definitely think all the people who used to go to the Wawa are stopping here,” barista Elizabeth Kilcourse said.

Will it last?

“I think we’ll get some loyal customers out of it,” she said.

That’s also the hope of Margate C.J.’s News & Variety store owner Ashok Patel.

“Our business has definitely increased,” Patel said. “People buy cigarettes, they buy candies, they buy sodas. And some people didn’t know we have lottery tickets, and now they know. … Maybe we’ll get 10 to 15 percent of that (when Wawa reopens).

As for that, there’s still a while to go. Wawa has announced the reopening dates for several closed stores — and the earliest date for this area is the last day in February, when the Ocean City store on West Avenue is set to reopen. The other stores are all scheduled to reopen in early to mid-March.

“A cross functional team at Wawa has been working to get the Hurricane Sandy-impacted stores up and running as soon as possible,” vice president of store operations Sal Mettera said in a statement.

Part of the delay, apparently, was a plan to use the closings as an opportunity to add new features to the stores “to improve the experience even more for our customers,” spokeswoman Lori Bruce said.

The stores will include new food service layouts including “built-to-order milk shakes and in-store roll baking ovens,” as well as new cabinets and refrigerator cases.

“We know our customers count on us, and we are so grateful for the patience they’ve shown thus far,” Mettera said. “We wanted to ensure that we were able to take the time to enhance our customers’ experience at these stores.”

Heritage Surf & Sport employee Matt Marino said he was surprised at how long reopening the Wawa was taking, adding that when they make adjustments to the floor plan for the summer season, it takes less than 48 hours.

“It’s a bummer,” Marino said. “Especially since I’ve been working here the last four years, and I was able to go to Wawa for whatever I want, when I want. … I guess we’ve been spoiled. I could get lunch real fast at the Wawa, and go to the CVS for supplies.”

The CVS stores in Margate and Ventnor, meanwhile — the only CVS stores that remain closed after Sandy in New Jersey — are planning to reopen in February, spokesman Michael DeAngelis said.

A trailer has been set up outside the Margate location to allow customers to pick up prescriptions. The company has also made donations to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, just as Wawa will do every time a store reopens.

Still, said Leroy Owens, a Pleasantville resident who works in Margate, “They could have done that right away,” he said of the Wawa renovations and new features. “They’re a big corporation. And they need to raise the damn thing. It’s flat right to the inside, and whenever you get a little bit of water here, you can’t get to the place.”

But even with his criticisms, it’s not like he’s going to stay away.

“It’s a beautiful thing in the morning,” Owens said with a smile. “Got to have that coffee.”

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