For 41 years, no storm like Hurricane Sandy had touched Essl’s Dugout, a small breakfast-and-lunch place on the Black Horse Pike in West Atlantic City.
Sandy, however, changed things for Essl’s, a place that features vinyl booths, wood panels and autographed 30-year-old photos of baseball stars.
But on Friday, Essl’s reopened after being temporarily closed because of the storm.
Owners Sharon and Bob Essl closed their doors Sunday, boarded up the windows and rode out the storm at home in Absecon. When they finally returned Wednesday, peering through fogged-up windows, they were shocked.
Two-foot-high floodwaters had soaked everything, destroying, among other things, a large refrigerator and ruining about $1,000 worth of food, said Bob Essl, 65.
A trash bin ended up in the middle of the Black Horse Pike, later pulled out of the way by fire crews.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I couldn’t believe this. Forty-one years, we’ve never seen anything like this.”
“In 40 years, we never had a drop of water in here,” added Sharon Essl, 65. “Not one.”
The wooden planks behind the counter floated about the restaurant, as did the booths.
Instead of mourning, they got to work, with the crucial help of friends from Absecon.
“We just had so much help from our friends,” Sharon said, naming the Clarks, Wenners, Coopers, Tree McCann and Tim Johnston.
They cleaned, they scrubbed and they bleached.
The Essls pulled the stove apart and cleaned everything. They threw away contaminated food and supplies, and late Thursday health inspectors cleared them to start serving food.
Customers came knocking while they cleaned to get their signature sandwich, the “messl”: egg, cheese and breakfast meat on a Kaiser roll.
Ward Holland was the first to be served. Holland, 69, a Margate resident who hadn’t evacuated, said he usually comes for cereal about 350 days a year. But hungry on Friday, he had pancakes, bacon, coffee and juice.
He thanked the Essls, paid his bill and walked out the door.
And with Kool & The Gang ‘s “Celebration” playing on a tiny radio in the background, Sharon Essl said, “It was just people helping the people — that is what helped us get back in business.”
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