CAPE MAY — Steve Steger grabbed a navy-blue umbrella from the stack, hoisted it over his tan shoulder and trotted through the soft sand at Stockton Beach last week.
Fellow beachgoers hopped in pain while trying to get from the Promenade to the water’s edge. Steger, the 59-year-old owner of Steger’s Beach Service, didn’t seem to be bothered by the scorching sand, perhaps because the soles of his feet have grown used to it over the years.
“I’ve been doing this for a while,” he said with a laugh. “Ever since I was a little kid.”
About 50 yards away, he met the husband and wife who had paid $13 for the use of an umbrella for the day. Steger opened it, jabbed the pointed end into the sand, and rocked it back and forth until it was stable. With one final movement, he tilted it slightly toward the breeze that was coming off the ocean.
It’s the way Steger’s employees have been taught to install an umbrella for decades, since the late Steven “Coach” Steger — Steve’s grandfather — started the business in 1933.
“We still have a day where we teach everyone how to do things,” Steve said. “How to put in an umbrella, how to talk to customers. We have a way of doing things that has worked for a long time.”
Steve and his eldest son, Steven, 27 and vice president of the company, have a staff of 15 beach stand attendants this summer who work at 11 stands from First Avenue to Trenton Avenue, a span of almost two miles.
They range in age from 14 to their mid 20s. They get paid a decent wage, but make most of their money on tips from setting up umbrellas, chairs and blue-and-white striped cabanas. Everyone gets two free drinks a day and a half-hour for lunch.
The older attendants have been spending their summers at Steger’s for at least five years, mainly because of the work environment.
One former employee, Joe Rossi, recently retired after 42 years.
“I’ve been doing this since I was 14,” Kevin Flad, 21, said from his post at Stockton Beach.
The Stockton Beach stand, officially located on Ocean Avenue, was the original location. Coach Steger was said to have bought both the stand and the bathhouses across the street from the Shields family in the early 1930s.
“I think Coach was a lifeguard for a while, but then saw the beach service as an opportunity,” Steve Steger said. “Because he was a teacher (and coach at the former Cape May High School), he wanted something to do in the summers.”
Over the years, he expanded it to 15 stands that rented canvas rafts for 50 cents an hour, in addition to umbrellas, chairs, tents and boxes. Sodas — Coca-Cola, 7-Up, Tab and Fresca were the popular brands — were sold for 50 cents.
Steve’s father, the late Robert Steger, ran the store on Beach Avenue that sold suntan lotion, Birdwell Beach Britches and other beach necessities after it opened in the 1960s.
Coach died in 1990, followed by Robert in 2007. The store has since closed, replaced by a string of shops that include South End Surf Shop and Coffee Tyme.
The beach service has changed over the years. Each stand now rents three boogie boards instead of a dozen rafts. A few years back, some of the bigger hotels decided to feature their own beach service. Steger’s developed a partnership with some of the other hotels and even a few rental homes to supply beach equipment for their clientele.
But every office still has an ocean view.
“I’ve thought about working at other places, but why should I?” Flad said. “This is the perfect summer job.”