Are Margate/Ventnor Now Year-Round Towns?

The Downbeach Deli and Restaurant in Margate. (Jessica Della Fave)

After its 2019 opening, the Water Dog Smoke House became a popular spot in Margate/Ventnor, with summer lines out the door and outdoor tables full.

Now, though, it’s September down the shore, so the lines aren’t as long, and the tables aren’t as full.

At the same time, according to Water Dog manager Alysa Sandler, there are still lines and outdoor diners.

By most Septembers at this Jewish capital of the Jersey shore, after Labor Day Weekend ends the summer rush, “it gets very quiet,” several rabbis and business owners said. But this September is at least a little different, Sandler said.

Even beyond the Water Dog, there are still people walking the sidewalks and frequenting businesses; and there are still some cars lining the neighborhoods.

Sandler attributes this year’s extended season to warm and sunny September weekends.

“It’s not as crazy as the summer,” Sandler said. “But it’s still really busy for the offseason.”

Ventnor City Police Chief Douglas Biagi confirmed Sandler’s perception. Biagi said that, looking out his office door on Atlantic Avenue, he could see cars in driveways that were normally empty by now.

Last year, after COVID broke out, Biagi said, summer residents escaped Philadelphia, Cherry Hill and other densely populated areas by decamping to shore houses. Almost overnight, a summer community of second homeowners became a community.

And throughout 2020, workplaces and schools stayed virtual, allowing families to stay down the shore. In a normal year, Ventnor’s population plummets from 30,000 in the summer to 10,000 in the fall, Biagi estimated.

But last year, it only dropped to about 15-20,000 by the colder months, he said. Businesses stayed open to support and take advantage of the change.

“We’ve kind of reinvented ourselves,” Biagi said. “We’re not just a summer place.”

Biagi was referring to 2020. But he still kind of feels that way in 2021. It’s just not quite as many people.

The nice weather has brought families back down during weekends. And the remote work transformation has allowed older couples and couples without kids to just stay.

In addition to seeing more cars, Biagi sees restaurants, dog groomers, bagel shops, gyms, bakeries and other businesses still open, all the way down the Ventnor/Margate strip.

“Pre-COVID, after Labor Day, you’d look down Ventnor or Atlantic Avenue, after 7 when everybody leaves, and you wouldn’t see a car from Ventnor to Margate to AC,” Biagi said.

So, is the shoobie dead? Is the typical Margate/Ventnor summer resident a year-round community member now? Not exactly.

Several business owners said their September pace, like in most years, has already slowed.

From left: Downbeach Deli owner Buddy Della Fave and assistant manager Liam Plante. (Jessica Della Fave)

Buddy Della Fave, the owner of the Downbeach Deli and Restaurant in Margate, said he had 40 employees over the summer. Now he has 15.

He also said that, in August, his phone rang every five minutes for orders. Now, it may go a half-hour without ringing.

“It goes from 100 miles per hour to 10,” Della Fave added.

Howard Seiden, the owner of Casel’s Marketplace in Margate, the island’s grocery store, believes that business this month is comparable to September 2019, the last pre-COVID fall. Seiden lives in Margate, too, and he isn’t seeing too many cars on the street this month.

The owner guessed that last fall, when “everybody was down here,” was a one-off.

But he’s fine with that, as he’s owned Casel’s since 1982, and understands how to operate on a summer-heavy business model. It may be unconventional, but it works, he said.

“There’s no such thing as a shoobie,” he said. “I don’t like that term.”

Everyone is welcome in Margate/Ventnor, for however long they wish to stay. But by October, like in pre-COVID years, the summer residents will probably be gone again.

Society is reopening. Kids are going into school and playing sports again, and their parents are following them around, explained Tim Wainwright, owner of Dino’s Subs, a popular island lunch spot.

Wainwright did acknowledge “a little bit of an influx” of new year-round residents. But overall, at least for now, the annual rhythms are likely to remain the same.

“The whole area down here needs the summer people. They need what they bring to the economy,” Wainwright said. “You just wish you had more of that longer in the year, instead of just three months.”

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