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The Bittman Project

How Covid Is Changing the Feast-Fast Cycle of Shoreside Restaurants

Cheap rents, an exodus from cities, and demand for outdoor dining have led to a bump for out-of-the-way spots in the offseason.

Two Australians walk into a North Wildwood bar: One, Joel Romano, tan and motor-mouthed. The other, David Gill, with a silver beard and a hoop through his nose. Smelling like smoke. Not that kind of smoke. Well, maybe a little, but oak smoke mostly, from trees harvested from the piney wilds of southern New Jersey. They’re barbecue guys, and the gossipy islanders of this five-mile splinter encompassing three of the Wildwoods beach towns drank up the curious presence of the Aussie arrivistes like shots of Tullamore Dew.

This was how Romano and Gill, owners of Wildwoods BBQ, spent last June and July, guerrilla marketing over Guinness instead of racking ribs and stacking bills as they’d planned. “We were going around, meeting the town, and it was building buzz,” Romano says. “Everyone was like, ‘What are two Australian guys doing in Wildwood opening a barbecue restaurant?’”

At Owen’s, at Anglesea Pub, beneath Notre Dame bunting and the black-and-white gaze of long-ago lifeguards, everyone was also like, ‘Why the hell aren’t you open yet?’

Sitting at one of the butterscotch-vanished picnic tables outside Wildwoods BBQ — which finally did open, early last August — Romano laughs recalling how the locals harangued them: “What’s wrong with you guys? It’s July 4th, how can you be closed?” He presses his eyes closed in mock meditation. “I was just like, ‘Serenity now. Serenity now.’”

The wind romps past Wildwoods BBQ, unimpeded by the human and car traffic that clog this corner of Seventh and New Jersey Avenues during the summer. It’s officially offseason on this barrier island, as in resort communities from the Outer Banks to the scalp of Maine, where restaurants sustain themselves on IV drips of stockpiled summer income. The pandemic may be changing that.

At the start of Covid-19, second homeowners fled cities to their homes at the beach and in the country, often to the chagrin of year-rounders. “Close the bridges!” became a battle cry at the Jersey Shore in early 2020, some island mayors styling themselves like Lannisters guarding against the sack of King’s Landing. But after the initial ruckus and first pandemic summer, people stayed longer into the offseason.

That’s the short answer to what two Australian guys are doing in Wildwood opening a barbecue restaurant, smoking the lushest black peppered brisket this side of Texas. But more specifically, what is Gill, who ran the pit at Brooklyn’s esteemed Hometown Bar-B-Que for four years and could have opened his own spot anywhere, doing in Wildwood?

“I followed my best mate since kindy,” Gill says. Two fire-obsessed kids growing up in Canberra, Australia’s Bush tinderbox, Gill and Romano would hang out in Gill’s parents’ rumpus room, where there was a black potbellied stove good for burning stuff and a full-on bar good for dreaming about the future. “We spent our formative years talking about going into business together at that bar.” During sleepovers, Romano, food-obsessed even as a kid, would wake up early to make them pancakes from scratch.

The road to Wildwoods BBQ went through Philadelphia, where the two spent the summer of 2005 golf caddying. Romano, who has dual citizenship through his American father, never left. Gill went back and forth for seven years on work visas. They both fell into cooking, Romano eventually landing at the Goat’s Beard on Philly’s tony Main Line; Gill at Hometown Bar-B-Que in Brooklyn, one of the best-regarded smokehouses in the country. When they’d both had enough of working for other people, they decided to fulfill their old pact. Gill had never been to Wildwood, but Romano’s ex-girlfriend is from South Jersey, so he knew the island, “and I just saw dollar signs, like I literally could open a hot dog cart and make a great living. But I really didn’t understand the concept of the seasons at that stage. I never came down in winter.” He looks at Gill: “So, yeah, sorry about that, Gilly.” And they laugh.

Further north in Deer Isle, Maine, winter comes early. “It’s cold, icy, dangerous to drive,” says Devin Finigan, who owns the idyllic inn and restaurant Aragosta at Goose Cove on this flyspeck island. “There’s no one here.” Aragosta is successful, established, a destination known by wider New England, but even still, when the doors close for the season at the end of October, “It’s terrifying, seeing the bank account dropping until we reopen.”

Down I-95, in North Carolina, winter comes a little later for Joe and Katy Kindred’s Hello, Sailor, now heading into its fourth offseason in Cornelius, a wealthy enclave on Lake Norman. Though sales sink 80 percent once the pontoons and sailboats have gone to dry-dock, they soldier through winter, living off their summer receipts for peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, yuzu kosho-buttered hush puppies, and citrusy crab Louie salads. “We’re only 20 minutes from Charlotte,” Katy Kindred says, “but it’s a perception issue. Even as a mature restaurant, I just don’t think people really think about us [in the winter].”

For these restaurateurs and countless others, it’s historically been a feast-fast cycle, a Faustian bargain with a tan. The prodigious summer revenues must show up, and typically, they arrive as punctually as if they’d taken a high-speed German train to Montauk or Nantucket or St. Michael’s. “I don’t even know if we could survive being as busy as we are in summer year-round,” Finigan says. “It’s insane.” But anything from a pessimistic holiday-weekend weather report to a shark sighting to a pandemic and its global ripples can put this delicate economic calculus in jeopardy.

For Wildwoods BBQ, it was a delayed walk-in fridge. “Starting late has hurt us being able to build up that bank,” Romano says, though it did create that buzz. For the five weeks of August and into mid-September, they did gangbusters business, turning out glaze-y spareribs pebbled in dukka, gem-toned pickle boats, snappy Aussie-style beef sausages snuggled in Martin’s buns, Romano’s mom’s mac ‘n’ cheese, and other treasures from their secondhand Mississippi smoker. During our interview, on a Wednesday when the barbecue was closed, five different people came by trying to order. That might not sound like a lot, but for a Wednesday in the offseason in North Wildwood, it’s a crowd — and one that is growing here and in other seasonal communities.

Places like the Wildwoods, Deer Isle, Cornelius exist at the intersection of many trends and desires the pandemic has engendered: built-in social distancing, remote work, access to the outdoors, larger homes, closer connection to family, lifestyle reprioritization. “Despite Covid, this year was our busiest yet,” Kindred says. “Hello, Sailor is mostly outdoors, and people felt safe eating here.”

In Deer Isle, “September is just as busy as August now,” Finigan says. “Those are people who are used to going out to eat and will spend for that, as opposed to year-round people, where [Aragosta] is like the place to go on their birthday or a celebration.”

Despite three months to get through until Memorial Day weekend, Romano and Gill are feeling optimistic. They don’t have much money in hand, but they do have proof of concept. Plus, the rent is super cheap: $1500 a month. “Everyone told us, do not sign [a lease] until you get your eggs in a row,” says Romano.

“But in Philly or New York, we would never beat that [rent],” Gill adds.

Even during what may prove to be a different kind of offseason, winter has remained a good time to work on big projects for which the summer allows no space. After a vacation in Europe with her daughters, Finigan worked on her first cookbook. The Kindreds opened their fourth restaurant, one that can be a landing place for some of Hello, Sailor’s seasonal staff.

From their charmless industrial kitchen space, Romano and Gill have carved out a warm, comfortable dining room with seating for 30. “It’s hard to say from a revenue standpoint as this is our first offseason, but customer satisfaction and the overall look of the place has improved immensely,” Gill says. Private dinners, guest chefs, winter pop-ups have helped keep locals engaged on social media and IRL, along with that otherworldly brisket.

The friends haven’t stopped dreaming up ideas: outposts on the surrounding islands, an expanded catering operation, a fish-and-chips place, a late-night kebab place, a coffee-and-donut place, buying their building from their landlord, condos upstairs, parking. They have no money for any of this, of course, but they have faith in themselves and the upswinging fortunes of their adopted beach town. In the meantime, they’re open Wednesdays now, too.