Customers deterred by detours, risk of traffic stops, owners say
By John Burton
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS — The closing of the Oceanic Bridge is causing headaches for a number of businesses on the northern side of the Navesink River.
Faced with a still difficult economy, some merchants in the borough business district say they’re feeling an additional pinch at the cash register which they attribute to the closing of the Oceanic Bridge and the detouring of traffic.
Restaurants that previously counted on patrons from Red Bank, Fair Haven and Rumson say they are losing those customers, at least temporarily.
Laura Borawski, owner of Ama Ristorante Tuscana, said this week she estimates that her restaurant has lost about 35 percent of its business, which she directly attributes to the bridge’s closing. “The week after Halloween I saw the first big hit,” she said. “Since then it’s been consistently the same.”
The bridge closed for repairs on Oct. 17, and initially, some of her customers from the Rumson peninsula either forgot about the bridge closing or decided to take the detour through Middletown or Sea Bright to get to her restaurant, Borawski said.
But business fell off after Halloween, with her restaurant now taking in about $800 less on a Saturday night than it did before the bridge closing. Losing that amount of business is a serious concern for a small restaurant like hers, Borawski said.
She has also been receiving complaints from patrons who do cross the river about the allegedly aggressive traffic enforcement from Sea Bright police. “That’s all I hear all the time, ‘We’ll never go through Sea Bright if we’re going out for dinner,’” her customers are telling her.
When asked to comment on Borawski’s assertions, Sea Bright Police Chief John Sorrention said simply, “I have absolutely no response to that.”
Towns on the other side of the river are accessible via a detour across Cooper Bridge in Red Bank and through Middletown, or via a detour through Rumson, across the Sea Bright Bridge and across the Highlands bridge.
A very short stroll from Borawski’s location is the Memphis Pig Out, a restaurant that has been operating on First Avenue for nearly three decades. Mark Strassburg, who owns Memphis Pig Out with his wife, Connie, offered a similar assessment of his business in the aftermath of the bridge closing. “It’s having a major impact,” he said, indicating he has seen a 30-40 percent drop in business. “People are not getting here that easily.”
The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas tends to be a little slow for his restaurant. “But having this big of a dip is hard to handle,” he acknowledged.
The slower business has caused him to cut shifts; with none of his employees working fulltime, now they have one less shift a week.
“I understand a little better what the Highlands people went through,” when the bridge from Highlands to Sea Bright was replaced, Strassburg said.
The Oceanic Bridge, a 2,700-foot-long drawbridge connecting Rumson and the Locust section of Middletown, is expected to be closed until late May, as workers repair and replace portions of the deteriorated structure. Restaurant owners can only hope the reconstruction moves more swiftly than anticipated.
“I’d love to have it done by Mother’s Day,” Strassburg said.
In the meantime Strassburg and Borawski are considering possible steps to encourage patrons to take the detours and come over for dinner.
Strassburg is considering some sort of mailer (though, he said he would like to hear from customers what they would like to see), as one option. “We’re still talking about it,” he said.
Borawski said she has considered partnering with other restaurants to offer a deal for cab service, as another option.
“The hard part is,” she explained, “we don’t have a liquor license and we’re very small. It’s very hard for me to give incentives. I end up losing.”
On the other hand, other spots haven’t felt the same contraction. The Harborside Inn, also on First Avenue, business has been quite steady, thank you very much, offered the bartender on duty last Thursday (He said their business relies on the locals.), and Lisa McGrath, the manager of On the Deck, next to the commuter ferry line and municipal harbor., said things have been about the same. “We are very seasonal so this is a good time to do it,” she said, meaning doing the repairs in the summer.
Tara Crocker, manager of the Copper Canyon, 51 First Avenue, said, “We’ve been very lucky,” because, “we have a very loyal clientele.”
Jennifer Lee owner of First Avenue’s Flower Express, a florist shop, said business hasn’t been directly affected, but it has impacted her ability to make deliveries to Red Bank’s Riverview Medical Center, and to Rumson and Fair Haven. “Now we have to use the long way,” traveling to Highway 35, she said. But she seemed to take it in stride asking, “What are you going to do? Not fix it?”
Arlene Sherman, owner of Sherman and Sons jewelers, said she doesn’t get enough traffic from that area to make a difference. And besides, “If they want to get some place bad enough and it’s not something they have to do every day,” she observed, “they’ll make the trip.”
Marie Jackson, who owns the Flaky Tart, 145 First Avenue, admitted that she was worried initially, given she has many customers from the other side of the river. In the final analysis, though, “I will say I have not seen an impact. If anything, I’m maybe a little bit busier.” But it is the holiday season, so business is expected to be a little up, she acknowledged.
Lester Starnes, who owns Blackfoot Mobile Marine, Avenue D, a boat repair and storage facility, was not happy about the impact of the bridge closing on his business.
Starnes said he has a fair amount of customers in the Rumson area and this is having an effect on him. As a case in point, he had to go to Rumson the other day and the added distance and traffic tacked on more than an hour to the service call. And time is money. “I can’t bill the guy for that,” he explained.
“Why does it have to take so long?” for the repairs he asked., getting a little agitated, “I know Rome wasn’t built in a day. But, jeez, give me a break.”