True Believers by Harriet Diamond for The AC Times
"True Believers" appeared monthly in The AC Times from 2014 through 2016. Below are columns that heralded AC's true believers. Most are still here, continuing to strengthen what the City has to offer. Others have moved on to different opportunities, but not without leaving their indelible mark. Ursula Ryan, whose contributions live on, has passed on.
It's a very, very difficult space to operate in,
the restaurant business-it requires a lot of human
beings to intersect at just the right place to make it all work out.
- Rocco DiSpirito
Dock’s Oyster House has been an Atlantic City landmark since 1897, when Joe and Frank Dougherty’s great grandfather, Harry, opened it. The brothers grew up in the family restaurant during their grandfather’s and then their parents’ roles as owners. They began washing dishes before they were 10 years old, stacking crates to reach the sink. Joe and Frank, who grew up in Margate, fondly remember their “restaurant” bedroom in a second floor office. They remained indispensable team members – bussing and waiting tables, cooking, and filling in wherever necessary through college and after. Were restaurant careers a family expectation? No; their parents, Joe Jr. and Arleen tried to talk their sons out of going into this demanding business.
Joe continued working at Dock’s during college breaks and vacations and then following graduation. After seven years as a fulltime participant in Dock’s, Joe decided to go to law school, which did not stop him from helping his family during breaks and even during his early years as a local attorney. “That’s why I wanted to practice in Atlantic City,” he shares. Staff and customers became extended family to me. We met interesting people, many of whom remain in our lives.”
Frank, who wanted to be in the restaurant business since he was a child, took a different path. After attending Cornell for Hotel and Restaurant Management, he spent 15 years in New York as a hotel real estate appraiser. That proved to be a valuable learning experience as he evaluated various operations.
Their father, an accountant, took over Dock’s in 1968 when his father was no longer able to run the restaurant. He recruited their mother, a social worker at the time, to join him. With a great combination of business and people skills, they continued the family tradition. When Joe Jr. died in 1999, Arleen carried on with the help of her sons. Frank joined the team full time in 2001.
Can you make great even greater? Apparently, yes. Dock’s is now undergoing major renovations and will reopen in May. Frank hopes the renovation will solve their space constraints for years to come. In answer to the question, “Why are you investing in expansion now? “ Frank cites others banking on AC: Harrah’s new conference center, Stockton University, and newcomers to the city like Bart Blatstein. Joe adds, “Dock’s lasted through good times and bad. We believe there are plenty of good times ahead for the city as it moves toward providing more entertainment and varied attractions. Atlantic City already has an outstanding restaurant sector which has become a draw in itself to the resort as dining capacity and options expand.”
Frank and his wife, Maureen Shay, who is an integral part of the family restaurant business, were looking to open a steakhouse in 2003 when none existed in the city. By the time the landmark Knife and Fork came on the market in 2005, there was no dearth of steakhouses, but this jewel offered great opportunity. How could they know that that location, which they lovingly renovated, would become even more valuable? Open for dinner and Friday lunch, the Knife and Fork maintains its local clientele while attracting visitors. Frank looks forward to even greater volume once Stockton and South Jersey Gas come to the neighborhood.
Maureen and Frank opened the first family restaurant that bears two Atlantic City features: It is in a casino hotel and is on the boardwalk. These hallmarks attract clientele beyond their regulars and visitors returning for the Dougherty brand. “Rain or snow, hotel guests have to eat,” Frank points out. How lucky for those diners that Harry’s is among the choices. Harry’s also benefits from boardwalk traffic that doesn’t easily make its way to Dock’s and the Knife and Fork.
Growing up in Margate and participating in the family’s Atlantic City restaurant business, Joe and Frank had “front row seats” to Atlantic City’s ongoing metamorphosis. “Dock’s wouldn’t have lasted without gambling. Business had always been seasonal, Easter through Thanksgiving,“ explained Joe. “The casinos brought tourists, but in the early days they worked to keep them in-house,” added Frank. “Gamblers ate on site for convenience; our restaurants attracted ‘explorers.’” Many local restaurants, unfortunately, did not survive those transitional years. Dock’s strong foothold remained steady.
The Dougherty’s participated in the evolution of the dining experience. “When we were kids, the kitchen was filled with big fryers; half the menu was breaded and fried food,” Joe recalls. “Beginning in the 90’s, customers became more inclined toward healthier food, more interesting recipes, and better wine. Locally, the Borgata was one catalyst for those changes.” “Once, our selection of purveyors was limited,” adds Frank. “Now, we get deliveries from NY seven days a week. Wine distributors that didn’t come to AC are now regularly here.” In discussing food choices, Frank says, “So many people either have an allergy or a special diet. Our servers have increased product knowledge to meet those needs. Dock’s has always catered to special orders and tries very hard to know the preferences of repeat clients. “
Both Joe and Frank are positive about Atlantic City’s future. Joe sees Stockton’s development in their neighborhood as a plus. He optimistically speculates, “Maybe another college will follow.” Frank sees great opportunities in all of Atlantic City’s vacant land, much of it with great views. “We still have a lot of growth potential,” he says, “buildings not being used or that are outdated and vacant land waiting for the next wave.”
The Dougherty family has been successfully navigating the difficult intersection required to excel in the restaurant business. They offer dining choices for every palette, ambiance for every comfort level, and the service model that keeps customers returning. They also offer hope for investors with vision.
"The universe will reward you for taking risks on its behalf." Shakti Gawain
Cem Erenler’s background in restaurant management and management in general is quite impressive. After over 20 years as a restaurateur/hotelier in NY, Cem came to Stone Harbor to manage Reeds at Shelter Haven. As that project was winding down for him, Terence McCarthy of TJM Properties Inc., tapped him to join the team revitalizing the The Claridge Hotel. TJM was passionate about making the building something unique. “They don’t buy to sell. McCarthy was looking for a good steward to guide his ‘baby,’ as he called The
Claridge. It was an honor for me,” explained Cem. “We combined the elegance of the glorious, classic past with a touch of modern times.” The expectations are high to carry forth the soul in this landmark building. Cem sees his mission as “providing no less than perfect products and services to guests all the time by developing a great team.”
The Claridge has broken the mold of typical casino businesses, welcoming the Holtzman Gallery, attracting nationally acclaimed and local artists and the Atlantic City Contact Center, providing not only service to businesses in AC and beyond, but also employment for local and county residents. Coming attractions include a conference center and a rooftop bar. Positioned in the middle of the boardwalk, this hotel offers guests nearby gambling, shopping, boardwalk, beach, entertainment, and food at every price point. “I can envision families coming for weeklong vacations.”
Cem is devoted to filling this welcoming space with appealing activities for adult and family trips. The luxurious environment is a wedding magnet; 15 are booked for 2016 so far and 20 more are already under discussion. Brides are coming from upstate NY, Pennsylvania, and local towns. Beginning in February, The Claridge will offer ballroom dancing competitions twice a month, tied to room packages. In the summer, look for free dance lessons in Brighton Park. Cem is taking advantage of this adjacent gem by renting it for a variety of festivals: jazz, food truck, art, and more. He plans to turn the park into a summer wine and beer garden. He looks to work with neighbors as diverse as the Atlantic Care/Rowan University planned medical school and the coming Polar Coaster. Partner is a significant word in Cem’s vocabulary as he reaches to bring more amenities to his guests. One such feature is a major cigar distributor offering a cigar room with a world-class humidor as part of the rooftop bar, coming in the spring; another is a spa.
The glamour of the venue and the management team’s commitment to service has captured the attention of the TV show, In Style, which will feature The Claridge in April/May. The Chicago Tribune has reached out to Cem as well. This attention goes beyond promoting the Claridge to bolstering the national image of Atlantic City. Cem sees the city benefiting from more hoteliers partnering with investors. “This will become a city of options for visitors. “Politicians, investors, and hotel executives have to work together to make this city a destination resort town for everyone, especially families.”
Jeff Albrecht proudly wears two, complementary hats: He is the general manager of the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel and board chairman of the recently established nonprofit convention marketing entity, Meet AC. Jeff has been with Starwood, Sheraton’s parent company for 14 years, four of them at the Sheraton AC’s helm. His enthusiasm for the property, the convention business in Atlantic City, and the city in general is infectious. Starwood built the Sheraton in Atlantic City specifically across from the Convention Center, sharing an access road. “The Sheraton brand prides itself on supporting convention centers. With the Starwood rewards program, meeting planners can travel throughout the country and earn points,” explains Jeff.
The Sheraton’s central AC location is welcoming to convention goers and leisure guests alike. “We are within blocks of shopping, entertainment, the boardwalk, and the beach. We are a location that can do it all,” Jeff brags. Transportation is on the hotel’s doorstep, with the train and the Expressway just outside and the bus station not too far away. Jeff refers to the Sheraton as the de facto Miss America Museum, displaying historic photos, a sampling dresses through the decades, and a shoe gallery. “I’ve seen fathers in their pajamas taking their daughters on early morning tours of the shoe and dress displays with their Skype and FaceTime apps. A special attraction is a Bert Parks’ bronze statue in the tea garden in front of the hotel. Let Bert crown you and he will sing the Miss America song.”
Meet AC, under the direction of CEO James Wood and the organization’s board, has more than doubled Atlantic City convention sales since it began in 2014.. Jeff is thrilled to work with Harrah’s Convention Center and welcomes the smaller centers in Resorts and coming to the Claridge. Meet AC not only goes to other states to court conventions, they bring the representatives here. “People have to come here to appreciate all that Atlantic City offers that is overshadowed by negative press,” he says, continuing, “Those who come here are amazed by the shopping, the food, the boardwalk, the people.” Harrah’s and Meet AC are hosting Meeting Planners International (MPI) and Team 2016. These two conventions will be game changers for Atlantic City. Conventions not only bring in convention goers, they bring their families, exhibitors, and others. “They go to shows, to restaurants, to clubs, to The Walk, and the boardwalk,” Jeff stresses. “The city continues to improve. Visitors comment that it is clean and safe. They love walking from the property to the boardwalk. Tanger is active; Bass Pro is a great addition; the ambassadors are always present at the Walk.”
Jeff describes Don Guardian as “a great spokesperson. He can win anyone over as he welcomes people to conventions. He has a strong vision; he wants everyone to succeed.” Jeff concludes: “People can invest in Atlantic City and do well. Look at the Tropicana, the Golden Nugget, the Borgata, the Claridge, and Resorts’ reinvention. Successful entrepreneurs are coming to Atlantic City and turning our casinos and hotels into jewels.”
Cem and Jeff have joined the effort to carry Atlantic City forward. The Claridge and the Sheraton are in good company. We continue to need more voices, louder voices, and ongoing strong alliances to attract the market that Atlantic City can serve so well.
Memories to Build Upon
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
Both of this column’s True Believers regularly vacationed in Atlantic City as children. Mark Callazzo’s family traveled from Ocean County and John Ciaramella’s from the Bronx. Their common childhood love of the beach and the boardwalk matured as they did, adding an appreciation of the diversity of great food and outstanding talent that Atlantic City continues to offer.
Mark Callazzo loves quality wine and good food. When Mark, a principal of Alpha Funding Solutions, decided to pursue his passion and establish a bar and restaurant, he chose Atlantic City (AC) “because it’s the food capital of NJ. That’s a card AC needs to play more to attract more visitors.” Wanting to be a part of that vibe, he opened AC Bottle Company and its restaurant, The Iron Room, on Albany Avenue. The unique venue got a jumpstart by becoming a favorite of locals; convention goers and other visitors soon began discovering this hidden gem. Mark enjoys discussing wine with his patrons and offering unique food choices. Building on his love of wine, Mark studied it and earned a Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSE) Advanced Certificate with Merit, designating him a Wine Expert. This mecca for food and wine goes beyond satisfying the palate to educating the consumer by offering classes in wine, beer, and cheese selections, “making wine more approachable and helping people go on their own beverage journey.”
Emphasizing that drink does not overshadow food, Mark shares, “I wanted to build the restaurant I’d like to dine in. I find standard meal choices limiting, so I offer small plates to give unusual, multiple options to diners. Our overall theme is great, fresh, local (whenever possible) food.
When asked what advice might compel the reluctant visitor to take a chance on AC, Mark touts his competition. Atlantic City is not only about casinos and their restaurants. It offers the greatest quality and variety of food, bar none. Mark relishes being part of this mix. He’s thrilled to be on the map with Whitehouse Subs, Tony Boloney’s, Dock’s Oyster House, 2825, and the hundreds of other restaurants that continue to serve tourists and residents. He’d like to see a stronger marketing campaign for all that the city offers. “I hosted an-of-state client on a Wednesday. We walked the boardwalk, dined out, and he stayed at the Borgata. He was amazed at the vibrancy that he saw on a weeknight throughout a town that he had heard was dying.”
Mark’s passion for the city goes well beyond food. Alpha Funding Solutions delivers both Capital & Strategic support to real estate investors, owners, builders, and developers for value-added projects to maximize leverage or close on time-sensitive and special circumstance transactions. Built into Mark’s DNA is a knack for recognizing opportunities, leading to his continuing investment in Atlantic City through helping other businesses and initiating some projects of his own. He has funded/developed projects in the tri-state area, and is eager to continue participating in Atlantic City’s reinvention. “Future development will be smaller projects.” With that in mind, he bought 1 North Boston Avenue, where he will install three stores on the ground floor and 31 apartments above. “We need housing for people who work in Atlantic City,” he stresses. Mark is also negotiating to purchase the firehouse at Connecticut and Atlantic Avenues, where he hopes to create shared office space to provide an opportunity for growing businesses. He believes that AC is on the right path but needs additional small businesses and residents to share the tax burden. “And,” he adds, echoing many, “we need to solve the publicity problem.”
John Ciaramella, vice president of the Atlantic City Contact Center (ACCC) became an Atlantic City advocate decades ago when he and his wife continued his family tradition of vacationing in AC. Eventually, their vacation home at Brighton Towers became their only home, and John dove into community service, active in the Chelsea Neighborhood Association and the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, he met informally with other AC residents searching for solutions to the underlying issues that affect everyone’s quality of life. Although he moved to West Atlantic City several years ago, John continues (his 11th year) as president of the Brighton Towers Condo Association and remains active in the city. “I’ve always felt that Atlantic City was positioned to be a world class resort. It needed a better vision and a plan to get there. That is now evolving.”
John was part of a team that had developed an early, successful call center in the Philippines. “We wrote the book on call center training,” he says. When his team was looking for a northeast location, John, a true believer willing to bet on Atlantic City, convinced his colleagues to establish a similar project in AC, not only as a good business investment, but also as a vehicle to create employment opportunities. “So many in the local job market are already hospitality trained.” The ACCC, located in the Claridge Hotel, has hired its first 40 employees and anticipates steady growth, resulting in 330 in 2016. This multi-, bilingual work pool includes Spanish, French, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese so far.
A contact center is the evolution of a call center, strongly customer focused with an emphasis on incoming customer care calls. The embodiment of the growth potential of customer contact activity, the ACCC also offers support for web services, email, social media, online chats, and back office services for clients. True to their customer service mission, they offer dedicated and shared agents as well as a mix of the two. Customer care is paramount.
John explains, “We’re looking to serve, among others, a number of utility clients. The ACCC offers a natural extension of that industry’s existing customer service initiatives.
“We are thrilled with our move to and reception in AC,” says John. “The Claridge is a wonderful setting for our first phase. We hope to need additional space for expansion by the end of 2016. The Chamber of Commerce and the business community in general have been extremely supportive of the ACCC.”
Continuing ACCC’s commitment to South Jersey employment, John and ACCC CEO Warren Golden are talking with two South Jersey Universities: one about creating an additional center on or near the campus and hiring and training students as part of their curriculum and the other to train computer science students to assist as in building a vast information database of all the attractions in South Jersey.
John believes that Atlantic City’s turnaround is on the horizon. “Stockton’s sincere interest in building a school will be a strong impetus for jobs and industry coming to Atlantic City. Stockton will be able to transform AC into something like the Village in NYC, with NYU as the anchor. The University will be the catalyst for economic growth.”
Both Mark and John commented on Atlantic City’s unique mix, being at once a city, a shore destination, and a small town. All models offer opportunity for Atlantic City, and blending them may just be the necessary winning combination. These pioneers are among the first wave to seize the moment. Other realtors, investors, and entrepreneurs are queuing up. If you are looking to be a part of the next great place to live and work, don’t wait too long to get in line.
Music … is an explosive expression of humanity. Billy Joel
Henrietta Shelton, founder of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation Inc.(BBHI) in 1995, continues to create a dynamic impact on Atlantic City’s arts community. Not only has she brought outstanding jazz to the beach on Missouri Avenue, Kennedy Plaza, and now the Claridge Hotel, but she has been instrumental in creating musical learning and performing opportunities to Atlantic City’s and the surrounding area’s youth.
Henrietta credits her sister, Cynthia Primas, who created the IDEA Performing Arts Center in Camden, for turning Henrietta’s ideas and dreams into concrete proposals and business plans. A cornerstone of her plans was the Chicken Bone Beach Jazz series begun in 2000, the year the CBB became a non-profit organization, on the Missouri Avenue Beach with artist Roy Ayers as the inaugural performer.
On August 6th 1997 the Atlantic City Council declared “Chicken Bone Beach” a historical landmark. Thanks to Borgata Hotel/Casino, in 2015, Mayor Guardian posted a sign on the Boardwalk at Missouri Avenue, honoring that venue as a symbol of family unity and African American heritage. The CBBHI Jazz Concerts series celebrates its 17th year in 2016.
In 2001, when Gloria Lynne, nationally acclaimed jazz vocalist, was scheduled to perform with a 7-foot grand piano, Henrietta finally accepted a repeated invitation to move her series from the beach to Kennedy Plaza. Thus began Jazz on the Boardwalk, bringing international artists, including the Stephon Harris, Charles Fambrough, and Louis Hayes & Cannonball Legacy Band, along with a plethora of household names in NJ jazz to Atlantic City. CBB has always included regional and local artists to open for the jazz greats. “The mutual appreciation between the artists and the audience creates an electric atmosphere,” says Henrietta. The series continues, drawing locals and tourists, throughout the summer. CBBHFI is moving in 2016 to an even more exciting venue outside the Claridge.
Other significant outcomes of the family collaboration are the Chicken Bone Beach Youth Jazz Ensembles and the Atlantic City Youth Jazz Camp. Housed at Stockton’s Carnegie Center, the Camp just received a grant for its fifth year and will join the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club to create a 2015 Fall Jazz/Latin Youth Camp. Graduates of the Youth Jazz Programs have gone on to become major performers and teachers.
Henrietta sees the growth of her efforts as a “relationship story. The first jazz camp youth performers were the opening act for Donald Byrd, who was our first Youth Jazz Camp instructor. “ This tradition continues.
Has Henrietta, an honoree among Atlantic City’s “People Who Made a Difference,“ met her goal? Not by a long shot. Her dream is to create a Jazz Hall of Fame in the Claridge and an Atlantic City three-day Jazz Festival. Henrietta’s mantra reflects a 1987 Congressional resolution presented by Representative John Conyers, Jr “… “jazz is hereby designated as a rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood and promulgated.”
Stephanie Clineman’s enthusiasm infuses energy into all she touches. A Galloway native, she’s been a part of Dante Hall’s history since 2005, when the director recruited her as a volunteer.
Stephanie’s value to the organization soon became apparent, and she was offered a paying job. When the director left to pursue a different career in 2007, Stephanie was the natural choice for that role. With the help of co-director Pamela Ward, Stephanie restructured the bylaws, created a proper budget, and more than doubled the programming. They and their board got the failing theater into the black; however, without a strong fundraising effort, the doors ultimately closed. “We needed too much from too few, leading to donor burnout. “ Stockton University saw the potential of this gem on Mississippi Avenue and took came to the rescue. After closing to regroup, Alex Marino, Assistant to the Provost, did not hesitate to invite Stephanie back as the artistic director of Dante Hall when the theater reopened in 2011.
During the hiatus, Stephanie honed her skills as marketing and sales director for LBI’s Surflight Theater and then as marketing director for the Atlantic City Ballet. What had begun as a temporary fix through a volunteer position turned into a permanent, full-time career, a clear win/win. “The security and comfort of being part of a strong organization relieves so many day-to-day worries,” smiles Stephanie. “We have a stable budget and can offer shows longer runs. Additional benefits of this relationship are access to printing, advertising, and other Stockton services.”
Stephanie sees music as the greatest draw of Dante Hall, bringing in the largest audiences. Dave Damiani’s old style big band sold out every performance. “It brought back memories of the Club Harlem and 500 Club days, enticing nostalgic audiences as well as those intrigued to hear the sound of the old Atlantic City. The Dylan Fest was also sold out!” Music will be a greater focus in 2016,
Since its resurgence, Dante Hall has offered great theater through an alliance with Paul Heron, director of the Bay Atlantic Symphony, and the Atlantic City Theater, which he developed. Having a resident theater group, which just finished its second successful season, is another plus.
Dante Hall is a venue for both the Atlantic City Cinefest and the Garden State Film Festival, bringing audiences during both shoulder seasons. Stephanie is a GSFF board member and a Cinefest advocate.
A participant in Stockton University and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s Lead Act Fellowship program, Stephanie sees hope for an Atlantic City Arts District and for Atlantic City. “Through the Lead Act, I’m meeting inspiring people who are taking risks by promoting Atlantic City in different ways.”
These two local women have brought their passion to Atlantic City’s nascent Arts District, nurturing the concept through years of effort and commitment. As a result of their efforts, the light at the end of the tunnel is shining more brightly.
I believe that creativity will be the currency of the 21st Century.
Gerald Gordon, President and CEO, Fairfax County Economic Development Authority
Because the arts are integrally entwined in our city’s viability, we are all stakeholders in the future of the arts in Atlantic City. Below are two of the many entrepreneurs who contribute to building an arts community.
Ursula Ryan celebrates 35 years in business in Atlantic City this year as the city works to recapture the excitement of those early years as an entertainment capital. The owner of the Weist-Barron-Ryan agency, on Atlantic Avenue since 1984, she provides training and opportunity for aspiring actors. Ursula continues not only to train actors, but also casino executives, front line staff, politicians, and local TV and radio personalities. “We’re all actors on a stage called life,” she explains.
Ursula arrived in the US from Europe in 1960 and went to New York City as a singer. She studied commercial acting, and the legendary Weist-Barron agency booked her jobs in TV commercials. She then became a talent agent and was asked to join the group. When the company decided to sell franchises, Ursula’s talent as an entrepreneur surfaced; she and four others bought the Philadelphia franchise.
Sal Dupree, a voice coach based in Ventnor, urged Ursula to move her business to South Jersey. She ultimately settled in Atlantic City. She worked with Atlantic City icon, (Judge) Jerry Consalvo, a SAG actor and the force behind the Columbus Day Parade, who had a theatre in Ventnor. Ursula also collaborated with Bill McCullough’s modeling agency. “We trained Miss America, Suzette Charles, in soap opera acting. We worked with cast members from Annie and had several Miss New Jersey's as clients.
“Many continue to come to us for speech and presentation improvement. Acting is a great skill for anything we do in life. It is so gratifying to see and hear from those who, after our training, got their lives in order and went on to higher education and/or acting careers.“
Local, related projects are important to Ursula. She recently provided actors for the Atlantic City Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker and for a Casino Reinvestment Development (CRDA) brochure. Weist-Barron-Ryan offers pre-teen workshops along with assisting adult actors. One current endeavor near to Ursula’s heart is creating a movie with five developmentally disabled actors, some with Downs Syndrome and others with varying degrees of autism. The project is yielding positive changes in the actors’ interpersonal reactions, self-confidence, self-discipline, and the ability to overcome an impediment such as stuttering.
Ursula continues to develop talent to maintain Atlantic City’s corner of this market. Each client who goes on to greater opportunities does so with the imprimatur of having studied in our city by the sea. “We have a great talent pool, in South Jersey. We can once again attract the film industry. Weist-Barron-Ryan provided 500 cast members for The Warrior, but most of that film was shot in Pittsburgh; just as Boardwalk Empire was filmed in New York.”
“Welcoming filmmakers can put Atlantic City on the map. We have everything to create a first class film location: Growth for acting as an industry and proximity to NY and Philadelphia make Atlantic City a convenient hub for filming. By offering tax credits, NJ can compete in this market.”
Steve Kuzma first shared his art in South Jersey when AtlantiCare hired him in 2005 to provide a body of work for its Life Center in Egg Harbor Township. His reflective paintings and prints, depicting landscapes and seascapes, remain a part that wellness environment. Steve continues to integrate his calming artwork with healthcare programs throughout the state. His signature work is both refreshing and relaxing to viewers. Recalling Atlantic City’s origin as a healing destination, bringing visitors to the salt water and fresh air, Steve reminds us, “Atlantic City was initially a restorative, healing place.” He continues to nourish that concept through his art.
Boardwalk art shows, in which Steve has participated, have been a perfect vehicle for marrying art to the environment. “I love to paint on the boardwalk,” he says. Steve’s union of art and the environment is demonstrated by his 20’ panorama at Garden Pier, where he currently has a one-person show featuring local themes. His projects and commissioned work are often murals. In line with his art-is-healing theme, Steve is now working on several health-related projects throughout the state.
Steve expressed gratitude to the Atlantic City arts initiative. “When my studio in Ocean City was destroyed by hurricane Sandy, Michael Cagno approached me about joining the Arts Garage community.” The concept is an important one. Artists need fellowship. The events at the Garage have been terrific – for the artists and the visitors. Having a place to show their work is so critical to artists.”
Emphasizing how the arts bring a new demographic to the city, he cites his customers from around the world. Attracting visitors who appreciate the arts strengthens not only the art institutions and the businesses of the individual artists, but the entire community. Every visitor has to eat somewhere, possibly enjoy some entertainment and the boardwalk, shop a bit, and maybe even gamble.
“Although many good people are working hard to support the arts in Atlantic City, we need to assist artists with living and working space and affordable parking. Surviving in this economy isn’t easy; it is still a struggle for many. I look forward to a strong initiative that builds on the swelling excitement for the arts in our area.”
DO AC ARTS: Enjoy the many art, music, dance, film, and other cultural offerings that are embedded in Atlantic City’s history and that are a significant component of the city’s renewal and diversification.
Small businesses that fully embrace commitment to their customers, quality goods and services, and reasonable pricing are essential to Atlantic City’s resurgence. Joseph Molineaux
For more than two decades, the mantra, “Small business is big business” has surfaced and resurfaced. Small business owners in Atlantic City with vision, creativity, and energy continue to succeed despite a challenging economy.
One such business is Pilani’s, a unique store that opened on the boardwalk between Chelsea and Montpelier Avenues in 2002, adding a store at Texas Avenue within four years, and most recently investing in an additional location adjacent to their first. Talk about true believers!
Pilani’s began as an ethnic store, carrying high quality Indian clothing and jewelry at an affordable price point. The clothing is all private label, handmade, cotton. The jewelry includes natural stone. Wedded to the business motto, “know your customer,” Pallavi and Bharat Aggaarwal continue to grow their business to meet evolving tastes. The store at 3113 Boardwalk has incorporated non-ethnic clothing and added lines for the home as well as stationery items for an expanding customer base. This store caters to the more sophisticated customer, but even the younger crowd will find delights there. Next door, 3111 remains ethnic, with Indian clothing and jewelry along with home décor items and hand-made stationery from India. The store at 2615 (Texas Ave.) attracts a younger crowd and stocks items that appeal primarily to that demographic; however, women of any age will find clothing and jewelry to suite them as well. This refreshing boardwalk chain recently added unusual souvenirs and beach-related items, all matching the quality for which their brand has become known.
When asked why she and her husband chose the boardwalk for their businesses, Pallavi answered without hesitation, “The beach. People come to enjoy the beach.” And they do; and they have, year after year. Pilani’s, which only closes in January and February, has attracted a following from as far away as Texas and California. Those loyal customers were the impetus for the Aggarwals to add mail order to their buying options; however, when these customers return to Atlantic City (and they do), they visit their favorite boardwalk store.
Pilani’s was recognized in December, 2014, by the New Jersey Small Business Development Center with a Success Award for their foresight, their unique product offerings, and the welcoming layout of their stores. The displays are as tasteful as the clothing, jewelry, and accessories they highlight.
Pallavi is thrilled with the changes coming to Atlantic City. “We already see the benefits from the boardwalk tram and increased foot traffic from the Tropicana’s ongoing, exciting additions.” Business is up 11.5%, a feat in this economic climate. The Aggarwals look forward to the highly anticipated transformation of the Pier to Playground and the role that will play in bringing more people to the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Stacy Foster-Godwin, the entrepreneur who created A1 Tours just three years ago has become an accidental ambassador for Atlantic City. When asked about the impetus for starting her business, Stacy enjoys traveling and exploring various destinations while doing so. Born and raised in Atlantic City, she believes that her hometown “has a colorful history, and touring offers an opportunity to share this experience.” She reaches tourists through DOAC and Internet searches that locate her. Additionally, as a member of the Atlantic City Concierge Association, she has a broad network that is instrumental in referring visitors to A-1 tours.
“People take our tours for enjoyment, for information, or just to satisfy their curiosity.” While many of us know that the Atlantic City boardwalk was the first in the country, that’s news to out-of-state and even some not-from-South Jersey New Jersey residents. Did you know that the first boardwalks were actually rolled up and put away at the end of the summer? Among the tours offered are the drive around the city, touching on historical landmarks and things to do as well as a boardwalk walking tour and a marina tour. When A1 began, the city tour included 21 points of interest; it now identifies 44. These include the eclectic mix that is today’s Atlantic City: White House Subs, Duck Town, the Arts Garage, the Atlantic City Historical Museum, the Knife and Fork, the War Memorial, and the remaining casinos, to name a few.
Visitors are not only interested in Atlantic City’s history, but also in its future: Will Revel reopen? When? I Stockton University coming to the island? When? Although she doesn’t have all of the answers, Stacy can maintain visitors’ interest in the outcomes and offer a positive perspective on the many changes. “I love to point out Tanger Outlets’ expanded roster of stores, including the new centerpiece, Bass Pro.” Visitors love it all – the history, the revitalization, the activities, the entertainment, the restaurants. By taking the tour, they can better plan their stay, and, perhaps, realize the value of returning to DO more AC.
Stacy takes as much pride in the history of Atlantic City and its iconic landmarks as she does in its future and the planned changes. “I see the future of AC only one way: Big and bright. The current transition opens the door for the next big thing.” She continues, “We now have an opportunity to make Atlantic City better than before. Stay tuned.” The accidental ambassador concludes, “What I love about Atlantic City is that it’s small enough to bring in fresh and new businesses and large enough for them to grow and thrive.”
These business owners are using their varied talents and their enthusiasm not only to promote the businesses that they created but also the city that they love.
“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Atlantic City’s shrinking casino/hotel footprint has attracted a lot of attention. Repurposing three major properties is a seismic shift for a city whose tourism market was built on gaming. Those casino/hotels whose management has, to modify Wayne Gretsky’s famous quote, keep their eye not on where the market is, but where it is going, continue to strengthen their core and evolve.
Mark Giannantonio epitomizes what’s right with Atlantic City. He is a long-term believer who began his casino career at Resorts when he was a college freshman in 1982 and now, as president and CEO, oversees the successful property that brought the first casino to Atlantic City. He credits his predecessors and especially, owner Morris Bailey, with building on Resorts’ brand of outstanding customer service and on being the first. “Morris invested in Resorts at a critical time, having foresight, seeing exciting possibilities. He believes in the property and in Atlantic City.”
“Resorts has been able to adapt to the times while retaining its brand and continuing to build on outstanding service and a quality product. Service sets Resorts apart.” Giannantonio attributes the property’s “awesome customer service” to its relationship with Mohegan Sun, adding value and enhancing approach. Resorts continues to adapt to the changing market, adding conference space to attract smaller conventions to Atlantic City.
Giannantonio sees all Atlantic City casinos working toward the same goals, “striving to improve the gaming market and the business community.” “Although the market has been cut in half, it is still huge. We have plenty of gaming revenue, along with restaurants, retail, and a complete resort experience with the beach and boardwalk. That will never change; you can’t duplicate the resort experience.”
“Online gaming will continue to invigorate the brick and mortar operations.” Regarding the renewed interest in Atlantic City and the recent high profile sales, Giannantonio believes that “success leads to more investment.”
Tony Rodio, CEO of Tropicana Casino and Resort came to the Atlantic City property in 2011. His Atlantic City roots go back to an early start as a casino accounting clerk and then leadership roles in six casino/hotels. He returned to Atlantic City after managing a property in the Midwest.
Rodio attributes the Tropicana’s success to its being ahead of its time. By creating The Quarter, an energetic retail and restaurant plaza, the Tropicana had the attractions “not only to weather hard times in Atlantic City but to continue to grow and prosper. You can come to the Tropicana and have fun; never walk out of the building, and never put a penny in a machine.” You can shop, take your family to the arcade, go to the spa, and eat in every possible level of restaurant. Many of The Quarter’s original tenants are still there, catering to both new and loyal customers.
Rodio’s philosophy is based on “understanding the business and the customer while staying true to your core.” That core for the Tropicana is variety – in dining, in shopping, in entertainment. This property’s innovation doesn’t stop with The Quarter. Among the outside the box offerings, Rodio brought Nick Wallenda to Atlantic City to walk the high wire from the Atlantic Club to the Tropicana and brought back the Tic Tac Toe playing chicken. Next on the horizon, a health and fitness center developed in collaboration with AtlantiCare, complete renovation of North Tower rooms, an outdoor light show, yoga on the beach, dance classes at Boogie Nights, and more surprises.
Rodio sees Atlantic City on the verge of a major turnaround. “For the first time in years, all stakeholders recognize the problem and are all working together toward the same goal.”
Another homegrown successful casino executive is Tom Ballance, CEO of the Borgata, who began as a waiter at the original Golden Nugget, learned the business while working as a casino analyst and then as director of development at Harrah’s. He was the first Borgata employee, working with the team that created it.
The team that developed the Borgata spent an incredible amount of time researching to understand what motivated AC visitors and why others didn’t visit. They learned that the missing market segment sought a broader based experience than AC offered in 2003. “As a result, rather than be gaming centric, the Borgata gave equal attention to the spa, the food and beverage options, the hotel, and the night clubs. They focused on building a more compelling, clean, service-centric environment.”
Ballance sees the mix of “home cooking” (true local understanding) and “very different thinking” as the formula for success. He too, emphasizes understanding the customer. “Everyone needs to know and understand what the customer wants; management needs to know what team members need to meet those wants.”
One example of The Borgata’s continuing mission to meet customer needs is the Water Club. “We had incredible demand for our product. We were always full. Guests couldn’t get restaurant reservations or show tickets. We built the Water Club, the first non-casino property, to tap into the non-gaming customer market.
“I’ve always been committed to a diverse, non-gaming business environment. I think all properties are now. We’re all creating niche identities, giving people a reason to travel to Atlantic City.” Ballance sees Stockton University’s presence as a game-changer. “The economic focus will shift to technical and health sciences careers. Students make the town feel younger.” Ballance sees “a few bumpy years ahead, but an extraordinary opportunity for long-term growth.”
These true believers, who have been in Atlantic City through many changes, have in common their commitment to customer service, outside the box thinking, and a compelling belief in Atlantic City, where their careers began. Their collective enthusiasm for innovative direction, not only for their and other casino/hotel properties, but also for new growth throughout the city, augurs a vital era. While gaming will continue, and that customer base remains critical, so do the many who have long supported Atlantic City’s other attractions – current and yet to be. Strengthened collaboration among the existing casino/hotel properties and their embrace of new businesses and ideas will propel the city’s renaissance. A future column will highlight those casino/hotels and hotels not included this time.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
This month’s True Believers are restaurateurs, people who not only give their customers sustenance, but who bring energy and excitement to Atlantic City. For a city of 40 blocks, we have over 300 restaurants, catering to every palette throughout the year. This column will periodically profile others in this critical business segment.
George Siganos has been nourishing Atlantic City since 1982, when he opened his first three restaurants at Ocean 1, the predecessor to the Pier Shops. After one year, as other struggling restaurants at that site closed, George owned 12. Once the property was reinvented, George remained in the picture with the popular food court, Piazza de Giorgio. Along the way, he opened the successful restaurant, Opa, in 2002, along with developing a block of stores. Unfortunately, Pinnacle took over that block and then moved on. But George continues to flourish in Atlantic City with in-demand offerings at his Café Tazzas in Caesar’s and Harrah’s. An inveterate believer in Atlantic City’s future, George opened a string of eateries at the Tropicana in 2013: Casa Taco and Tequila Bar, Tony Luke’s, Perry’s Pizza, the Market Place Express, and the Corner Bar. While the first four offer fast food and drink, Casa Taco brings different ambiance to the Tropicana’s boardwalk presence, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner inside and, during the warm weather, on the boardwalk.
With eight eateries in Atlantic City, George claims no favorites. “Every one is successful. I love them all.” His key to success mirrors that of others who succeed in this competitive market: “Know the market; know what the customers want, be high on service and quality and fair on price.”
George is extremely positive about being in Atlantic City: “I expand my business reach in Atlantic city because I believe in it. The best years are ahead.” He encourages other businesses to take advantage of the enticing prices and buy into Atlantic City’s future. As one who practices what he preaches, George has another major project, which already has city, county, and state approval, on the drawing board. That plan will be unveiled in a few months. For now, all he will say is that it’s a project that Atlantic City wants and customers need.
Angeloni’s II, started by the Angeloni family in 1981, remains an iconic Atlantic City staple. Alan Angeloni has been with the family’s restaurant business since he was a youngster, working in their Mercer County locations and then, as a young adult encouraging his father to consider the growing opportunities in Atlantic City as gambling took a foothold. The family bought the existing Parisi’s Club Madrid, gutted it, and created the Angeloni’s II brand: a comfortable atmosphere with a home-style feeling, warmed by white tablecloths and dark wood, and of course, outstanding homemade Italian food.
In this shore community, restaurants are not for summer tourists only. Alan finds that winters, while not offering the same robust traffic as summers, still keep the restaurant business going. “Convention attendees seek out restaurants; the Walk brings in shoppers, locals don’t stop dining out, and those who visit for other attractions find their way to the local eateries. The resurgence of Dante Hall brings in theater-goers, and Bass Pro Shops will be a welcome addition to the neighborhood.” Of course, word of mouth doesn’t hurt; and there is no shortage of that.
Alan has been through Atlantic City’s ups and downs, with three casino/hotels, then 13, and now eight, and is confident that the future is brightening. “I love our new mayor, who is giving 200% to move Atlantic City forward. With everyone working together – local, county, and state – so much is possible that hadn’t been before.” From a local perspective, Allan is thrilled to see that streets are getting paved, trees that created walking hazards and blocked lighting are being taken down, and new lighting is being installed. Every improvement in the city is one for all. Like so many in the city, Alan is concerned for those who’ve lost their jobs in recent months; however, he is hoping for new solutions and new job opportunities.
While our locally owned restaurants have been an Atlantic City staple from its inception, the addition of major chain restaurants has created another layer to the city’s draw and culinary offerings. Jeffrey Bank, CEO of a La Carte, parent company of Carmine’s, is thrilled that Carmine’s at the Tropicana is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Jeffery met Dennis Gomes, an Atlantic City visionary, 12 years ago as the company was considering opening a venue outside of NY. “We saw Atlantic city as close enough to NY for Carmine’s to have strong name recognition.” The rest is history. “Carmine’s is driven by a quality brand, says Jeffrey. It’s been the #1 restaurant in the City for a number of years.” That’s an impressive accomplishment in the busiest industry. “We love it here. We’re big on organic growth as Carmines continues to exceed customer expectations. Job creation is a result of our success and acceptance in Atlantic City; and those jobs lead to careers within the company. On hand to celebrate the Quarter’s tenth anniversary, Carmine’s was among the initial businesses in that high-energy venue.
That’s a small taste of Atlantic City’s restaurant owners’ excitement about and hope for Atlantic City. You can get a great sampling of all this industry has to offer during Restaurant Week, March 1-7, 2015. Visit www.acrestaurantweek.com for participating restaurants and prix fixe menus.
Frank Sinatra was an early supporter of Atlantic City. According to David Spatz, entertainment reporter, Frank Sinatra gave the City “the show business seal of approval” starting in the late 1930’s. Now, in 2014, Atlantic City is poised for adventure: Room, restaurant, and entertainment sales are up while gambling profits are down (but not out). During all of the debates about how to reinvent, what to bring in, what to toss out, and who can save the City, a strong contingent of brilliant entrepreneurs is often overshadowed.
Of course we need to move forward, revitalize, and become more creative than ever before, but while we’re at it, let’s tip our proverbial hats to some of the heroes of Atlantic City’s foundation, those with the vision to come, to stay, and to thrive. Not only do their businesses succeed but news of their success is a catalyst for additional creative thinkers to join them.
Below is a sampling of winners and their brief comments on what they are doing for AC and, more important, what AC is doing for them.
Anthony Catanoso, Steel Pier owner, is not happy about the perception of Atlantic City that has been dominating the media. “It couldn’t be farther from the truth,“ he lamented. “This summer showed increases in rides, food and beverage, and games,” he continued. I’m bullish on the future of Atlantic City. Family entertainment is on the rise. It’s frustrating to hear pundits who never set foot on the Pier talk about AC needing a first class amusement park. We are a first class state-of-the-art amusement park and have been for 24 years. We are almost shovel-ready for the new observation wheel.” Catanoso sums up his hope for Atlantic City: Atlantic City needs to go from gaming with some family entertainment to a family entertainment destination that also offers gaming. Capitalize on the beach and the boardwalk. Nobody is creating new beaches; we have the best boardwalk.”
Mike Hauke opened Tony Boloney’s six years ago as a fast-food bodega to serve construction workers as Revel broke ground. As the business began to take hold, Revel took a building hiatus and Mike realized that he had to rebrand in order to attract local residents and businesspeople. He knew he had to be hands-on to create the customer service environment that he wanted as well as craft a unique menu. On the principal of “If I can buy it, I can make it,” he began making everything from scratch, including yeast for the dough, cheese, and sauces. His front-end team is a cheerleading squad for the back of house cooks. By pushing boundaries to focus on a broader market, Mike not only helped his own business, he helped AC. “Numbers have gone up every year. The city has allowed us to grow exponentially. The AC market demand is changing. We need new life and new blood; small business needs to be in sync with that. AC is only getting better.” What can help small businesses? We need a small town, main street environment in which businesses support each other. Have a sharp focus on opportunities and possibilities and we’ll all grow.” Casinos brought a breath of fresh air to AC; they belong here, but so do new, exciting businesses opportunities. How does the national attention he’s drawn through his appearances on national ABC’s Live! With Kelly and Michae’sl Truckin’ Amazing Cook-Off fit in? “That’s just one piece in a patchwork of presenting Atlantic City in a positive way.”
David Holtzman, owner of the Holtzman Gallery in Ventnor, has worked in Atlantic City since 1980, but as an early visitor, he’s witnessed the changes over many decades. As a teenager, he was in line at Resort’s opening. As a businessman, he saw the growth spurts and dips. The Claridge approached the successful gallery owner to open a second site in AC, while envisioning its rebranding, The Holtzman Gallery in Ventnor would fit in a corner of the 20,000 square foot space it will occupy in the Claridge. Confirming that “great ideas come when you think outside the box,” David, is creating a gallery space that will look like a museum, show world-class art, and host gala events. He is not afraid of opening the largest art gallery in the world at a time when AC is facing such challenges. “It won’t be dark for long. I look forward to being a part of the turnaround,” he said, adding that he will help where he can in Atlantic City. “The more I get involved, the more I realize that the time is perfect. I have no doubt that Atlantic City will survive and succeed.” And with entrepreneurs like Holtzman diving into expansion, hope springs eternal.
Masterpiece has been offering creative marketing solutions to large and small businesses and casinos in and beyond Atlantic City for two decades. Phyllis Lacca, principal, came to Atlantic City for a summer vacation, was offered a job, and never left. “I came to the right place at the right time.” Phyllis responded to the question, “Is it the right time now?” with an enthusiastic, “More than ever!” She continued, “I have a vested interest in Atlantic City and need to join forces with all businesses here. Great things are happening, and we need to get the right message out.” Her message: “Gaming is a convenience product. People can gamble anywhere. If they want the total resort experience, they come to Atlantic City. We offer the beach, the boardwalk, the ocean, the best restaurants and entertainment, and gambling, too.“ The local business owner concluded, “I get wowed every day. Having an office here is inspiring and motivating; I walk the boardwalk, take a bike ride; I’m a tourist in my own city.”
The common message of these entrenched, successful business owners is that Atlantic City retains its appeal to them and to their customers. Can the city be more responsive to a broader spectrum of tourist and resident experiences? Of course! A forward-looking perspective, coupled with varied but congruent, initiatives is key.
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