SURF CITY, N.J. — Growing up in Matawan, Colleen Gewirtz had fond memories of visits to Long Beach Island and the historic Surf City Hotel, reports the Asbury Park Press, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.
“Our family summered in Surf City every year and the hotel was a central spot in town that was always part of our lives,” said the Freehold resident, who never imagined that she’d one day own the structure that had been a Surf City institution since the mid-1800s.
A former nurse practitioner at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold Township and later in private practice, Gewirtz learned that the fabled hotel was up for sale four years ago, when she and her husband Greg, a patent attorney, were considering purchasing a home on LBI to enjoy with their four kids.
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“Though we knew it would be a massive project, we saw the Surf City Hotel as a great opportunity and bought it in 2017,” said Gewirtz.
In the three years since buying the hotel, which features 30 guest rooms, a liquor store, a 400-seat restaurant, and a beach club complete with three bars, a dance floor and a stage, “we’ve made significant changes every season,” Gewirtz said.
“In 2017, we revamped the kitchen and upgraded all of the hotel rooms with new mattresses, bedding, carpeting, furniture and window treatments, brought the restaurant up to code and freshened its décor, and also undertook a number of structural renovations, including replacement of support beams that held up the second and third floor of the hotel,” she said. “In 2018, we redid the entire beach club and men’s and women’s restrooms, re-sided the exterior of the building, and installed new awnings.”
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In 2019, they restored a 75-year-old old porch that had been concealed behind walls, an upgrade which the mayor of Surf City helped celebrate with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and also installed sliding-glass doors on two walls in order to provide more outdoor restaurant space.
Early this year, they added a patio surrounded by a landscaped garden and covered by unique sails to provide shade for patrons who prefer outdoor dining.
“At the time, we had no idea how much we’d end up needing that outdoor access,” Gewirtz said, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic. The renovations paid off, as the hotel once again became an LBI destination for great dining, lodging and entertainment.
Early this year, as they prepared to open the hotel for the season on April 17, “we had private parties, rehearsal dinners, showers and other events planned in our restaurant every weekend, room reservations booked throughout the summer, and we felt like 2020 was going to be our best year yet,” Gewirtz said.
Then the pandemic hit.
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As COVID-19 cases rose, businesses shut down and anxiety mounted, “everyone started calling to cancel room reservations and parties, we were issuing everyone refunds, and it was pretty hard,” she said. “Throughout April, May and June, people were pretty fearful of coming out.”
While they waited for statewide conditions to improve, Gewirtz and her staff employed many measures to assure guests of a safe and positive experience.
“Though we’ve always used CDC-approved cleaning products and adhered to all Department of Health guidelines, we took extra measures to disinfect the rooms and began disinfecting doorknobs, railings, and other surfaces more than in the past,” Gewirtz said.
“In our restaurant, where we’ve always been vigilant about cleanliness, we added a second step of cleaning the restaurant, kitchen and bathrooms with a professional electrostatic machine to constantly sterilize these spaces,” she said. Employees also complete health questionnaires and undergo temperature checks daily.
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At their restaurant, which currently offers outdoor service only, “customers can only enter the property to place an order or use the restrooms and must wear a face mask; in addition, tables are six feet — ‘one dolphin’ — apart and we’ve installed hand sanitizer stations everywhere,” Gewirtz said.
When the state was unable to move forward with indoor dining in early July based on its number of COVID-19 cases, “we added a tent outside, which gives us options for guests on hot and sunny or rainy days, and now we can seat up to several dozen people outside, all socially distanced.”
Part of great memories
According to Gewirtz, guests began returning to the establishment early this summer “and they’re happy and feel safe at the restaurant and in the hotel. At this point, people are courteous and educated on the precautions they need to take and are proactive about safety measures — this is the new normal.”
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She said many rooms have been booked through the summer and guests are enjoying the restaurant’s full menu, which includes soups, salads, burgers and fresh seafood and sushi, as well as live acoustic music on the weekends.
“For what we can offer, we’re doing well,” Gewirtz said of their current activity. “Our tables and rooms are filled within the limitations we have to abide by, but in the grand scheme of our entire business, we’re down significantly. Given that we can only seat people outside, have to undertake extra measures to clean our kitchen, and also want to be considerate of our neighbors, we’re closing our kitchen earlier and serving dramatically fewer people than in the past.”
Gewirtz is also concerned about the long-term fallout of what she calls “the lost year.”
“Seasonal businesses like ours will be struggling all winter from this and I’m not sure what the outlook for Shore businesses will be next year,” she said.
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Despite the difficulties they’ve endured, Gewirtz said that their wonderful guests have made it worthwhile.
“So many customers come in and thank us for everything we’re doing and for being open,” she said. “We see so many regular customers here; they love coming to the hotel and restaurant and we’re so grateful that they have the confidence in us to frequent our business.”
For Gewirtz, their longtime and new guests are among the best parts of owning the landmark property.
“They’re happy to be here because they’re on vacation and I enjoy all of the people we get to meet,” she said. “The Surf City Hotel is part of so many people’s great memories and I especially love seeing families with kids come because it reminds me of when I used to come here with my family.”
Though 2020 has delivered unprecedented challenges, Gewirtz believes that the Surf City Hotel will stand the test of time.
“People like to see the familiar places when they come to Long Beach Island because so much has changed here, and we’re committed to maintaining the character of this historic establishment while bringing it up to date,” she said. “It’s nice that when you’re in Surf City, the Surf City Hotel is here for you.”
The Surf City Hotel
Location: 800 Long Beach Blvd., Surf City
Owners: Greg and Colleen Gewirtz (since 2017)
Opened: Late 1800s
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This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: New Jersey beach hotel made big renovations, then COVID-19 hit