“If you’d asked me at the end of last August whether I wanted to continue, I would’ve said ‘no way’,” said Rick Santariello, about Russo’s, his family’s business in Wildwood. A large Italian restaurant, the business – and the Russo family – have served county residents and visitors for generations.
“But now, time has passed,” Santiarello continued. “Things picked up this winter, and I say ‘no way we won’t continue.’ They’re two different mind sets, but that’s the way this business can be.”
Roller coaster emotions are familiar to local business owners. Meeting customer demands and traffic seven days a week for months on end, by the end of high season – which now lasts over half a year in some communities – they’re worn out. With a few months rest, however, they’re longing for the seasonal business to begin again.
At least that’s the way it used to be as large local businesses came of age – before the unprecedented housing boom brought legions of new residents and visitors to the county, a development which some say is changing the old tourism-based economy into a baby boomer second-home environment.
Changes in regional population and housing trends have deeply affected local businesses. And for those businesses still operating, the standard struggle between exhaustion and exhilaration has a new element: whether to give in to land use trends and sell to developers who are aching to put multi-unit structures on the underlying land.
Since 1920’s Russo’s opened as the “Gingham Club” in 1922, two years after the start of Prohibition, seven years before the first great stock market crash, and at a time when most Americans believed they’d fought and won the war to end all wars.
Though they’re now deceased, founders Elizabeth and Joseph Russo, and Joseph’s brother Salvatore, still get top billing on the Russo’s menu, though by their more familiar names: Mom, Pop and Tootsie.
Elizabeth and Joseph left the business to their three children Joseph Russo, Moffie Breakell and Rose Santariello.
Today, Rose Santariello and Joseph Russo are the sole owners, remaining active even though they’re well into retirement years. Like their parents before them, they rely on their children to help out. Rose’s sons Rick and Scott manage the restaurant; Joe’s daughter Amy Coleman manages the bar, which is located in its own substantial structure adjoining the restaurant.
Rick Santiarello says that his fondest memories are of the family working together.
“All the cousins would come down from Philadelphia for the summer,” he said. “It was quite a time.”
“No one in the family wants to see townhouses here,” Rick Santiarello told the Herald, as he gestured to the restaurant space surrounding him one recent afternoon before opening.
Years ago, the Russo family sold off an adjoining property (on which the “Brass Nail” bar was located) but for the most part, the immediate neighborhood at Park Boulevard across from Otten’s Harbor is not as affected as many others areas in the Wildwoods. Still nestling on side streets are many low-lying cottages in which the same families have lived for generations.
“We know most of the families,” said Rick Santiarello, ticking off their names and various peregrinations.
“But it’s clear that now we’re going to see more changes,” he said, citing examples like Flacco’s Market, a block away, which recently closed and soon will be replaced with some combination of condominiums and storefronts.
Santiarello noted that while he personally has “nothing against condominiums,” they should be kept in perspective. “In a way it’s everybody’s fault,” he said. “We all should have been at planning board meetings when the big money from New York came in, if we thought it was important to save motel rooms, keep the town a certain way.”
While it might seem that the influx of new residents and visitors would help businesses like Russo’s, Rick Santariello told the Herald that the family’s experience last year was exactly the opposite. And he has specific theories as to why that’s so.
First of all, condo conversations have resulted in the loss of thousands of motel rooms, he said. “Until that happened, we were a resort economy. No one knows what we are any more. Even the Mayor said that.”
He does know that the family business saw a decline in revenues in the summer of 2005.
“Last year, condos rented out for very high prices every week,” Rick said. “Families used to come down here with, say, $1,000 they’d saved up; they’d put $350 into rent and were happy to spend the rest on dinners and entertainment. Now they have to save a lot more and almost everything they save goes into rent; whatever’s left, they buy groceries at one of the offshore supermarkets and eat at home in their rental.”
“If you pay $2,000 a week for a condo,” he asked, “how many times can you eat out?”
Rose Santariello adds: “Even though the area has changed dramatically, we don’t know what it will give by way of tourism. So many motel rooms have come down, and so many condos have gone up! We’ve seen a lot in the years we’ve been here, but this is the most dramatic thing we’ve seen in all those years.”
Both Rick and Rose Santariello also believe that gas prices and downturns in the economy led to last year’s slight downturn in business.
And they’re very aware that the long-term effects of condo development are simply not yet known – that there’s even a possibility, as new families settle in and seek out comfortable eating establishments, that commercial locations like their own will be the true gold mines of the next decade.
She would be “very sad” if all this ended, Rose Santiarello told the Herald.
“I was raised in this,” she said. “We all were. Even though you know you have to change with trends in life, it’s very sad if it means giving up something you’ve been a part of forever.”
Then again, there’s the recent re-val. “Just like everybody else in Wildwood,” said Rick, “we’re holding our breath to see what it really means.” He noted that some businesses already “have decided to close” in light of “significant tax raises.”
“We’re really up in the air,” said matriarch Rose. “We did put it up for sale, but that doesn’t mean we will definitely sell. We might be here for the next 30 years.”
“The fact that we’ve been here as long as we have, you don’t just give that up quickly,” she noted.
To add to the mix, according to Rick Santierello, this winter they’ve seen a definite uptick in business.
The upshot? “We just will wait and see,” said Mrs. Santiarello.
Currently under consideration, according to the Santiarellos, is development of a new pub connected with the bar. The decision about going forward with the pub, said Rose Santiarello, will be made by her brother, Joseph Russo.
A Shore Gem
The atmosphere at Russo’s is unique and eclectic.
On a recent weekday, Christina Palomec, who had traveled down from Philadelphia for her father’s funeral, sat eating at the bar with a childhood friend. Recently engaged to a member of the Delphonics, Palomec will be residing in Philadelphia, but she remembers Wildwoood fondly and says she always feels at home at Russo’s. She also spoke of her truck-driving career and how she’d like to run a program for young women in the area who may feel their options are limited.
Across the room, a well-dressed middle-aged couple joked around near a barber chair whose weathered red leather reflected colors of the striped barber pole spinning above it.
Spirits of all types abounded.
Later that day, at an early supper, customer Bonnie Leis spoke enthusiastically about the restaurant. “Our first visit, we just noticed it from the street and wandered in,” she said. Leis, who owns a second home here, added that she and her husband expect to be back frequently through the year.
Rick and Scott Santiarello were lining up orders back in kitchen, where the chrome is so spotless as to reflect ghosts of family past.
“You can’t throw away 84 years,” said Rick, who, just like his mother, began working at age 11.
“There was never a time that I thought about locating somewhere else. Wildwood will always be my home.”
“I’ve been here since I was a boy,” he said of Russo’s, “and I’ve just always thought I’d be here forever.”