September is here again, and residents around the Sussex coast can again collectively exhale, having survived the stress of another summer season. More and more so every year, however, locals are likely taking another deep breath at the end of that exhalation — as they get ready for round two.
For businesses, the crowds have dwindled somewhat, but so has the workforce.
“It definitely makes it a little difficult, right when you think you’re going to get to take a little break and people start leaving,” Bethany Blues Manager Kevin Roberts pointed out.
“We’re stretching everybody to six days a week,” he continued. “Yes, it’s starting to slow down a little bit, but we’d like to stay open seven days a week — it gets tough.”
According to Roberts, the Bethany Blues staff comprises roughly 50 percent American college students, with foreign exchange students making up another 20 percent (the remaining 30 percent being year-round residents).
The Americans have started back to schoolalready, and he expected some of the foreign students would leave within the next week. “Although, some do stick around,” Roberts noted. “They always want to work as much as they can, but I try not to put anybody on the schedule seven days in a row. They need a day off to maintain their sanity.”
With a larger workforce, Roberts said he might not have to close the restaurant even one day a week during the winter. As it stands, he said he usually kept his five or six year-round servers on the floor each of the five nights a week he expected they’d remain open in the heart of winter.
But closing and opening, closing and opening was ideally the way to run a restaurant, Roberts added. For instance, while he’d closed for a month at low ebb in Bethany Blues’ first and second seasons, he planned to stay open this year.
Noting more traffic and year-round residents, just inland, he suggested it might be easier for restaurants along Route 26 to make that decision.
And in Clarksville, Hocker’s SuperCenter manager Bob Willey’s observations seemed to confirm that. “It drops off, especially on Cedar Neck (at sister store G&E, north of Ocean View),” he said. “It’s becoming less seasonal, but — just take a look at the traffic after Labor Day, and you can see the difference. Still, it’s definitely becoming a better place to operate a business in the fall.”
Willey admitted they were smarting from staff shortages, not so much from the loss of college students, but definitely from the loss of foreign students, and local high school students.
“It’s always a problem around this time of year, because the high school kids want to take off for a week or two at the end of the summer — and I don’t blame them — or they have fall sports starting up,” Willey said. “But it’s something we just buckle down and get through.”
While some of the exchange students kept working through September, he said they often wanted to take a little time off, too. “Some stay right up until the deadline, but others want to go home for a week or two before school starts,” he said. “And sometimes they get together and take tours at this time of year, to (Washington) D.C. or Philadelphia or New York.
“Some are here just to work and make money, but others want to see a little more of the rest of the country,” Willey pointed out. “It gets pretty tight around here — but some of the high school kids are willing to come back, help us out, work a Saturday shift here and there until things slow down.”
Down the coast in Fenwick Island, Thomas Ogilvie, assistant general manager of Harpoon Hanna’s, said his restaurant could not survive in the late-summer and early-fall periods without assistance from overseas.
“The international students are here through September,” he said. “They help keep our kitchen together. They do very well in the kitchen. Without them it would be impossible to run this place.”
Even with the foreign workers, the exodus of American collegians blunts Harpoon Hanna’s.
“They tell you they can work through Labor Day weekend and then leave three weeks early and don’t give two-weeks notice. It really puts you in a bind,” said Ogilvie, who handled the hiring of the restaurant’s 150 undergraduate staffers this summer. “These students are in school and their parents are taking care of it. They’re not really worried about the money.”
The assistant general manager expects to employ more students from Salisbury University, in nearby Salisbury, Md., next year because they can continue working weekends after classes start at the end of August. In the meantime, the restaurant must close some of its sections during the workweek.
“It makes us go on a little longer of a wait. The quality is still there, the service is still there, but we can’t seat customers as fast,” Ogilvie said. “It’s a lot more convenient when we can open the whole restaurant.”
But like football players rallying around wounded teammates, the holdovers step up their performances to compensate for absences.
“We as managers really pick up the slack. For instance, I’m a host tonight,” he said during the Tuesday night interview. “And the year-rounders pick up the slack. This is when they make most of their money.”
On the beach, Fenwick Island’s beach patrol Capt. Tim Ferry said staffing won’t be problematic during the traffic-heavy holiday.
“Labor Day weekend, we will have all of our stands up,” he said. “Two weeks from now, we will only do Monday through Friday.”
The start of the academic year, Ferry said, may force the beach patrol to outfit its lifeguard stations with one, instead of two, guards. The closure of two blocks of beach for the town’s sand-replenishment project, however, will narrow the coverage zone for the captain and his crew.
“In essence, the beach replenishment is helping us,” Ferry said. “It’s closing off some swimming areas.”
After Labor Day, furthermore, the reduced staffs in Fenwick Island and elsewhere will have fewer people to guard.
Bethany captain Joe Donnelly said his patrol would have the people to provide coverage all along the boardwalk, weekends until October. “We do have some veteran lifeguards, some college students who’ve finished and are just kind of figuring out their next step, a few teachers,” Donnelly noted.
And Bethany police Chief Michael Redmon said his department rolled through the seasonal transition in similar fashion. Some of the seasonal officers were still working toward their criminal justice degrees, Redmon pointed out. “They’re just testing the waters, to see if they’re going to like this job, or not,” he said.
A smaller, resort-oriented force was a great opportunity for them to do that, he said — because of their size, the Bethany Beach Police Department didn’t have the luxury of assigning officers to specialized units. Everyone did everything.
Officers on the east side of Route 1 wind up pulling foot patrols, bike patrols — and there’s typically a serious public information element involved.
“A lot of people ask us for directions, or we get questions like ‘where’s the best place to eat?’ — people always need something,” Redmon explained.
It’s all public service, he noted, and if young officers could handle a few seasons in coastal Sussex, Redmon suspected other departments would probably take their interest level pretty seriously.
But like most residents, they’re probably happy to catch a breath now, too.