By Marjorie Nesin
---- — Memorial Day Weekend means the start of the summer tourism and beach season on Cape Ann, and businesses are ready to throw open their doors and pull in customers, despite a stormy winter that wreaked havoc on Rockport’s Bearskin Neck, sloshed flood water across Essex’s roadways and tore apart Gloucester’s iconic Good Harbor footbridge.
A hot dog mascot waved customers into Essex River Dogs for Eric Vennerbeck’s first day of service last weekend. The Ipswich native, — who returned from a television career in Los Angeles, bought the small house at 162 Main St. in Essex, and renovated and converted it into a hot dog and ice cream take out stand— was delighted to be in business.
“When I bought this place, I fell in love,” Vennerbeck said. “I love hot dogs, but I just thought this is fun. It’s more the environment and the fun of it.”
Since its opening, the neighborhood kids have kept the joyous Vennerbeck busy, leaning out the take out window to smile and offer up dogs. One group came to buy dogs three times in just one day, he said. The shop features three types of hot dogs, including a vegetarian one, and toppings include feta, pineapple, chopped tomatoes and the usual suspects.
The new business’s seeming success is not a unique situation on Cape Ann this year. The Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce has received roughly 35 percent more calls inquiring about hotels and inns this month compared to last year. According to Robert Heidt, CEO at the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, damaged or unused storefronts have filled up, and veteran business owners are reinvigorated for the season. “We’re starting to see where there might have been some vacancies in shops, new shops have come in, different shops have moved around too, which is really nice to see because to fill those store fronts really just creates the ultimate area to visit,” Heidt said.
The Chamber of Commerce, through an electronic program, directs callers to hotels and inns across Cape Ann. The chamber also distributes materials outside of Cape Ann, promoting the region as a place to visit.
The eight-room Bearskin Neck Motor Lodge Inn is about 90 percent booked up for Memorial Day weekend, for example. Joe Allen, who bought the Bearskin Neck Motor Lodge Inn in April, said the summer reservations are up a speck from what the previous owners had on the books.
Allen has performed repairs and added a gallery in the office and lobby check-in desk. He said he has been visiting Cape Ann for about 25 years while living in state and running campgrounds as a profession, and had always wanted to buy property in the area.
“It should be a positive year for everybody. We’re dealing with a good economy. We’re not in gloom and doom like we were last year,” Allen said.
Heidt says that the Chamber recognizes the value of Cape Ann’s classic and older restaurants and stores, and admires the owners’ abilities to jump back into business after the winter weather and storms smashed flooded and smashed shops.
Sweats of Rockport was basically gutted this spring, after the Bearskin Neck shop flooded in a January storm.
“It’s all repaired and it’s all brand new inside here,” said store manager Trish Gangi, “we finished in the second week in April and we opened up that weekend.”
The basic construction of the shop was designed to resemble its pre-storm self, and shirts and jackets in bright spring colors decorate the walls and fill the shelves of the store. Employees continued to unpack new merchandise and shelf it Thursday.
Gangi said the store anticipates bus tours and cruises that stopped in the area to be back this year, and help again with sales.
And Heidt noted the enthusiasm and exciting ideas he has observed in owners and managers new to Cape Ann.
“The new ones that are coming in, the enthusiasm and excitement is refreshing. It’s amazing to see,” Heidt said.
In Gloucester, the new owner and general manager of Olivia’s, Ron Urnetta, definitely falls into the enthusiastic category.
Olivia’s has already introduced a meat smoker, and plans to implement an outdoor bar-b-que and drink cooler during the beach season. This summer, Olivia’s will also begin providing non-alcoholic sangria mix, with fresh fruit and juice, for people to mix with wine they bring in.
The restaurant was run as a take out sub shop called Amelia’s for years, until a new owner came in last year and turned the restaurant into a more upscale gourmet-style eatery. While that model did not sustain, Urnetta said the new model, under his ownership, is ready to greet beachgoers, other visitors and locals alike in a more casual format.
“We’ve tried to cut it down the middle,” Urnetta said.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.