‘We rebuilt by hand’: The comeback of a Jersey Shore tackle store

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, NJ – In the years after Super Hurricane Sandy, bumper stickers were everywhere: Jersey Strong. Restore the shore.

Meet two Jersey Shore small business owners who are truly “Jersey Strong” as Tommy Cortese and Rick Hibell endured the entire loss of their business, floods, fire, threats of lawsuits, no payouts. insurance, as well as very limited government assistance in the wake of Sandy, which hit New Jersey a decade ago this week.

And yet, somehow, the Outfitters on the quays is back in business in Seaside Heights, as strong, if not stronger than ten years ago.

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Located directly on Barnegat Bay, the tackle and bait shop is about as classic as Jersey Shore, providing jet ski and boat rentals, as well as fishing tackle and fishing trips. daily to thousands of summer customers for decades. They also have a waterfront cafe.

Cortese, now 66, has worked all his life in his father’s business. Hibell, 46, on the other hand, stayed at Seaside during the summer, at his parents’ beach bungalow (which was also destroyed in Sandy). When Hibell was 10, he started working on the docks while Cortese handled rentals. Growing up 20 years apart, the two men struck up a friendship that became like father-son or older brother-younger brother. Cortese was the best man at Hibell’s wedding.

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In 1999 Cortese and Hibell decided to buy the company together and become partners. Business was good and they expanded, opening a second jet ski rental shop near Ortley Beach. Plans were underway for a third store.

And then Sandy made landfall in New Jersey on the night of October 22, 2012.

“We were actually at Tommy’s daughter’s wedding that night in Point Pleasant Beach,” Hibell recalled. “A wedding of all things. It had already started to really take over and they closed the place early and sent us all home.”

The two men had prepared, of course, as all Jersey Shore residents did: they chained all 25 boats they owned to the wrought iron fence. They moved as much equipment as they could off the island. They never thought Barnegat Bay would walk into the store or take away the 40 jet skis they had secured in the parking lot.

When they returned two days after the storm had passed, nothing could prepare them for the devastation they witnessed.

“First of all, you could only get to Seaside Heights by boat. They had closed the Rt. 37 bridge (the only way to or from the island),” Hibell said. “So we got there by boat and found a foot and a half of water inside the building. My parents’ beach house a few blocks away was completely flooded, five feet of water at All of our jet skis, I would say 30 to 40, had been swept away, they were scattered all over the bay, all over Seaside Heights and a few were swept away almost as far as Island Beach State Park.

Hibell actually asked that we not tell his story, because “there were homeowners, year-round residents at Seaside, who had five feet of water in their living room. Those are the people who really lost it all. .What we went through was minor compared to some people in this storm.”

The seawater had shorted out the electricity to the bait and tackle store and caused a fire outside the building. Fortunately, the flames did not spread inside. Hibell lives year-round in the Leonardo section of Middletown and his waterfront home on Raritan Bay was also flooded. Besides that, he was the Middletown Fire Department Chief at the time.

“That’s really the only thing that kept me going: we had to answer so many calls to help others and then in the meantime get the boat back to Seaside and pick up all the wave runners,” said he declared. “We had just seen $100,000 worth of product blow away.”

Then the state police shut down all boat traffic going in and out of Seaside. Because so many homes had been abandoned and were inaccessible, police were concerned about looters, Hibell said. The police told the two men that they would not be able to return by boat for the next few weeks.

The land on which the Dock Outfitters sits is actually owned by the City of Seaside Heights; Cortese and Hibell lease the property to the city with a 20-year lease. Because of this unique arrangement, they had commercial insurance, but no flood insurance.

“Our insurance company was terrible; they gave us nothing, I mean nothing,” Hibell said. “And people don’t realize it, but the government aid after Sandy was pretty low compared to the government aid after COVID. I don’t think we even applied for grants.”

“It was all of us,” Cortese recalled. “We had lost everything. We had to use our own money. We had to rebuild the whole store, find and rebuild every damaged boat by hand, on our own.”

The stress finally got to Hibell: his entire business and his family’s vacation home, which had belonged to the family for generations, were both destroyed. His own house was flooded and he and his wife had three young children. A few weeks after Sandy, he found himself hospitalized with severe gastrointestinal inflammation.

“I’ve really never seen anything like this storm,” he marvels even today. “We prepared, but we just didn’t think it would be as bad as it was.”

Even early the following summer, business on Seaside Heights was still pretty devastated.

“A lot of people still weren’t coming to the Jersey Shore,” Cortese recalled. “It wasn’t like in COVID when people had tons of free money to spend and were renting jet skis multiple times a week like last summer.”

But the landlord who owned the land their second store was on still wanted his rent payments. He threatened to sue them if they didn’t pay. Fearing a legal battle, Hibell and Cortese decided to pay him off. But they didn’t have enough wave runners to rent from the store. The summer after the storm, they employed a teenage girl to sit and answer the phone, redirecting the few customers who showed up to their original location.

Ultimately, Hibell decided to let Cortese regain sole ownership of Dock Outfitters. In Sandy’s wake, he decided it was the right time to pivot and focus on expanding his shipbuilding business.

At the time, he had no idea what it would become: Belford-based EZ Docks Marine Construction is the sole authorized distributor of EZ Dock floating docks in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

Additionally, they recently secured Florida distribution rights. Hibell opened its two new stores, in West Palm Beach and Fort Myers, just before Hurricane Ian hit last month. Demand has been high for dock reconstruction in Florida. Today, he employs over 40 employees and sells to 20 dealerships across the East Coast.

“I’ve gone from losing my entire business to now running a thriving business,” Hibell said.

What did it take?

“Hard work. That’s really all I can say. We really had no help and had to do it on our own,” he said.

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