GEORGETOWN, DEL. — GEORGETOWN, Del. - A quarter-million visitors are about to kick off the summer in Ocean City this weekend; another 150,000 or so will be heading for the Delaware shore.
A few miles from the center of this small town about 45 minutes from Ocean City, John Hamstead will be satisfied if he grabs a fraction of their business at the roadside market that has been in his family for three generations.
The beach is big business in the resort towns, worth an estimated $1.5 billion a year to Ocean City merchants, more than a half-billion to their Delaware counterparts. Hotels, condos and ocean apartments are filling up fast; and if the weather holds, this weekend will likely keep pace with a three-year boom in tourism.
But away from the glitzy high-rises, way before the all-you-can-eat buffets and the boardwalk clamor, an army of Delmarva vendors is waiting. Manning roadside produce stands, barbecue pits and country convenience stores, they're hoping to attract some of the annual Memorial Day caravan of jam-packed minivans and sport utility vehicles.
No one seems to have a firm estimate on how much beach traffic means for the rest of the peninsula, especially on the back roads. But you don't have to be good with math to cash in on 350,000 cars loaded with tourists that will be crossing the Bay Bridge during the next three days.
Elmer's Market, Hamstead's place, offers beach-goers a cool spot under shade trees on Route 404. Hamstead is an affable patriarch in red suspenders, bantering with customers as he's done for nearly 50 years.
He says pretty much everything has changed since his father started out in the early 1950s. One obvious difference: Memorial Day ain't what it used to be.
"It's still a big weekend, don't get me wrong," Hamstead says. "But for us, the season really runs from early April to Christmas. So many people enjoy second homes in the spring and fall, and there're so many events in Ocean City the off season, it's extended our business."
When he was a teen-ager, Hamstead says, business came in spurts, depending on Chesapeake Bay ferry schedules. In those days, his family didn't begin gearing up until late June, opening shortly before the Fourth of July. They grew almost everything they sold.
These days, the business has expanded, employing a dozen workers, adding a gift shop and greenhouses for bedding plants. Until midsummer, when their vegetable crops come in, the Hamsteads buy produce wholesale from distributors or local farmers.
In recent years, the family has decked the place out with a Pumpkin Land theme for Halloween and then switched to Christmas wreaths and other holiday items.
"In a way, it's more fun because it's seasonal," Hamstead says. "You get tired of flowers in the spring, and it's time for vegetables; you get sick of produce, and it's time for pumpkins and Christmas. The trick is to keep it interesting, keep it changing, so people will want to get out of their cars."
Up the road in Greenwood, Route 16 (the preferred route for many Baltimore and Washington tourists heading to and from Rehoboth Beach) crosses U.S. 13, the Eastern Shore's main north-south artery. According to one group of aging veterans, you take that location, add the proper barbecue sauce, and you can sell a whole lot of chicken.
The Greenwood Veterans of Foreign Wars has raised "thousands and thousands of dollars" over the years, donating it to charities all over town. This weekend, members will be working furiously in a cloud of smoke, serving up 3,000 chicken barbecue dinners. Each half-chicken serving is $4.25, including side dishes.
"It'll be big because it's a long weekend, but we've been out every weekend since April," says Tyson Cannon. "Even on a regular weekend, we sell 2,500 dinners. God, they go crazy for that sauce. We're selling chicken like crazy."
In fact, the barbecue is so popular, the VFW works only half the season, turning the job over to the local volunteer fire company in late summer. Most Friday nights, the 2-year-old tin-roofed shed and kitchen-pit area next to the fire hall is turned over to local churches for their fund raising.
"It just shows that when you do something right, word gets around," says Cannon, 75.
Near Assateague State Park and the Assateague National Seashore, which draw more than 1 million visitors a year, Julie and Andy Bucher aren't exactly off the beaten track - unless you compare the small country store they recently bought on Route 611 to the commercial snarl of outlet stores and fast-food restaurants along U.S. 50 a few miles away in West Ocean City.
The couple ran a taxi business in Arizona before moving to be closer to family. Their grand opening is this weekend.
They're calling the store Whirlygigs, planning to offer everything from deli items to pizza to bait and tackle and supplies that Assateague campers, kayakers and other visitors might need.
And then there are the hermit crabs. No general store two miles from a national seashore and miles and miles of beach can be without hermit crabs.
"Yeah, we're waiting to hear from the hermit crab lady up in New Jersey; that was one we hadn't thought about," says Julie Bucher. "Our whole approach is to try to get the tourism, but we think we've got to also cater to local people year round. We want to have that friendly kind of Eastern Shore atmosphere people are used to."