In the early part of the 20th century, when the Wildwoods weren’t so wild yet, dreamers came to the shores here with a little money, rolled up their sleeves and built the place we know today.
They were men like Sebastian Ramagosa, the “King of the Boardwalk,” who ushered in tram cars and arcades. William Hunt opened movie theaters up and down the coast and built Hunt’s Pier, the greatest amusement pier in all of New Jersey. The Morey family helped give Wildwood its coat of neon nearly 50 years ago by ushering in doo-wop hotels, and today, brothers Jack and Will Morey continue to adapt and bring new rides and amusements to their three piers there.
These famous families of Wildwood have their photos and artifacts, blueprints of their famous designs, hanging on the walls of the George F. Boyer Historical Museum on Pacific Avenue.
The Sciarra family will be there too someday, if they can sit still for a few minutes or even pose for a photo without a phone ringing. On a fall Saturday morning in Wildwood, Brendan Sciarra is the first family member to grab a seat at Dogtooth Bar & Grill, his bar on Taylor Avenue near New Jersey Avenue. His phone is ringing almost nonstop.
Brendan is 34, a married father of three, and he purchased Mr. D’s Pizzeria Steaks & Subs next door and turned it into Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza in 2014. The restaurant is named after David “Poppi” Sciarra, his late grandfather, who came to Wildwood from Italy and started a concrete business. ”I’m a workaholic,” he says, checking his phone and looking around for his father, Mike, and younger brother, Chris.
Indeed—to add to his impressive juggling act, Brendan also purchased the former Harley Davidson dealership, a cavernous building on Rio Grande Avenue, and is planning to turn it into the 5 Mile Brewing Company, a craft brewery and smokehouse.
“That’s the next part. That’s the big one,” Brendan says. “We are waiting on the approval process for the brewery. We’re going to have our own little corridor going with all these businesses.”
Mike Sciarra, 66, arrives next in board shorts and a t-shirt from Kona Surf Company, his iconic surf and sports store that’s been an anchor on the corner of New Jersey and Rio Grande Avenues for decades. Mike’s a University of Hawaii graduate, and the islands are where his love of surfing and business classes collided in the late 60s and never came apart. According to Kona’s web site, Mike learned “the ins-and-outs of surfboard and skateboard shaping and manufacturing from some of the best on the North Shore.” Mike is almost permanently tan from summer days in the surf.
He started in the Wildwoods at age 12, riding the slow, gentle waves on longboards. On the day he met with Cape May Magazine, he was hoping an approaching storm, Hurricane Hermine, was stirring up some big swells. “I still surf all the time. Next week is going to be great,” he says after a brief hello to his son.
Mike Sciarra started making surfboards in a garage when he returned from Hawaii, and eventually rented a storefront next to the Apollo Diner. In 1976, Sciarra began renting out a defunct car dealership, and that building is where Kona still sits today, familiar to every local and tourist coming in from Rio Grande Avenue.“We’re open all year round but I survived because I was on Rio Grande Avenue,” Sciarra said. “I have great customers. Through thick and thin, they still come from offshore.”
In recent years, the Sciarras also purchased the former Blockbuster Video across the street from Kona, and they’ve turned a former Sherwin Williams paint store on Rio Grande and Arctic avenues into Kona Bike & Board House, a “hard goods” store where they’re selling surfboards, paddleboards and bicycles.
“I started making surfboards in my garage and now I’m back to designing them again,” Mike says. “We’ve gotten back to the roots.”
The Sciarras’ downtown monopoly in Wildwood is why they’re so busy, all of them looking like they’ve got someplace to be as their phones continue to ring. Their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in Wildwood, where attracting and keeping non-boardwalk businesses isn’t always easy. The city recently awarded the Sciarras a certificate of appreciation for basically making sure Wildwood’s front door, Rio Grande Avenue, is thriving with fresh businesses.
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. said he’s known the Sciarra family since he could open his eyes.
“I remember when Mike started with those surfboards in the garage,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come. They’re a great family. They’re workers. They work hard and believe me, they argue hard too.”
Mike prefers to deflect the attention and laud his sons, who he says were crucial in getting the Kona name out there in surfing circles in recent years. Chris hasn’t arrived yet at Dogtooth on this Saturday morning, so Dad is heaping praise on Brendan, along with a dose of fatherly concern that his firstborn is taking on more than he can handle between the bar, the pizzeria and the approaching brewpub. “He’s been pretty successful. He pretty much runs this himself,” Mike says. “I just worry that’s it too much.”
Brendan smiles because he’s heard this type of talk before.
“He’s always worrying,” Brendan says.
Brendan Sciarra, it seems, probably couldn’t operate at a slower speed. He’s always thinking about businesses and whether he can handle one more. “I just saw the opportunity here, and I eat and breathe Wildwood,” Brendan says. “I’m a little bit more year round. Wildwood is unique. My employees are from here. People can come here and I think if you offer something and you’re open and you stick it out… On the good days and bad days, people will come. I think with Poppi’s, we’ve really created a buzz. People from Cape May come over there. It’s nice having people from others towns coming here and not just for the beach and boardwalk. You just try to please as many people as you can.”
Troiano Jr. says he’s very impressed with what Brendan Sciarra has done, saying “the kid” doesn’t sacrifice quality for convenience with his businesses.
“Everything the kid does is top shelf,” Troiano said.
Brendan says he has a very patient wife, Robin, at home and that reminds Mike that his longtime wife, Dee Sciarra, is the “brains behind the operation,” as he put it. “She’s the one who keeps us all from killing each other,” Mike says.
Brendan laughs, as if that were an understatement. “We’re all very competitive,” Brendan says.
When Chris, 31, arrives at Dogtooth, you see the Sciarras in all their glory, dad and brothers all riffing off one another and yes, collectively, they all look like they’re running late for something else. Chris says he recalls himself and Brendan learning to surf with their dad as a kid, getting towed out into the waves with his father holding onto him, and then just letting go, like baby birds jumping out of a nest on their first flight.
“We grew up body boarding, and he was surfing and his idea of teaching us was that he would surf and get waves and we would fend for ourselves. Once we were out there, we’d be on our own,” Chris says, making Brendan smile at the memory. “It was everybody for himself.”
Dad smiles at the story too, knowing those mornings forged something in his sons that still sticks with them today. He’ll always be there for them, lending a hand at the bar or pizza shop if needed, but he can’t ride the waves for them. “I try to be as hands off as I can,” Mike says.
Chris Sciarra’s role in the growing family empire was to instill a bit of the old magic back into Kona Surf Company, to remind surfers—not just in Wildwood, but up and down the East Coast—that they’re one of the originals and they’re not going anywhere. “We’re bringing back the roots and bringing some of that original DNA back to the business. We’re trying to be different and not be a cookie cutter surf shop,” Chris says.
Part of that plan was simple: sell t-shirts. The Sciarras don’t just want to sell t-shirts, though; they want every tourist and surfer who comes to Wildwood or shops online at konasurfco.com to feel like they can’t leave without one, much like Ron DiMenna did with his Ron Jon Surf Shop in Long Beach Island and Cocoa Beach, Florida.
“We’re trying to get it all across the country. We want to make it that when you go to Wildwood, you have to get a Kona shirt,” Mike says.
Wildwood, Mike Sciarra says, isn’t known for being a world-class surfing destination, obviously, or even a hotspot in the Garden State, but he says there’s a tight-knit community here that supports their favorite stores and keeps their top waves a secret. “It never took off here like it did in Ocean City,” Mike says. “It’s very good for beginners here. The beach is flat. There’s not a real big undertow. Everybody’s waiting for the surf to change around here and in two hours it could be flat.”
Chris says he’s also trying to keep Kona Surf Company friendly, which isn’t always a given in the world of surfing, where waves are guarded secrets and newcomers are often laughed off the beach. “We treat everybody equally. It’s a real open community here,” Chris said.
Kona is also looking to sponsor surfers and have brand ambassadors hyping its gear by more than word of mouth. Bringing back more of the Kona “DNA” means specifically talking about Mike Sciarra’s story and his time in Hawaii. The company has brought back Mike’s sun logo that he designed decades ago as part of its “classic collection,” and they are making new ones. Mike Sciarra’s past is prominent both in the brick and mortar and online in the “About Us” section. Here’s a sample:
“The year is 1969. Richard Nixon is being sworn in as President of the United States. Neil Armstrong is walking on the moon. Four days of peace, love, and music are happening in Woodstock, New York. And a young, wet behind the ears surfer named Mike Sciarra is fresh off the plane from the island of Oahu. With a bachelor’s of economics under one arm and a surfboard under the other, Mike set his sights on the east coast with a mission. To create a brand with a positive vibe that offers premium products at affordable prices for surfers young and old.”
The Sciarras don’t get much time off for leisure, to take a break from the grind of summer business, mostly because they’ve made an effort to be open all year. Kona Surf Company slows down a little in the winter, and Mike and Dee have a house in Florida they take off to when they can. “You have to step back and smell the roses,” Mike says. “It will help you handle the business better.”
Plus, there are good waves in the winter.
Winter is also time for trade shows and updating inventory and making projections for the next season, Chris Sciarra says. There’s not much of an off-season either. “We’re in development mode that time of year.”
Brendan doesn’t take much time off at all, and with the brew pub and restaurant in the works down the street, it doesn’t look like that’s changing any time soon. He wouldn’t want it any other way. “They go on vacation, I don’t,” Brendan says as his dad and brother laugh beside him.
Eventually, Brendan asks if he can head out, says goodbye to both of them, and disappears. Chris leaves too, and Mike takes a leisurely walk through his son’s bar, looking at black and white photos from his past. Then he strolls over to Kona, across the hardwood plank floors, past designs he made himself, decades ago when he as a dreamer in Hawaii.
“I would have been happy making surfboards my whole life,” he says. “I never dreamed it would be this big.”