A fireworks show for all but those who feed the masses
Published 6:14 pm, Saturday, July 3, 2010
By 9 on Thursday morning, the beach crowds have yet to arrive, but Rory Romeo is ready for them. With a moment to spare, he gazes from his office at the glistening expanse of Long Island Sound.
There's an anchored motor boat bobbing in the waves. The waves are sparkling as the sun climbs in the sky, and the Black Rock Harbor Lighthouse pokes up on the horizon.
Suddenly, a woman peeks her head in Romeo's concession stand.
"Do you guys make bacon and eggs?"
"Yup," Romeo says.
The woman grabs a wad of cash from her wallet and slides two bills beneath a tower of gumballs, Goldfish, Blow-Pops and AirHeads -- the entry-gate into the jungle of snacks that Romeo's stockpiling for Fourth of July weekend.
As crowds go, the one that congregates for Fairfield's fireworks each year is a whopper. This year promises to be especially packed. The weather forecast for the weekend is flawless. And the fireworks are launching on Sunday night, perfect for groups to get together, head to Jennings or Penfield beach, and watch the fury of pyrotechnics bursting in the night sky.
But Romeo knows that for every set of eyeballs watching fireworks, there's a hungry mouth to feed. And if only a 10th of them stop by his "Ocean View" concession stand, he'll have a line of customers snaking halfway down Jennings Beach. Ditto for Penfield's snack stand. And while this means booming business for the concessionaires, it also poses a few challenges.
"The first year, I went crazy," admits Carlos Hernandez, the Guatemalan-born manager of Penfield Beach Café, which he's run for the past 10 years. "I over-prepared. I was nervous. I was stressed."
Hernandez prepped to feed the multitudes -- with a multitude of options. Since then, he's learned to concentrate on the top-sellers only, and has thus avoided creating an ocean of leftovers. Now, he picks a select menu to offer beachgoers on the Fourth -- an evening he now describes as "fun."
So what sells? On Tuesday, Hernandez placed orders for chicken tenders, which arrived on Thursday, and for ice cream, which arrived on Friday with an auxiliary freezer. But he's also collecting supplies for this year's specials: barbecue ribs, lobster rolls, crab legs and mussels.
Clad in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts on a recent afternoon, Hernandez sprawled on a chair inside his tiny office, abutting the snack stand. Good Humor ice cream signs stacked on his desk. A closed-circuit television perched on a corner table, showing his six employees buzzing around the kitchen -- manning the cash registers, relaying orders, cooking patties and fries, and filling sodas.
On Sunday, that team of employees will swell to a dozen. Aside from needing to work seamlessly together, they'll have to each display cool-headedness amidst the bustle.
"I've been training them, getting them ready," Hernandez said. "I tell them that no matter how many people are out there, you got to take them one by one. Be yourself. Work normal. Don't panic by looking at the line."
That's one lesson with which Romeo is in total agreement.
Whereas Hernandez employs mostly high school and college kids from Fairfield and Trumbull, the Romeo snack stand is an extension of the Romeo family.
Rory Romeo manages the stand, but his wife chips in and so do his three sons. His sons' girlfriends and childhood friends help out, too, as do his nephews and nieces. One of his sons, Chris, recently became a Bridgeport cop and will miss this year's event for the first time in 15 years.
Like Hernandez, Romeo has ordered a bumper crop of ice cream this year. He says he'll tightly pack his five freezers, all of which resemble side-by-side washing machines, in terms of size. Given the holiday, he expects the red-white-and-blue "Mega Missile" popsicles to sell the best. He purchased 50 boxes of them.
Rory's wife, Laura, says her husband works himself into a sort of Independence Day poise. "You've got to be in that mindset," she explained. "When the line doesn't stop and you've got to keep on cooking -- Rory has to be in `the zone.' He can't lose focus. He has to take each order as it comes."
That focus starts building early in the day. Ordinarily, Romeo arrives at work by 8 a.m. -- to chop onions, slice tomatoes, fire up the grill. When he opens at 9, his main customers are generally Public Works employees, hankering for bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches after some early work at the beach.
On the Fourth of July, however, Romeo arrives by 7 a.m.
"Even then, there's already tents set up, people ready to spend the night," he says with a laugh. During his first summer at Jennings, 15 years ago, this phenomenon surprised him. But like Hernandez, he caught on quickly -- thanks, in part, to his 10 years' experience running a concession stand in Darien.
In fact, Romeo grew up working for a family concession stand. Over a period of 30 years, his father owned three concession stands in Stamford and Romeo worked at them all. So did his brother, who now runs a concession stand at Compo Beach in Westport.
That deep-rooted familial experience helps Romeo prepare for nearly every variable that might afflict his business come Independence Day. A shortage of change? He's got every denomination, and bundles of quarters. But the background also helps him come to terms with factors out of his control.
"My father used to say, you can do a lot of things, but there's nothing you can do about the weather," he says.
For beachside concession stands, a wet Fourth of July can dampen an entire summer.
"That weekend really helps to pay your rent," Hernandez explains. "If you lose that weekend, you'll be shaking for the rest of the summer. That's your bonus weekend."
Ironically, bad weather isn't always bad. A few years ago, storm clouds rolled in late in the evening, forcing the town to cancel the fireworks show around 8:30 p.m. The show was rescheduled for the following night. The crowds came back, and so did the storm clouds, around 8:30 p.m.
"We never got the fireworks, but it helped us out a lot with business," Romeo says.
For Romeo, the best part about running a concession stand in summer is that it gives him plenty of vacation time in the winter. Having toiled some 14 hours a day for most of April through September, he heads with his wife to Florida to relax.
Someday, he muses, he'll get to relax on the Fourth of July and actually see the fireworks. Over the past decade-and-a-half, he's helped hundreds of thousands of beach-goers enjoy the show with full stomachs.
But he's hardly seen a single burst of fireworks himself.
"My wife and I laugh about it every year," he says. "I can hear `em, but I'm stuck back here by the grill."
Hernandez, meanwhile, hardly ever has time for a break. Between the Penfield Beach Café and his Spanish restaurant, Meigas, in Norwalk, he says he puts in between 90 and 100 hours of work a week. And he's now looking to open a third restaurant.
Still, the beach offers him some reprieve. "I enjoy the water, the feeling of being on the ocean, even though I never get to swim," he says.
Sometimes, though, as the sun is setting, he'll lock eyes with one of his regular customers, standing by the water.
"And they'll say, `Carlos, come see us!'" he says, gazing off to the deep-fryer.
He'll walk down to the shoreline and let the water wash over his feet, with the sun dipping behind him, over the Penfield Pavilion.
"That's fun, you feel like you're on vacation," he says.
Of course, not this weekend.