Anchorage Quietly Sold
By William Kelly (email@example.com)
The sale of the venerable Anchorage Tavern in Somers Point last week certainly made news, but the media wave quickly died and now it’s back to normal, and everyone’s happy about that.
Seasonal tourists who return this summer won’t know the difference – that Don Mahoney isn’t in the kitchen or even in the house running the place anymore, and everything seems the same – same menu, same bartenders, same servers, as the change in ownership went pretty smoothly compared to the previous tumultuous and tense sales.
They say, “It’s the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one,” and that’s true enough, and the Anchorage has certainly seen many eras come and go in its long history as Somers Point’s oldest, continuously business. If walls could talk the Anchorage would scream.
Most eras come and go with definitive dates, usually when the sale and transactions take place with the transfer of the title.
Built in the 1880s as a hotel and restaurant we know from old newspaper advertisements that it catered primarily to bird hunters and fishermen, and was originally called the Trenton Hotel, much like the Atlantic City hotels were called The Pittsburgh and Baltimore to attract seasonal tourists from those areas who visited the shore by train and trolley.
With a vista view of Great Egg Harbor, the bay got its name from the large number of birds egg nests that lined the shores as seen by early Dutch explorers. While some of the black ducks were sold to restaurants, haberdasheries – hat stories in the big cities bought the colorful bird feathers from hunters as both men and women put such feathers in their caps.
In August 1905 a newspaper ad announced the proprietor Daniel Reagan had "cheerful rooms" available for $8 and $10 a wee, with fishing, boating and bathing being the main attractions.
For awhile The Anchorage was owned by local Judge Larry Brannigan, known as “the law east of the Patcong Creek.”
Hannah Somers, a descendent of the town's founding family, was a proprietor for a number of years, and her longtime bartender Joe Coyle kept a parrot named Teddy that picked up an atrocious vocabulary from the regulars at the bar.
Brannigan sold the place to Charles Collins who was running it when Father John F. Sweeney, pastor of St. Augustine’s Church in Ocean City took the ferry over to Somers Point, walked down Bay Avenue and said the first Catholic mass in the Anchorage ballroom.
The Anchorage wasn't always a saintly haven however, as Prohibition rum runners found Great Egg Harbor a friendly port. After Prohibition the Anchorage was awarded the fifth city liquor license C-5.
In 1938 Collins sold the place to Lucille Cornaglia Thompson, who in 1945 passed it on to her brother Andrew Cornaglia and his wife, who gave the kitchen an Italian flavor, specializing in pasta and wind and catered mainly to their South Philly neighbors who visited the Jersey Shore in the summers. That era lasted over a decade, until the spring of 1965, when Andrew Sr. passed away and his son Andrew took over at the age of 20, not yet old enough to drink.
"When my father passed away, I didn't know vodka from
gin," Andrew said. "If it wasn't for my mother, I would not have been
able to sustain the first couple of years."
Since then Cornaglia has operated five bars and restaurants, including the Anchorage. But he says it was all luck, and the biggest things that happened to him were never planned.
"The key things that happened to me in my life," Andrew said, "were basically working hard, lucking out, and knowing my brother-in-law Joseph Trecheck, who ran the Anchorage for many years. But all of the key things happened by accident. When it's your turn, it's your turn. That's what the fates are doing. You can make all the wrong moves, and they turn out right."
Cornaglia maintains that just forgetting to lock the front door one day was the acorn that made the Anchorage work. Because the older folks had not been patronizing the establishment since his father passed away, business was down going into the second season when a surprising thing happened. "I was mopping up on a Good Friday when we were supposed to be closed, but I had forgot to lock the door, and these guys walked in - all bartenders in this area. They just sent me people after that, and the Anchorage just took off when the young people started to drift in."
In 1966, the Anchorage began serving seven beers for a dollar, a concept Cornaglia appropriated from other bars, but it was an idea the Anchorage branded, making 7 for $1 a famous icon.
T-Shirts with "7 for $1" and The Anchorage on the back were ordered stylishly different each week, and are now collector's items, though you can still buy a new one at the hostess station.
The seven for a dollar beers continued until 1980 when their cost became prohibitive. But it wasn't the cost of the beer (either Piel's, Black Label or Ortleibs), it was the cost of the glasses, which were routinely broken or taken home as souvenirs. In 1966 the 6 ounce pilsner glasses cost 4 cents each, with the Anchorage going through an average of 7,200 glasses a season. By 1980, the same glass cost 34 cents.
"No one ordered just seven for one," explains Cornaglia, "you would get your orders for seventy, a hundred. There would always be a bar full of beer, a backup of people who wanted beer, and two people collecting empty glasses at all times. It was a great scavenger hunt." Saturday of Labor Day weekend, 1970 was the best day ever recorded, when the Anchorage went through 44 half-kegs, which amounted to 17,556 beers. The bartenders learned to pour and carry seven beers at a time, so watching them work was considered the best entertainment in town.
In its prime, the Anchorage was just one stop on the Bay Avenue circuit that also included Tony Marts and Bay Shores, where the bands rotated on two stages, offering continuous live music. But there was a cover charge at those places, and the drinks were more expensive, so the Anchorage became a quick pit stop before and after people went to the band bars. And many of the bartenders and musicians from those places lived in the rooms upstairs at the Anchorage.
"I could tell by the influx of people when they changed the bands at Tony Marts," Cornaglia recalls.
By the mid-1980s Andrew had sold his other establishments and the 7 for 1 era was over, but he still had the Anchorage that still had its youthful summer crowd and a faithful year round constituency as he kept the place open all winter.
Then one day in 1993 someone noticed men were taking survey of the premises, and Bill Morris came in and announced that he had purchased the Anchorage from George Roberts while vacationing in Florida. Morris had owned sold a North New Jersey trucking company and wanted to invest in Somers Point. He ran into former mayor and realtor George Roberts in Florida, and gave him a sizeable down payment for purchase of the Anchorage, but Roberts never told Andrew Corneglia.
The dispute went to court but the property was sold and the deal had to go through, even though Roberts kept the deposit and eventually did time for the swindle, that eventually brought a lot of other people out of the woodwork to complain about Robert’s business practices.
The last day at the old Anchorage was unlike any other, as people came in from all over to have a last drink for the lasts call. Billy Boyd, a former Anchorage bartender, who once lived upstairs, and then owned the Parrot Lounge in Fort Lauderdale came up for the last hurrah, as did many others like him.
Bill Morris took on a partner, construction contractor Dave Tyson, who remodeled the Anchorage, putting in the rectangle bar, reopening the ballroom as a dining room, fixing up the porch, new restrooms and leasing the kitchen to a real chef – Tyson Merryman. When Merryman moved on to buy and run the equally historic Tuckahoe Inn, Don Mahoney realized his dream by taking over the Anchorage kitchen.
A local who began cooking at age 12, Mahoney first learned the trade at Daniel Antolini’s Daniels Italian restaurant on Shore Road, at one time one of the first class establishments in town. Mahoney attended the CIA – Culinary Institute of America, and came back to the shore and worked around town, but really wanted the Anchorage kitchen, and would have had it if Andrew Cornaglia had kept it.
Mahoney upgraded the kitchen and menu to his style, and when things got tempestuous in the Morris family when Bill Morris’ daughter, a lawyer got involved, he was right on the spot to make a reasonable offer to buy the Anchorage, one that was accepted.
Now, not only did Don Mahoney run the kitchen, but he owned the Anchorage and put his stamp on it.
I guess the Mahoney era,. That lasted over two decades, was overshadowed by one event – an almost catastrophic event – the Anchorage fire.
Everything was running smoothly and on routine until early in the morning of September 11th, 2006 - when an early morning janitor saw smoke and called the fire department. The four alarm fire began in the ceiling fan of south side men’s room, but spread quickly behind the wood clapboards.
Don Mahoney and his insurance man were on the scene before the fire was brought under control, and the firemen, all Anchorage patrons, put their hearts and souls into putting that fire out.
The insurance man said the Anchorage was covered in full, and the fire inspector said that he could either condemn the building, have it razed and Mahoney could retire to Florida and live comfortably on the insurance, or he could rebuild and restore, his call.
It didn’t take long for Don to take his forty employees into consideration, as he looked at them as forty families the Anchorage was supporting, and quickly decided to rebuild.
Then came the bad news, as the fire inspector said that a closer look showed the foundation of the building was shot, and had to be condemned, and the insurance man said the foundation was not covered by the fire insurance. Luckily there was a contractor right there listening in and spoke up, telling Donny that he could pump concrete into the foundation without moving the building and would do it for a reasonable price, though Donny would have to pay for it out of his own pocket, which he agreed to do.
The new foundation and restoration of the fire damage took four months and the insurance paid for profits lost, and Donny made up the difference between his employees unemployment and what they made working, and four months later the Anchorage was up and running and things were back to normal.
[For a detailed report by the insurance adjuster see: Turning tragedy into triumph—When all parties work together in the claims process, an insured's misfortune can have a happy ending 11/07 ]
And Don Mahoney was named Somers Point’s Man of the Year for making the decisions to save the Anchorage, one of Somers Point’s landmark institutions.
Now, two decades into the Mahoney stewardship era, with things running smoothly, Donny was going through his daily routine when along comes Michael Fitzgerald, who wants to buy the place even though it isn’t listed for sale.
Fitzgerald is a local guy, originally from Lindenwold, who moved to Somers Point and wanted to invest in the town. He purchased the old Jolly Roger-Shoobies-Shangrala liquor license when they closed the Shangrala and replaced the circle with a traffic light, then bought Dolfin Dock, where he wanted to build a restaurant and apparently put in his liquor license.
When that plan was denied city permits for lack of parking, Fitzgerald wasn’t to be denied from his goal of owning a bar and restaurant, so he offered Mahoney a good price. But since Fitzgerald had no background in owning or running a bar-restaurant, other than a summer stint at Maynards in Margate, Donny couldn’t see it happening. He wasn’t about to take everything he built up and just take the money and run.
Usually when a new owner comes into such a situation they put their brother in as bar manager and a cousin in charge of the kitchen, but Donny wasn’t going to do a deal that shook up his staff, menu and successful style that too twenty years to put in place. It would also be inadvisable to change the menu, management and staff with the summer season coming on.
Fitzgerald made the deal happen when he promised to keep on all the employees, menu and style, and that’s what he did.
So after George Robert’s swindle and the Morris family fallout, this transaction went down pretty smooth, the quiet deal.
Don Mahoney’s last day on the job, Saturday March 18, the day after St. Patrick’s Day, was pretty normal, with Donny doing his routine thing, but then he announced that the Anchorage would be closed for a week and he was going to retire.
But the transfer of the liquor license at the state level took longer than expected, even though Fitzgerald had been investigated before and been through the process, but then Somers Point City Council held a special meeting the following Thursday, approved the liquor license transfer and the next day they had a quiet reopening for family and friends before opening to the general public last Saturday, when things were back to normal.
And now Michael P. Fitzgerald is the new owner of the Anchorage. Not a chef in the kitchen, he will leave that to Dave and Mahoney’s protégés, Fitzgerald is more of a floor worker, greeting new and old patrons around the bar and at the tables.
One of the first things Fitzgerald said as the new owner was, “The overwhelming support and good wishes have been amazing. It's a great testament to this community and great town of Somers point.”
With two liquor licenses, a bayside marina, and the oldest and most prestigious business establishment in town, Fitzgerald is now a major player in a small town, but he’s not satisfied with just being the owner of the Anchorage, and wants more and is said to be interested in the Clam Bar, another local landmark that most people want it to just stay the same.
William Kelly is the author of 300 Years at the Point - A History of Somers Point, N.J. and Birth of the Birdie - a History of Golf at Atlantic City Country Club.