Park Seafood owner vows to return following devastating Seaside boardwalk fire

    It’s been a rough year for the owner of Park Seafood, a small boardwalk restaurant in Seaside Park: Superstorm Sandy, the untimely death of his father, and a sluggish tourism season.

    So, last week, owner Nick Dionisio just wanted to take his wife, Lauren, out for a relaxing night.

    “I work seven days a week; 9 a.m. to close,” Dionisio said. “My wife was at home with our two young children all summer.”

    With his mother-in-law babysitting in the couple’s Toms River house, they went to Atlantic City for the night.

    They returned early Thursday afternoon, and that’s when their life would take another dramatic turn.

    Hours later, four blocks of the boardwalk spanning between Seaside Park and Seaside Heights to the north, would be in flames.

    As flames crept through the boards, a strong breeze fanned the fire so fast that one firefigher could be heard on the radio saying “the fire’s running on us.”

    A “boardwalk guy”

    Like many residents of the Seaside area, Dionisio, 34, grew up on the boardwalk. But Dionisio’s childhood was a bit different than that of many others.

    He’s a third generation boardwalk business owner. His grandfather operated Nick’s Clam Bar on the Seaside Heights boardwalk for 60 years. His father followed in those footsteps, operating Bob’s Ranch House on the Seaside Park boardwalk for 25 years.

    “My first job was peeling shrimp when I was seven at my grandfather’s business,” Dionisio said.

    When he got older, he entered the banking industry, but the global economic meltdown that began in 2007 thrusted him back to the boardwalk.

    Later that year, he opened Park Seafood, which quickly gained a loyal following thanks to its fresh, varied seafood offerings enjoyed while sitting on stools along countertops. The restaurant is lauded for its extensive raw bar, fried and sauteed fish, crab crab cakes, and the no-mayo lobster roll that “will save you the 200-plus-mile ride to Cape Cod,” The Star-Ledger’s Peter Genovese wrote in 2010.

    A tragic year

    While Superstorm Sandy in October 2012 did not wash away Dionisio’s business, it inflicted a devastating blow to the two structures adjacent to Funtown Pier.

    “I had $20,000 in food loss, nine feet of water in my basement, and thousands of dollars lost due to destroyed equipment,” Dionisio said.

    He received $600 in insurance money, only to have his carrier cancel his policy in November 2012. “Due to the effect of the hurricane,” the cancellation letter stated.

    Three weeks later, his father passed away unexpectedly. His mother didn’t have anywhere to live, as she was displaced from her Ortley Beach home.

    Despite his immense personal and business losses, Dionisio pushed forward, determined to revive the popular eatery.

    With the help of generous local tradesmen who offered to work for future payment, Dionisio had one of his seafood stands open for Memorial Day weekend. He had only received gas, water, and electric just five days before the unofficial start of the summer.

    A week later, Dionisio opened the second stand, and Park Seafood once again had a full presence on the boardwalk.

    But it wasn’t an easy summer. With many of his staff still displaced from their homes, Dionisio did not have his usual staff. With less people around this summer, he estimates that business was down 40 to 50 percent from the previous year. He also paid his contractor bills from the spring, which further impacted on his earnings.

    “It wasn’t a great summer. To have the fire, what else can possibly happen? Thank God everyone’s healthy in my family. What can be worse?”

    Learning about the fire

    While at home after returning from Atlantic City, Dionisio’s cell phone exploded with calls shortly after the fire began shortly before 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

    At first, he thought it was just another small fire on the boardwalk.

    “It happens from time to time. Sometimes a cigarette butt gets thrown and we get a fire,” he said.

    But once law enforcement friends started calling, he knew he had to head over the bridge to Seaside Park.

    Just after 3 p.m., Dionisio arrived at a critical turning point in the board fire. At one point, it looked like firefighters were making progress to contain it, “but the wind just took it,” he said.

    “There was so much smoke that I couldn’t see my business. But I knew it wasn’t impacted yet. Cops moved us out, and that’s when I realized it was getting bad. I was praying that more fire trucks were coming.”

    Dionisio remained at the scene for hours, heading home at about 9 p.m. The fire would be declared under control a short time later.

    “I sat there by myself most of the time. I watched. No thought through my head but just thinking about everything I sacrificed.”

    An optimistic future

    A week after the fire, Dionisio returned to his business for the first time after the area was deemed safe and accessible for the business owners.

    He saw one of his buildings reduced to piles of charred wood, while the steel shell of the other building remains. (Its contents are completely gone, however.)

    In the face of losing his father, Superstorm Sandy damage, and now fire devastation, Dionisio vows to return.

    “My landlord is a boardwalk guy. He’s going to meet everyone’s expectations to get it back and running. That’s his life as well,” he said. “I love being on the boardwalk. I was pushed on it in a stroller. When you’re from the barrier island, it’s a close knit community. No one is competing with one another. They’re there to help each other.”

    While Dionisio understands that some things are out of his control and his final business destiny is still uncertain, he wants to return “bigger and better than ever.”

    He feels that he owes it to his customers.

    “Everything’s homemade at Park Seafood. We provide a good product. I take pride in that. I have loyal customers. I can’t imagine us not being there in the near future.”

    Those same customers are rooting for him, he said, even as far away as Afghanistan.

    “I can’t thank the community enough. Our troops in Afghanistan sent a photo of support following the fire. These guys sacrifice more than I have. It’s overwhelming. Thank you everyone. Keep an eye out for the future. One way or another.”

    Ultimately, for Dionisio, it’s all about remaining positive.

    “At this point, all you can do is be optimistic. I’ve been through negatives in the past year. There’s no reason to be pessimistic.”

    “Just have to hope.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.