Thursday, January 29, 2009

Polar Bears Give Businesses A Boost

By Joseph Kellard

Andrew Loucas, who bought the long-established Laurel Luncheonette, at 300 W. Park Ave., three years ago, is getting accustomed to a certain ritual.

Each Super Bowl Sunday, participants in the Long Beach Polar Bear Club’s annual ocean plunge show up at the diner before their frigid swim to load up on carbohydrates, ordering stacks of pancakes and waffles —and lots of hot chocolate to go.

“Then the place empties out for about an hour before we get a few cold, wet people in here,” Loucas said, referring to the post-plunge diners.

The event, which benefits the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is now in its 12th year, and draws a crowd of thousands. Its success has created something of a one-day business boom in the dead of winter, and more Long Beach business owners are looking to capitalize on it.

The restaurant-bar Sutton Place is abuzz with customers from 11 a.m. to the end of the Super Bowl, according to its owner, Rob Richards. The ocean swim allows Richards to extend an already busy day by hosting a pre-lunge breakfast with complimentary bagels, coffee and hot chocolate.

“We pack the place early with kids, wives, husbands, grandmothers and grandfathers to meet and greet before they head to the beach,” Richards explained. “Then they come back immediately after and start getting ready for the game. By 1 or 1:30 the place is jamming.”

It doesn’t hurt that the restaurant, on West Park Avenue, is just a few blocks from where the crowd gathers, at Riverside Boulevard beach.

The Beach House, a sports bar and grill on West Beech Street, makes up for its distance from the event by providing swimmers transportation to and from the beach, after offering them bagels and coffee.

Ben Freiser, who co-owns both the Beach House and Speakeasy, which is also in the West End, said he has seen an increase in business as the number of participants in the ocean swim has grown.

Last year at the Beach House, Freiser said, his pre- and post-swim parties were unexpectedly crowded. “It used to be on Super Bowl Sunday in daytime, I had a skeleton crew on,” he explained, “and the last few years I didn’t have enough staff, because usually you don’t see any customers until close to game time, and now 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. you have a nice crowd.”

One group of West End polar bears gather at Speakeasy before and after the swim, when Freiser hosts a “more quaint, less raucous” post-plunge party. He said that more people appear to be incorporating the event into their other plans for the day, which has become a quasi-national holiday on which the volume of food consumed nationwide trails only Thanksgiving.

For the past five years, longtime Long Beach resident Mark McCarthy has jumped into the ocean before the game. After he opened Lola’s, on West Park Avenue, last January, he decided to get his business involved in the event after talking to two regular customers, the swim’s founders, Peter Meyers and Kevin McCarthy (no relation).

“They said that some people who had no place to go afterwards would go to the VFW hall, but people like the volunteers from Make-A-Wish and others would just wander around,” Mark McCarthy said. “So I said, let’s bring them all back to Lola’s, and whatever money we raise, we’ll give it to Make-A-Wish.”

So, from 1 to 4 p.m., McCarthy will host an unlimited buffet brunch — charging $20 for adults and $10 children — with the proceeds go to the foundation. “Times are tough out there in the world,” he said, “but they’re never too tough that we can’t help out other people.”

Other business are taking a more proactive approach by heading to the boardwalk. Swingbellys Beachside BBQ, another West Beech Street establishment, will offer swimmers and spectators an ounce of chili for the second straight year.

“The customers loved it,” said Brian Berkery of Creative Vibe, an advertising agency that promotes Swingbellys. “It was a huge hit.”

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