STONE HARBOR, N.J. — How about dinner, a movie, and … shopping?
Main Street America is faring fine in this quintessential Shore town, where boutique shops lining 96th Street have seen bigger crowds this summer.
Sure, the weather has been great, but credit goes largely to a remodeled movie theater that was renamed Harbor Square Theatre, the only movie house on the seven-mile island. The theater gives people another reason to head here, along with the Harbor Burger Bar, which opened in mid-2016 in the lobby of the same building at 271 96th Street.
Sometimes, the smallest changes yield the biggest surprises – and the success of the open-year-round theater and burger joint combined has been that. On a recent Thursday just before 8 p.m., the sidewalks on both sides of 96th Street were filled with families and kids, a few in strollers, who were enjoying summertime sundaes, and shopping in stores with such names as Coastal FX, Gelato & Gourmet, Paw Prints, Douglass Fudge, and Pete Smith's Surf Shop.
"It's been awesome," said Kath Barclay, the restaurant's front-of-house manager. She said business since its debut in July 2016 has been so good that within seven months, it added eight booths, each seating up to five (the fifth person being a child), along with a patio to seat an additional 14 people, all "because the wait was so crazy."
Granted, it was the end of August in a Shore town, and crowds were expected. Still, the theater and restaurant, which used to be an ice cream parlor, have been a huge draw.
The dinner-and-a-movie concept — sometimes in the same theater — is taking off nationally in such urban markets as Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles, said Mark Hunter, managing director at CBRE Inc., who oversees the firm's mall management work. It arrives as many under-performing malls are fighting to stay afloat due to decreased foot traffic and sales.
Hunter cited AMC Dine-In Manhattan 13 at Manhattan Town Center in Manhattan, Kan., as a suburban success. CBRE manages the mall after it demolished a former Sears store, and AMC opened in its place in December with an IMAX theater with full-service dining and a MacGuffins Bar.
"The concept has been evolving because of the increase in food and beverage in the last 10 years and millennials are certainly patronizing these places," Hunter said. "Movie theater owners have adapted to the times by adding a restaurant within the movie complex."
So will this concept work for Market East in downtown Philadelphia — which is home to a lot more millennials now?
Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), which owns several malls in the Philadelphia region, is banking on it. It recently announced that the revamped Gallery Mall at Market East will be remade into Fashion District Philadelphia with a multiplex movie theater as part of the mix, along with dining and new retail nearby.
The scene "in Stone Harbor is very similar to the experience we're looking to create at all of our shopping centers, including Fashion District Philadelphia," said Heather Crowell, PREIT's senior vice president for corporate communications. "Consumers today are seeking experiences in addition to shopping, and we've been resolute in adding entertainment destinations in addition to the key component of dining. … Where we have had theaters renovate and modernize their experience — adding reclining, reservable seats with enhanced dining and alcohol options — sales at those theaters have increased over 50 percent."
In 2016, retail sales in Cape May County were more than $1.2 billion — the most ever — contributing to the county's $6.3 billion in direct tourism sales, according to Diane Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. She said total retail sales have gone up each of the last five years, and this season is looking to add to that.
"The trend for boutique shopping and one-of-a-kind finds are boosting retail sales as people are moving away from indoor mall settings," Wieland said last week. "The resort towns are all seeing an increase in stores opening along their downtown streets. The 96th Street shopping district in Stone Harbor continues to be a huge draw for locals and visitors."
Except for a time earlier this decade, the movie theater in Stone Harbor has been a fixture since it opened June 24, 1949, as the Harbor Theater.
It was closed from 2010 through mid-2015. In late 2015, developer Clint Bunting of Delaware, along with a few investor friends, took ownership and remodeled and renamed it. The theater reopened for Fourth of July weekend last summer. Harbor Burger Bar opened a week later.
"What's been remarkable is how it's drawn people in the off-season," said Stone Harbor Mayor Judith Davies-Dunhour. It also features live music and comedians during the off-peak months.
The 96th Street bridge, which dumps folks from the mainland into the Stone Harbor business district, was closed in October and most of November last year for repairs. The movie theater gave discounts of half-off tickets during those months and dubbed the marketing campaign "Bridge Gate."
"It was hugely successful," Davies-Dunhour said. "You couldn't find parking anywhere."
Among those taking in The Big Sick, a romantic comedy, last week were local couple Lucas and Mary Martin, both retirees who have lived in Stone Harbor for five years. "It brings people from off the island," Lucas Martin said. "It's become a destination."
Soaking it all in for a weeklong vacation last month that included bike riding, crabbing, the beach, dining out, and shopping was Victoria DiSanto, 47, of Summit, N.J., and her two daughters, Mia, 12, and Erin, 6.
"The shopping is phenomenal," DiSanto said as she walked along 96th Street. "I typically go to Cape May. This has exceeded my expectations.