Pandemic impacts boardwalks’ free samples

PHILADELPHIA — For more than 20 years, Tom Curyto’s voice beckoned to vacationers traversing boardwalks in New Jersey’s Wildwood and Ocean City.

“Come on up and get a free sample of Polish Water Ice,” the Buffalo-tinged accent bellowed, “we’ve got some great flavors: mango, cherry, blue raspberry, chocolate and a lot more.”

His voice has mostly gone silent.

Polish Water Ice — now totaling 15 shops that include four on the Wildwood boardwalk and two on the Ocean City boardwalk — was built on the backs of teenage employees passing out little white spoons with nibbles of water ice that maintain the consistency of soft-serve custard without adding dairy. On any given night, over the course of 12 hours, Curyto estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 free samples were handed out to passersby, at each store.

But then the pandemic hit. And with fears of spreading disease (and potential lawsuits), the shop turned off its iconic recording and stopped handing out samples for the 2020 season. And they saved on staffing, no longer needing up to two extra people at $15 per hour over 12 hours.

“That’s $300 or $400 just in labor,” said Curyto, who owns the company but has franchised out his boardwalk locations, noting that those numbers didn’t account for the cost of production, as well as “wear and tear on the machines.”

Franchisee Jordan Jodanov operates three Polish Water Ice stands on the Wildwood boardwalk, and Udi Hayut runs one. And in gearing up for the 2021 season, Jordanov asked an interesting question about the economics of free samples:

“Is it really worth it?”

Normally, free sample marketing, in which a retailer gives products or services away to prospective customers, works. Especially for food and drink retailers. It’s straightforward: Give ‘em a taste, leave ‘em wanting more. And when they want more, the register is just a few steps away.

Years ago, peddlers of free samples were an integral part of the boardwalk aesthetic, boasting clever phrases and engaging strategies to convince vacationers to test the product before buying their own.

But these aren’t normal times. And during a slow season, and with a potential recession looming, some boardwalk businesses are thinking of cutting costs by cutting out the free samples. A decision initially driven by the virus, it has now become a decision based on costs.

Jordanov didn’t mince words.

“We don’t give free samples anymore,” he said in an email. “And they are never coming back.”

And he’s not alone.

The Original Fudge Kitchen decided to pull back free sample peddlers in 2021 as the pandemic raged, and after Karen Thompson became the new owner of the Shore mainstay, adding it to her roster of retail stores at LSL Brands.

For years, under the leadership of the Bogle Brothers, Fudge peddlers standing outside their storefronts and holding trays of vanilla and chocolate squares punctured with toothpicks was a rite of a Jersey Shore summer.

Now, in Wildwood, only one of its two boardwalk shops hands out samples, and you have to go into the store and ask. And similar procedures exist for all six of its Jersey Shore locations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 can be spread through food, but the agency has not given specifics about the distribution of samples.

New Jersey’s retail food rules make no distinction between the handling of food samples, and those foods that are for sale, according to the state’s Department of Health. Among the rules are sample-peddlers must wash their hands before dispensing samples, have access to either single-use gloves or dispensing utensils such as toothpicks, and peddlers can’t touch food with their bare hands. Single-service cups, spoons, and other appropriate equipment must be provided to offer the samples.

But some companies still persist in the face of economic odds.

The owner of Crazy Junky Pizza, who asked to only be identified as “Mr. H,” said he considered not doing free samples this year because of COVID-19, but he felt it necessary to use samples as a way to entice potential customers.

“I just opened the pizza shop this year, and I want people to test my food out,” he said. “It’s very effective.”

He sends out Abdul Abham, 22, to hold a tray of small squares of pizza stuck with toothpicks outside of the shop on the Wildwood boardwalk.

Last Sunday, standing among the throngs of vacationers, Abham offered samples to passersby, nodding toward the store just behind him.

“Sausage, plain,” he says, “it’s all good.”

Recently, the Polish Water Ice franchise near Roberts Avenue decided to resurrect the recording, and continues to offer free samples on the boardwalk.

“About two weeks ago, I just brought it back,” said Hayut last Sunday, standing outside the store he’s run as the franchisee for the last 15 years. “Business has been slow.”