This article originally ran in the August 2011 issue of Cape May Magazine
The headlines in 1932 included the following – U.S. Steel Lays Off Another 10,000 and General Motors Stock Down From $500 a Share to $10 a Share.
In 1932 when the city of Cape May hired Steven J. Steger as a lifeguard, the depression loomed heavily over the tiny island. County workers were paid in script. Groceries and even electric bills were paid with credit and life was changing along the beachfront. Bath houses, once so popular because hotel owners did not like guests coming through their lobbies with wet bathing suits, were now becoming passé. But with every loss there is always a gain.
One afternoon, young Steve noticed that a man in front of the Stockton Baths had set up a small operation renting beach chairs to excursionists. The next year, Steve set up his own beach rental operation which included pup-tent-like structures that he called cabanas. The idea came from tents that wealthy summer residents had their servants erect for their families, according to an article about Steve which ran in the Herald-Lantern Dispatch June 1990. Steger redesigned a smaller version of the concept, and it must have been an idea which found a niche because 79 years later, although Steve Steger died suddenly in the summer 1990 at the age of 84, his legacy lives on.
Currently, Steger Beach Services has 12 beach stands which extend from the Cove all the way to Trenton Avenue. Steger Beach at Perry and Jackson streets, as well as Queen Street beach, is still owned by the Steger family. Swain’s Hardware carries a paint color called “Steger Blue.” Four hundred “Steger Blue” beach boxes line the beaches, as well as about 40 tents. You can rent everything from sodas to umbrellas to beach chairs to boogie boards, surf boards and now paddleboards from the Stegers. Steger Beach Services is first, last and always a family-run business, and for four generations they have proven to be the go-to place for beach needs.
Some folks might remember when the Stegers also had a block-long store to go with the beach service.
In the 1940s, Steve Steger decided he needed to expand his business, and he bought a row of bathhouses that fronted Beach Avenue between Perry and Jackson streets (now a series of boutique shops and eateries), eventually converting them into a store called–you guessed it–Steger’s, carrying everything from Band-Aids to Kool Aid and all things beachy in between. Later, they added Steger’s Sun & Surf Shop and Steger’s Snack Shack, which introduced the original 50-cent hot dog to summering patrons. Son Bob, who died in 2004, ran the store with his wife Betty, who recalls that the couple never shared a dinner in the summer months.
“We had four cash registers,” says Betty. “Bob would open at 7:30 a.m. I would come in at 9 a.m. I’d work until 4 p.m. and then go home and cook dinner. I’d eat my dinner and put a plate in the oven for Bob. Then I’d go in and relieve him so he could come home, eat dinner and freshen up. My mother would baby sit the kids [Steven R. and Linda], and we’d close together at midnight. We did that seven days a week from July 4th to Labor Day. We always opened Memorial Day weekend, and we kept it open until the weather got too cold.”
It was Bob Steger, Cape May’s original “surfing dude,” who introduced the sport to the island. “We were the first surf shop in town,” says Betty.
Steven R. says he has been a beach boy “his whole life.” While his parents ran the store, he stayed on Steger Beach with his grandfather, “who kept an eye on me.”
“I worked my first concession stand,” he says, “at 10 years old and by 12, I had my own stand.” And while it seems like dream job to most kids, Steven says there were times when “all my friends were out playing and I had to go to work. And I would say to myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
And yet, he continued the tradition after graduating from Lower Cape May Regional High School in 1977. He took full control of Steger Beach Services after his grandfather died in his sleep of a heart attack in August 1990. “My grandfather was a proud man,” says Steven. “He worked the beach stands the day before he died. And [after learning of his death], we couldn’t close. It was August. I had to open.”
The same loyalty the Stegers show to Cape May beachgoers is reciprocated by their customers. Betty says if long-time customers do not receive their renewal letters from the Stegers in April, they call to make sure they have a tent and beach box secured for the summer. Their names are carefully printed in a vertical line going down the tent pole. Many are fourth and fifth generation patrons. One old timer this summer forgot to rent his beach tent, says Betty, and called to have it re-upped because whether he could get to the beach or not, he couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing his name on the pole on Steger Beach.
Steven and his wife Margaret are currently at the helm of Steger Beach Services, and Betty still is very active in the business and “fills in” when someone cannot come to work. Great-grandsons Steven, 21, and Sean, 15, are very much involved in the operations as well. In the summer of 2011, Steven added paddleboard rentals to the list of Steger services offered at the Cove and is also including lessons with the Steger brand. “I hope to do for paddleboarding,” says Steven, “what my grandfather [Bob] did for surfing here.”
And so the tradition continues.
“One thing I think people would find interesting,” says Steven R., “Steger is a made-up name. My grandfather was Lithuanian, and his real name was Stanislova Stanstouskis, but I guess he didn’t want to be burdened with the stigma of being an immigrant, so he had it changed legally to Steger.”
Now that’s a man who understood the importance of branding.