OCEAN CITY –The South Division Street property along the Boardwalk that once housed the Dough Roller Restaurant stands vacant this summer season, leaving many loyal and novice customers void of the Boardwalk fixture, but with employees regrouping and looking to the future, the southernmost Dough Roller’s tradition and charm won’t be lost.
The Dough Roller, known for its pizza and Dayton’s chicken, among other things, was destroyed in a devastating Boardwalk fire in late March. Many people watched as flames quickly engulfed the building and even more people have passed the now demolished site since that fateful day, wondering when the longtime boardwalk fixture will return.
Although plans for a new restaurant are already in the works, with the intention to be open by next spring, several long time employees are left with an empty feeling this summer as they struggle to face their first summer away from the Boardwalk restaurant and attempt to take the traditions of South Division Street to Melvin’s Steakhouse, located on the corner of Coastal Highway and 1st Street.
Many employees lost not only their place of employment, but also the comfort of their daily routine when the restaurant was destroyed. Fortunately, other Dough Roller locations and businesses owned by Bill Gibbs have allowed for other job opportunities for the employees at South Division Street. Nonetheless, it has been a difficult transition, particularly for three employees who have spent the better part of their lives in the South Division Street Dough Roller, James Cathell, Marshal Coulbourne and Keith Melvin.
Cathell began working for Gibbs when he was just 14, and has been there ever since. Melvin is Gibbs’ oldest employee, and has been working at the Dough Roller for 30 years, spending 21 years at the South Division Street location. Melvin hired Coulbourne 14 years ago, and the pair have been working together ever since.
“They spent more time there than anyone,” said Gibbs, explaining that while the loss has had a major impact on his life, the effects have reverberated more strongly with his longtime employees. Leaving them without a job was simply not an option for Gibbs. “I cannot re-open a restaurant of that size without those three people,” he said.
As a result, Cathell has relocated to the 125th Street location for the time being. Coulbourne and Melvin are bouncing between the various Dough Roller locations, but the two are mainly focusing their efforts on Melvin’s Steakhouse. The remaining employees have been relocated as well, but Melvin noted that it hasn’t been an easy transition. “I spent 21 years in that building. I formed a lot of memories and made a lot of friends,” he said.
“All of us are like a family,” added Coulbourne.
The day of the fire started like any other Sunday. March was coming to an end and it had been a successful spring so far at the South Division Street Dough Roller, with nice weather and strong weekend crowds along the Boardwalk. “It was a busy March, there was a lot of momentum,” said Melvin. A new batch of Dough Roller t-shirts had just arrived and a new flock of employees had recently been added to the team. “It felt like it was going to be one of our best summers,” said Coulbourne.
Melvin was enjoying one of his first days off that month when he decided to pop into the restaurant for a couple slices of pizza. “As soon as I got out of my car I smelled smoke,” said Melvin. He immediately found Coulbourne, who had also gotten a whiff of the smoke. Melvin was scanning the parameter of the building when he saw smoke coming from between the restaurant and the adjacent Marty’s Playland. He quickly yelled for Coulbourne to dial 911.
Two cops, already in the area for an unrelated matter, had also spotted the smoke, and together they began clearing out customers and making sure that the employee who was living in the upstairs apartments was brought to safety.
“We were outside, watching this fire grow, and even 20 minutes in we thought the building would be damaged, not destroyed. Ten minutes later, if was engulfed in flames,” remembers Melvin.
Not knowing how massive the fire would grow, nothing was grabbed from inside of the building before leaving. As a result, virtually everything was destroyed.
“We never thought it was going to turn out the way it did. We thought we would be able to go back in,” said Coulbourne.
“It was incredible the way the fire took that building,” said Melvin.
Amazingly, a signed Johnny Unitas poster, hanging in Melvin’s office, was pulled out, slightly burned but still intact, from the cooling ashes.
One customer, who was eating pizza with her family when the fire broke out, took her pizza pie with her when they were ushered out. They sat along the Boardwalk eating their pizza as they watched the building burn, but the young girl opted to save one piece as a keepsake of her favorite restaurant, and now the slice is now preserved in her freezer.
An old wooden Melvin’s Steakhouse paperweight, retrieved from Melvin’s office, still holds the strong aroma of smoke.
Although employees have found jobs in other Gibbs establishments, moving forward since the fire, it’s been difficult nonetheless.
“I want to go down there everyday, but when I do I am just so disappointed,” said Melvin.
“Many of us haven’t found it in ourselves to go back there, it’s a little hard for us to do that,” said Coulbourne.
“It was a way of life for us down there, that business and that lifestyle really dictated our lives,” said Melvin.
Summer traditions and events will be missed this year, noted Melvin. Every Fourth of July the employees would hang up their uniforms for the day and sport red, white and blue. Melvin would treat the staff to BBQ from Boog’s in honor of the holiday, a tradition that will be skipped this year.
“That way of life is gone now, we’re going to be busy, but it’s not going to be the same,” said Melvin.
Since the fire, an outpouring of support has been received from locals and longtime customers through phone calls, letters and emails. Many want to know when the restaurant will re-open, where the familiar faces are, and where they can find some Dayton’s chicken. “We sold 80,000 pounds of that chicken there, people are going to want that chicken,” said Melvin.
Melvin is putting all of his energy into Melvin’s Steakhouse this year, a project he has been working on for the past three years. Melvin and Gibbs took over the old steakhouse three years ago, fulfilling a childhood dream for Melvin. “This place is one of my first childhood memories,” he said, recalling going to the steakhouse as a child and vowing to one day be in charge. “It’s a childhood dream, and with a lot of help from Mr. Gibbs it’s happened.”
Melvin spent the last three years balancing his time between the two restaurants, but this year his efforts will go solely towards Melvin’s Steakhouse. “All of our momentum is focused on Melvin’s,” he said.
Melvin’s Steakhouse, open daily from 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., will carry many of the items from the menu at the South Division Street Dough Roller, including the Dayton’s chicken.
“We want to make sure our customers know where we are,” said Melvin, referring to the loyal families and customers that he has become accustomed to seeing year after year. “Now they can come in here, get some good food, see some familiar faces, and we can inform them about the plans for the new restaurant. We want people to really enjoy the Melvin’s goodwill.”
The new Dough Roller is on track to re-open next spring, and Coulbourne and Melvin are eager to create new memories in the new building, but until then, they will enjoy a summer away from the Boardwalk, carrying on the tradition off of the Boardwalk this year.
“If anybody can get through it, we can,” said Melvin.