(Editor’s Note: The following story is part of a series on long-running, family-owned Boardwalk businesses.)
OCEAN CITY – The Dough Roller founder Bill Gibbs said he always knew he would be a restauranteur.
“I love the restaurant business,” he said. “I love making pizza. I love feeding people. I like the challenge.”
As an Ocean City native, Gibbs spent his adolescent years as a beach boy for the Breakers Hotel. As he rented out umbrellas, chairs and surf mats, visitors would often approach him for dining recommendations.
“People were constantly asking me where to go eat,” he said. “So I’d send them down the Boardwalk.”
At the age of 14, Gibbs began his first restaurant gig serving pizza at a local establishment. By the age of 22, he had bought Jose’s, an old pizza shop on Wicomico Street.
“That was my first store,” he said. “I sold pizza, soda and beer for six or seven years. Then in 1980 I got the opportunity to buy the Breakers Hotel. Having been the beach boy and hearing so many people talk about where to go eat, I thought ‘well, I’ll put a pizza place out front.’”
Following a renovation to the front porch area, Gibbs opened The Dough Roller, a family friendly Boardwalk restaurant offering pizza and pancakes. A slice of cheese and tomato pizza was 80 cents, a whole pie was $5.75, and a stack of plain pancakes was $1.75.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t make enough money selling pizza, sandwiches and Italian dinners,” he said. “So I decided to put pancakes in because I knew they were high profit. That’s where Dough Roller pizza and pancakes came from.”
Gibbs said his first year of operation started on Memorial Day weekend.
“We started with about 40 employees,” he said. “They were all new and came in on Memorial Day weekend, 11 a.m. on Friday. All 40 of them. We had an employee meeting for five minutes, opened the door, and it was pure chaos.”
Gibbs said he spent every day the first summer at the restaurant, working both days and nights and sleeping in his office chair after closing. Gibbs recalled those earlier years on the Boardwalk. He noted the same families would return to The Dough Roller each summer.
“Back in those days, GM closed for two weeks and they came down,” he said. “Western Electric closed for two weeks, Bethlehem Steel, a lot of the major companies in the metropolitan areas closed down, and we saw the same people year in and year out those same weeks. It was almost all family.”
Over the years, The Dough Roller has grown to include five restaurant locations – two on the Boardwalk, two on Coastal Highway and the newest on Route 50 in West Ocean City.
And business continues to be a family affair. Today, Gibbs’s wife, Julianne, operates the Breakers Hotel, while each of their sons – Gary, Jeff and Kevin – operate a Dough Roller location. The family is also joined by two long-time employees, Evan Elliott and Keith Melvin, who run Dough Roller restaurants on 70th Street and Route 50, respectively.
“The expansion just flowed with the management team, which is mainly family,” he said. “And we have an extended amount of people who have been very loyal. I’m very grateful to the local employees who have been with us over the years.”
Gibbs noted, however, that his years in the restaurant business have not come without its challenges. In addition to those first years of operation, he recalled a March 2008 fire that destroyed the South Division Street Dough Roller.
“That was a very hard time …,” he said. “Financially, it was devastating.”
Gibbs also noted the current challenges restauranteurs are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This summer has been absolutely, unbelievably hard. There’s absolutely no rest,” he said. “You are constantly worried about your help and your family and your business … But we have no choice, we have to persevere. We have to get through this. Not just Dough Roller and Bill Gibbs, but the community and the country.”
Despite the challenges of the restaurant industry, Gibbs said The Dough Roller continues to thrive after decades of operation.
“That’s how we became successful. We sold good food in a family friendly atmosphere at a reasonable price in a fair amount of time,” Gibbs said. “That’s still what makes The Dough Roller successful.”