(Editor’s Note: The following story is part of a series on long-running, family-owned Boardwalk businesses.)
OCEAN CITY – Sun Fun Beach Service operator Drew Haugh is no stranger to Ocean City.
The 61-year-old Baltimore native said his memories of the resort span decades. Growing up, Haugh and his family would vacation in Ocean City each summer. And when he was 14, his parents bought a condominium on 18th Street and the Boardwalk.
“They bought a condominium, so we moved here for the summers,” he said. “My mom would bring me and my siblings down, and my dad would come back and forth on the weekends.”
Haugh recalled those earlier summers, when he and his friends would hang out on the beach and play pinball at a Boardwalk arcade. But when he turned 18, he landed his first summer job on the beach.
“We lived on the fourth floor, and when I’d look out I’d notice all these umbrellas and rafts on the beach …,” he said. “I thought that looked like a pretty cool job to have.”
That summer, Sun Fun Beach Service owner Bill Boyles hired Haugh to operate a 3rd Street beach stand, where he rented out umbrellas for $4 a day and chairs for $1.50.
“He called and said he needed some help because he had a lot of stands,” Haugh recalled. “I started on 3rd Street, and it was the first stand I ran. I ran it for him for three years.”
Through the resort’s bidding process, Haugh said Boyles eventually lost his beach stands to competitors. For the next three years, Haugh would operate downtown beach stands under different employers.
But when the parcels came up for bid the next time, Haugh said he approached Boyles with an offer.
“I know Bill wanted to get back into it,” he said. “So I called Bill and said, ‘Listen, the stands are coming up for bid. I have a pretty good idea what the stands are doing downtown. I would like to sit down with you and share some ideas. But I don’t want to just work for you. I want to be your partner.’ He said, ‘No problem.’”
After securing several stands through the bidding process, Boyles and Haugh were back in business together. The two were also joined by business partner Dick Catts, founder of Catts Beach Service in Rehoboth.
At the height of their business, Sun Fun Beach Service operated 35 beach stands, including the 2nd Street location where Haugh currently works. But he said competition from other vendors soon increased rent prices with each three-year bidding cycle.
“We just couldn’t compete with these bids,” he said, “nor did we want to.”
Over time, the number of beach stands decreased from 35 to 20, and from 20 to 8.
But Haugh said having fewer beach stands was a blessing in disguise. At the pinnacle of operation, Haugh and his wife, Laurie, would juggle staffing issues and other business challenges while raising their children.
“I ran three stands one day,” Laurie recalled. “I was four months pregnant, and had my 7-year-old and a 6-year-old with me. Three employees didn’t show up.”
At one point, Sun Fun Beach Service operated only two stands, and in recent years the business has maintained locations at 2nd Street, 3rd Street and 7th Street.
After the bidding process concluded this winter, Haugh said Sun Fun Beach Service acquired five additional locations. When a competitor bid against him for his long-running 2nd Street stand, Haugh upped the ante by bidding a higher price for 2nd Street, as well as for the competitor’s existing locations at 5th, 6th, 8th, 10th and 11th streets.
“I didn’t want to lose this stand …,” he said. “I’ve had it for so long, and I have so many relationships out here. It wasn’t about the money. I just didn’t want to miss the contacts I’ve built. I’ve watched people grow up, people die, people get married and come back. It’s like a microcosm of life down here.”
Haugh said he has several memories of his years between 2nd and 3rd streets. It is where he met and married his wife and baptized his children. It is also where he witnessed a lightning strike kill four beachgoers in an August 1986 storm.
“It was a weird day …,” he said. “The lifeguards weren’t pulled from the beach because it was just raining. There were no thunderstorms.”
Now in its 44th year of operation, Sun Fun Beach Service continues to operate seven days a week throughout the summer season. Catts died in 2014 and Boyles retired years ago, but Haugh still operates the business alongside his wife and Catts’s son Rusty.
“I always hear people say, ‘Oh man, I wish I had your job,’” he said. “But they don’t see we work like pack mules, back and forth across the beach all day long.”
“It keeps us active and it keeps us young,” she said. “But it’s a challenge every day to make sure we have every stand covered.”
Haugh noted this year has been unlike any other. He said business has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many long-time customers did not return to the beach this summer.
“Last year was a record-breaking year because it was so hot. Every day you never had a break. That was probably our best summer,” he said. “This is probably the worst summer we’ve ever had. Bidding this winter, you couldn’t have anticipated this. It’s like a double whammy.”
When asked about his plans for future seasons, Haugh said he had no intention of slowing down if he could weather the current business climate.
“It’s in the blood,” he said.