"When you come this close to losing everything, it's not just crucial that this summer be a success. . . . It's an absolute necessity for us," said Ernesto Cannuscio as he worked the delicate pizza dough between his fingers as the first of the Memorial Day 2014 holiday weekend crowd began trickling in to the restaurant for an early dinner last week.
The Cannuscios' business is among hundreds along the Jersey Shore that suffered varying degrees of loss from Sandy: Everyone from the mom-and-pop shops to the larger corporations at the Shore that cater to vacationers lost an estimated $30 billion in business.
Tourism is crucial for New Jersey, and especially the four Shore counties - Monmouth, Ocean, Atlantic, and Cape May - where about 50 percent of the spending occurs within the $40.4 billion-a-year industry, the state's third-largest. Despite the individual losses from Sandy, the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism posted a 1.3 percent uptick in tourism spending in 2013, although Atlantic and Ocean Counties experienced declines.
And there are high hopes for this season and Memorial Day weekend in particular, when throngs began to clog routes to the Shore as early as Thursday night for a weekend expected to be sunny and warm. Beach towns held Friday activities including flag-raisings and ceremonial unlockings of the beaches to welcome visitors.
Last summer, while many businesses and residents were still digging out of the muck and devastation that Sandy left behind, a controversial $25 million state-sponsored tourism advertising campaign declared the Jersey Shore "Stronger Than the Storm." With $1.3 million left over from that ad campaign - and a request for $5 million more from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - officials this year have launched "Going Strong" television ads to lure visitors back this summer.
But it's still tough going for some in 2014.
Some Shore businesses, mostly in the hardest-hit areas of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, were washed away by Sandy. Some of those have been rebuilt, others have not. In Atlantic and Cape May Counties, where damage was less widespread, but nevertheless devastating for those who suffered losses, businesses reported revenue off as much as 20 to 40 percent last summer.
The four beach counties attract about 60 million visitors a year, and the industry employs as many as 320,000 people - about one in every 10 jobs in the state - annually, according to state officials.
Although revenue remained flat for several years after the economic bust in 2008, the tourism industry gained about 4 percent nationally last year.
New Jersey's slight revenue increase of 1.3 percent resulted in a record amount of tourism spending in the state, according to Michael Busler, a business studies and finance professor at Richard Stockton College and an adviser for the college's Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism.
The increase accounts for overall spending statewide, which could reflect steeper prices for restaurant meals and hotel rooms.
The institute has for the last six years issued a "Jersey Shorecast" for the coming season. Institute officials and other industry experts predict Shore tourism spending increases as high as 4 percent this summer.
Busler and others say that as long as a gallon of gas stays below $4, fuel prices should have no impact on the region where 30 million people live within a 300-mile drive.
And despite Sandy's pall, other business owners jumped in feet first to open new enterprises last year and expand in time for this summer.
"They love the Jersey Shore, and they wanted to be a part what was happening here," said manager Meredith Parrott, of the owners of Potito's Bakery, a South Philadelphia staple, which opened a Shore outpost last summer at 17th and Central Avenues in Wildwood.
Bolstered by a successful run in 2013, Cristina and Matthew Benigno are opening another Potito's June 13, on New Jersey Avenue in Wildwood Crest.
"Last summer was actually really good at the Shore for us, so the company wanted to expand this summer," Parrott said.
The key for this region as Atlantic City gaming revenue continues to slide, dipping below $3 billion last year after peaking at $5.2 billion in 2006, is that tourists can be attracted by the notion they can gamble as well as engage in other activities. These include going to the beach, finding interesting events, and great shopping, and dining on a variety of cuisine, Stockton's Busler said.
While tourists can certainly visit casinos in other states, this is the only place "you can gamble and do something else, like go to the beach, like attend a concert, like attend one of these other activities," Busler said.
Early indicators, such as bookings for summer rentals and hotel and motel reservations, support the predictions. Rentals figures in early spring outpaced last year's as much as 30 percent. Real estate agents, however, said landlords were still reluctant to increase their prices on rentals as the industry continues to regroup after Sandy. Hotel and motel prices seem slightly up over last year for key vacation weeks, they said.
"Even though lots of people are renting, far ahead of last year's pace, I think that rental prices are holding steady because homeowners still don't want to rock the boat with potential vacationers after Sandy," said Carol Menz, broker/owner of Coastline Realty in Cape May.
Sandy's shadow may be driving towns to add events this summer.
"That's where there is an area of growth, in recreation and entertainment," said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. "People want to feel they are doing more when they are on vacation, so we're seeing a lot more creative thought and energy being put into the planning of special events this summer that will add to the visitor's vacation experience without necessarily adding to the cost for them."
Events include country star Blake Shelton's free concert on an Atlantic City beach scheduled for July 31 and other shows, parades, exhibitions, and contests throughout the summer.
Sandy's aftermath may prove most devastating for municipalities and business owners such as Ernesto Cannuscio. The pizza shop owner's insurance company would pay only about a third of the $300,000 cost to rebuild his business, so Cannuscio had to take out a loan for the rest to get the business open in time for this summer.
"Sometimes I shake my head and wonder what I am doing taking out a mortgage at my age . . . but you have to keep going. You have to move on," said Cannuscio, 62, of Linwood. "We have no choice but to believe this summer - and all the summers to come - will be great."