WOODY’S SURFS OVER TO SNACK SHACK

Customers lined up on Memorial Day, below, at the new Woody’s Ocean Hut in Sea Bright.  (Click to enlarge)

By DANIELLE TEPPER

Where others have tried and wiped out, Chris Wood is diving into the surf.

The owner of Woody’s Ocean Grille in Sea Bright last week opened a satellite business just yards away from his year-old restaurant, creating what he calls “a glorified snack bar” in a beachfront building that has seen a a lot of churn in recent years.

He thinks the pairing is the secret sauce to outlasting his predecessors at the well-hidden stand.

Done up in chartreuse with deep orange shutters, Woody’s Ocean Hut opened for business last Friday, with a daylong fog hanging over the beach. But business was booming throughout the sunny Memorial Day weekend, with Coppertone-scented kids shuffling their sandy feet as they waited impatiently for chicken fingers while their parents perused the chalkboard menu.

The hut marks the first effort at expansion of a restaurant that’s been open less than a year, and is the realization of an idea Wood has had in mind all along to offer summer take-out and delivery service, he said.

As detailed in an April, 2011 redbankgreen profile, Wood once worked as a bouncer at Ichabod’s Bar & Grill, and after a a successful career on Wall Street, bought the East Church Street building, rebranding it Woody’s Ocean Grille and upgrading the menu to what he terms “fine casual” dining.

The restaurant opened for business the day after Hurricane Irene knocked out power lines all over Monmouth County. Like moths to a flame, people left their useless kitchens as early as 3:30 p.m. to try the coastal cuisine.

“We got crushed,” said Wood.

While good for business, the chaos spooked him off his idea of take-out, Wood said.

“My biggest fear was that on a super crowded night at the restaurant, 50 take-out orders would come in and the kitchen staff would want to shoot themselves,” he said.

So when Wood and his business partner Peter Forlenza found out the oceanfront shack was available last month, it took them only an hour to decide that they wanted to lease the property as their next step.

“It was the perfect opportunity to take pressure off the restaurant,” Wood said in an interview on the hut’s second-story deck. “I don’t want to compromise the service over there at the expense of trying to expand the business. Doing it here should help it run smoothly.”

The hut offers a few gourmet mainstays from the restaurant – steak and chicken burritos, fish tacos, and quesadillas – while also including more standard fare such as burgers, hot dogs, and cheese fries.

The property has been home to various tenants over the years, the most recent of which was the Marine Grill Beach Café. Each attempt to make the most of the location has not lasted longer than a couple seasons, but Wood isn’t worried.

“Because we already have the restaurant, we won’t be completely dependent on this,” he said. “If we can break even and make a profit, so be it. It’s a win-win.”

To further utilize the picturesque waterfront location, Wood is toying with the idea of hosting special nights on the deck, which offers a panoramic 180-degree ocean view.

“Maybe a lobster night or a clam bake. We could also rent the space upstairs for private dinners or kids’ birthday parties. There are a lot of opportunities here,” he said.

“Honest to God, look at it. It’s really beautiful. We painted it in funky colors to give it an island vibe, we upgraded to nicer furniture, there’s music. It can just be a relaxed oasis.”

He also plans to have the two locations work together, with the hut functioning as a waiting room for the restaurant. Noting that the hut is BYOB optional, he said, “you can come over here with your beeper and enjoy a cocktail and the view while you wait for your table.”

Woody’s Ocean Hut is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with plans to stay open later as the summer continues.