Glasses of water and fruit smoothies were the perfect complement to the buttered bagels that Sarah Lee, Susan Stauffer and their children were enjoying one afternoon in a downtown restaurant.
The fact that alcohol cannot be sold anywhere in Ocean City — and the family friendly atmosphere she says it helps sustain — are major reasons why Lee moved here a year ago.
Yet some people, like Lindsay Stott, like their fruit beverages a bit more fermented. He'd like to be able to enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner without having to drive off the island to mainland restaurants that serve it.
Whether this popular Jersey shore town that calls itself America's Greatest Family Resort will allow restaurant patrons to bring their own beer or wine to have with dinner will be decided in a referendum on May 8, after being debated and argued about for years. And it is causing new divisions in a resort founded as an alcohol-free Methodist retreat.
"This is a huge issue for the future of the town: tradition against change," said City Councilman Keith Hartzell, who opposes BYOB. "It's a divisive issue and I can't wait to get it behind us."
It's hard to overstate how strong the family vibe is in Ocean City, a place where baby parades, boat processions, beauty pageants and hermit crab races on the boardwalk rank among the highlights of the year.
"Historically, we have been a dry town," said Stauffer. "Businesses have been doing fine without it. A good restaurant should be able to stand on its own."
"The family resort atmosphere is something I really enjoy," added Lee. "We think it maintains the ratings and the property values of the community."
But Stott said Ocean City is losing business to neighboring towns — and missing out on tax revenues. He said allowing residents to bring a drink to the table will "increase the quality of visitor we get."
"My wife and I and our friends are wine drinkers," Stott said. "We'd love to take advantage of this, and sit and enjoy a nice meal with a glass of wine. Everyone's afraid of people going on the boardwalk all drunk, but it won't be like that. Restaurant patrons will not be drunken 20-somethings."
Ocean City dates to 1700 when whaler John Peck began using the barrier island as a place to store freshly caught whales. In 1879, four Methodist ministers bought what was then called Peck's Beach to establish a Christian seaside resort. One of its main features was to be a permanent ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol, something Ocean City has used as a selling point since the 1890s.
In 1891, a city promotional ad boasted, "A striking peculiarity of this city by the sea is that there are no liquor saloons or places of questionable character within its bounds. The sale of liquor is forever prohibited, and as a result, the best classes of people are drawn here, and disorder and drunkenness are unknown." A 1908 ad proclaimed "many churches; no saloons," and a 1916 ad campaign described Ocean City as "absolutely free from saloons and all kindred evils."
A sizable portion of the population still feels that way. Andrew Fasy, a real estate salesman and married father of a first-grader, is chairman of The Committee to Preserve Ocean City, a group opposed to the BYOB proposal.
"What we're hearing from supporters of BYOB is a very pretty picture: a mature, respectable couple enjoying a glass of wine with their dinner," he said. "That's very appealing to a lot of people. But what also comes with that, especially in a resort town, are the less responsible, immature young adults that would abuse that privilege and engage in behavior that will hurt the identity of the town and the family-friendly atmosphere."
The issue has simmered for years, and was nearly brought to a vote last year. But an ordinance that would have been voted on was pulled from the November ballot for several reasons, including fear that its limit on the amount of beer or wine that could be brought into restaurants was superseded by state liquor laws, and the fact that many in Ocean City did not want BYOB approved for eateries on the boardwalk, the heart of the city's tourism industry.
The measure on this year's ballot excludes boardwalk businesses from BYOB, and sets no limit on the amount of beer or wine a customer can consume with dinner. (The law sets BYOB hours as 2 to 11 p.m.)
Fasy is afraid the boardwalk exclusion will be overturned by a lawsuit, and is wary of sitting next to a table of young adults "with an entire cooler of beer."
Bill McGinnity, owner of Cousins restaurant, is a leading proponent of BYOB. He says it's in the best interest of businesses to responsibly administer BYOB.
"We're not looking for bars or liquor stores — we don't want that," he said. "We want Ocean City to stay a dry town; we don't want the sale of alcohol, ever. And we don't want to see anybody walking down the boardwalk with alcohol. We listened to people, and we get that."
He said some restaurants unofficially tolerated BYOB until a 1984 law was passed prohibiting consumption of alcohol in public places.
Now, he said, the city's restaurants are struggling. Ocean City has lost nearly a quarter of its year-round population in just the past 10 years, falling to 11,701 residents. That makes it even more imperative for Ocean City businesses to keep customers in the city instead of losing them to mainland restaurants that serve alcohol.
"At 6:30 in the evening, you can roll up the sidewalks here — and that's in the summer," McGinnity said. "All our costs are going up — raw materials, food, insurance. You can't make a living working hard for four months a year anymore. Those days are gone."
Dick Waddell, a retiree who has lived in Ocean City for 14 years, worries that Ocean City's "small-town atmosphere" would be wrecked if diners were allowed to bring alcohol into restaurants.
"You don't need a strip club at Disney World, and you don't need alcohol in Ocean City," he said. "They say you can drink at home so you should be able to do it in public. We have sex at home, too, but I don't want to see it in public."