When you think about casual South Jersey restaurant institutions, you think of places like Charlie’s Bar in Somers Point, Tony’s Baltimore Grill in Atlantic City and Manco & Manco’s Pizza in Ocean City.

But when it comes to straight-up breakfast and lunch spots, Essl’s Dugout stands out.

Not only has it been around for 46 years, but it’s the home of The Messl, a legendary South Jersey sandwich that features your choice of breakfast meat, fried egg, cheese and home-fried potatoes for just $5.50. It’s some messy deliciousness.

So when longtime owners Bob and Sharon Essl decided to hang up their cleats from “serving homemade home runs for more than 45 years,” the community was understandably concerned what would happen to Essl’s. Would they keep the name? Would The Messl go away? Would they change how the place looked? Would it be a breakfast and lunch spot at all?

Fear not, Messl lovers. Essl’s Dugout in West Atlantic City couldn’t have fallen into better hands.

The new owner, Carey Hettmansperger, is dead set against changing tradition. The name stays. The Messl stays. The baseball photos — both national and local — remain on the walls, and Carey vows that her family, which includes Golden Nugget Director of Culinary Operations Bobby Hettmansperger and their children Bob and Abby, wants to ensure the family tradition of Essl’s that has made them the mainstay in the community while evolving to add some new goodies to the menu, as well.

“People keep asking, ‘Are you keeping The Messl?’,” Carey Hettmansperger says. “We would have to be crazy not to. In fact, Bob and Sharon have been trying to retire for five years. But people wanted to come in and change this and not keep the name or make it a Caribbean or Greek place or paint it pink or whatever, and they just didn’t want to see this great thing they created go away. They weren’t comfortable with that. They didn’t expect us to keep the name, but they were so excited when we told them we wanted to. They created something very special here. Why mess with that? Now, Bob and Sharon come in all of the time and say they couldn’t have found better owners and ask me how much I love it? And I do love it! It’s my home now.”

The changes you will see at Essl’s are all for the better. An expanded kitchen, new equipment, some small aesthetic tweaks without changing the look and feel of the place — a true-blue luncheonette if there ever was one — and a menu that adds some of Hettmansperger’s favorite things.

“It needed some updating after 46 years,” she says. “But people will still find the same home-style, hearty breakfasts and lunches made from scratch. We are one of the few places that you can find breakfast all day.”

Getting back to The Messl ... Hettmansperger has expanded the tradition by offering variations such as The Messl Cheeseburger ($7.25) made with a hand-formed chuck patty — the meat is actually ground fresh on site — smothered in fried onions, cheese and a fried egg on that Ginsburg Bakery Kaiser roll; the Cheesesteak Messl ($7.25) with quality sliced rib eye; and, on occasion, a Double Messl, which is exactly what it sounds like: two eggs, double breakfast meat, double cheese and double potatoes on a long hoagie roll.

“There is also a secret menu item: the four-meat Messl,” Hettmansperher says. “Sausage, scrapple — which is a new breakfast meat never offered here before — bacon and pork roll. Someone ordered it once and we have just kept making them. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel here. Why would you change something that has worked for so long.

Essl’s has more than just Messls, of course. Breakfast plates include homemade creamed chipped beef ($8.50) over toast or homefries that is as good as you will find anywhere in South Jersey; corned beef hash ($9.95) with two eggs and toast; a breakfast bowl ($7.95) with sausage, bacon, home fries, eggs any style and cheese; a variety of omelettes, including a Spanish version ($9.50) with homemade chorizo, homemade salsa and queso fresco; fluffy pancakes ($5.95) that can be had in a cinnamon swirl version ($7.20); Texas french toast ($5.95) with cinnamon sugar; a PB&J toast sandwich ($6.25); and new breakfast quesadillas and burritos that are like Mexican versions of The Messl.

Lunch is a priority for the new owners of Essl’s since it represents the best chance for the business to grow.

Other than the lunch versions of The Messl, there are a variety of club sandwiches including turkey ($7.95), cheeseburger ($9.50) or cheesesteak ($9.50), a Reuben ($8.25), a meatball sub ($8.50) with homemade meatballs, and a bunch of cool grilled cheeses such as the ricotta and spinach grilled cheese with mozzarella on French bread served with marinara sauce to dip for just $8.25.

Two soups are homemade and made daily, including Hettmansperger’s signature buffalo chicken soup, but Hettmansperger is really proud of her new mac and cheese bowl options such as the cheesesteak, meat lovers (sausage, bacon and ham) and taco (ground beef, tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, cheddar and taco seasoning), both at $9.50).

“The mac and cheese is creamy with an assortment of cheeses inside, and people just love these bowls,” Hettmansperger says. “You can even get our mac and cheese on a grilled cheese.”

There are also plenty of interesting specials. Last week, a pancake slider special featured two small pancakes sandwiching a fried egg, pork roll and bacon; another was an Italian frittata with sausage, tomato, spinach and mozzarella cheese.

“We have fun with specials to keep us creative,” Hettmansperger says. “We change them every day or two, and people really love our burrito and quesadilla specials.”

As far as the future goes, Hettmansperger will begin baking more, including fresh monkey bread, and the Essl’s name may even be found on a food truck this spring and possibly other locations.

“This is like a dream come true for me and my family,” Hettmansperger says. “Essl’s was always a family business, and it will continue to be one. We care about our customers, which means we care about the quality of the food and freshness of what we make. We want to be part of the community and continue what the Essls started.”

Preparing for her new business

The decision to buy Essl’s Dugout stemmed from Owner Carey Hettmansperger’s home business of making prepared meals for home delivery.

Hettmansperger, a graduate of the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing and casino kitchen veteran including the former Trump Marina, where she met her husband Bobby, had such a strong prepared meals business that she needed a kitchen to work out of.

So she began to look for something and found Essl’s, which was the perfect size and location at the right price, so she pulled the trigger. And while Carey is operating the business seven days a week as people know Essl’s, they can also take away her famous prepared meals.

A new menu is released every week, and people have to order by Wednesdays for Sunday pickup. Meals are fresh, not frozen, and are $10 per person.

Individual meals are in microwavable containers, while dinners for two people or more are served in foil containers so they can be placed right in the oven. Last week’s menu featured chicken bruschetta with risotto and green beans; London broil marsala with mushrooms; mashed potatoes and broccoli; Greek spaghetti with olives, spinach, tomato, feta cheese and a basil scampi sauce; seared salmon with cashew chili garlic glaze over a mesley of veggies; and homemade lobster bisque or chicken tortilla soup.

“My niche is that I can cater to people who have specialty dietary restrictions,” Hettmansperger says. “They might have gluten intolerance or on a special diet and can’t have butter. I make those adjustments. Other people who do this basically tell people, ‘This is what you get.’ We cater specifically to each client, and they really appreciate that.”

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