Since 1950, Howard’s Seafood Restaurant has occupied the corner of West 33rd and Baltic Avenue in Spray Beach. Each summer locals and visitors alike flock to this Long Beach Island institution after a long day at the beach for quality seafood and an intimate dining experience. However, much like LBI, Howard’s has grown substantially since 1950. From a humble lunch counter to an upscale seafood establishment, Howard’s has endured throughout its 67 years multiple storms, economic booms and busts, as well as three generations of Sparks ownership, all while serving up some of the best seafood Long Beach Island has to offer.
Howard’s is currently owned by Kevin Sparks, grandson of founder Howard Sparks. Howard, a pound boat fisherman, loved to fish and loved to cook. You will not find any pound boat fishermen on LBI nowadays, as the tedious process of rowing out to sea, placing nets, and dragging the heavy nets of fish back to shore was phased out in the 60’s with the advent of motors and commercial fishing vessels. Howard married his passions of fishing and cooking into Howard’s Seafood, which he owned and operated until he passed away in 1966, after which his son Kingston, took over with his wife, Jackie. Howard definitely laid the framework for a thriving seafood business, and among his contributions are the invention of Howard’s famous French-fried lobster in the mid 50’s.
Kingston set about expanding the restaurant in the 80’s, and his additions include the expansion of the downstairs dining room as well as the second floor we see today. “With each expansion,” current owner Kevin states “the kitchen grew. With more business they made more room to do business.” Kingston and Jackie owned and operated Howard’s until 2010, at which point it was bought by Kevin and his wife, Lara. The two not only bought Howard’s but also the property across Baltic Avenue which would later become El Swell. El Swell was opened in 2013 by Kevin and Lara with a focus on exceptional fish tacos and a more casual dining experience than Howard’s. Though Kevin and Lara are currently owners, Kevin stated that his father still helps them out quite a bit, especially with any sort of renovations and upkeep.
Interestingly enough, after owning Howard’s and running its kitchen for almost 7 years, Kevin had this to say looking back, “I grew up knowing I never wanted to do this. If you’d have asked me at 18 I’d have laugh in your face.” He went on to comment about growing up on LBI stating, “It’s a full on seasonal town. It’s two extremes, either full on gorgeous or its quiet, it’s dead. When I was a kid I never really appreciated the winter but as I get older I like it more and more.” Kevin completed a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Drew University before coming back and taking the helm at Howard’s. He stated that having grown up on LBI his entire life, he wanted to see what the world had to offer, but as time went on he gained a newfound appreciation for LBI and the people that make up this community.
“To me it’s home. None of the other beach towns along the Jersey Shore are like LBI. Each has its own character and over the years LBI has remained family friendly, kind of a little secret, though maybe not so much anymore,” he noted.
In regard to owning and operating a family business today, Kevin asserts that it’s a labor of love. As owner and head chef, he and his wife are constantly running between businesses and doing quite a bit of hands-on work; however, he attributes his success to his great staff and even better family team. Their son, Ben and daughter, Zoe have both worked at Howard’s and El Swell throughout the years, helping in both establishments when needed.
Kevin relishes the opportunity of working with family stating that “It’s added strength.” He continues, “I spend so much time here in the summer working, it not only allows me to see my family, but having family involved I know that there are other people involved who have as much of a strong stake in the business [as I].”
Looking ahead, Kevin is very optimistic about the future of Howard’s, El Swell, and the LBI business community as a whole. Like many business owners, the Sparks notably took a hit from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, but he asserts that LBI is on the rise. “We are still as busy as ever,” he states “Sandy took a bite, but things are slowly getting back to normal.” He continues, “[There] seems to be positivity in the market right now and that really carries over into people making a decision to rent homes on LBI for a couple of weeks and go out to dinner. As long as we get good stretches of weather, LBI has proved itself as a great destination and I think it will always will be if we keep LBI what it is at is at its core— which is friendly atmosphere, laid back, and inviting.”
Kevin hopes to continue to pass down Howard’s and El Swell to the next generation of Sparks, stating that both of his kids have shown interest. Zoe especially is pursuing a degree in business management from The College of New Jersey and plans to graduate in 2020. On his kids taking over, Kevin had this to add, “We’ll see, no pressure, but I would be glad to have my kids take the reins. Either that or I’ll give it back to my Dad!” At any rate, the locals and visitors of LBI can rest assured that Howard’s and El Swell will be serving up some of the finest french-fried lobster and fish tacos the Atlantic has to offer for years to come.
Kevin Sparks was interviewed by John Dunlap, Southern Ocean Chamber Public Relations Intern, Syracuse University Class 2019.