Like clockwork, the men begin arriving at in Little Silver around 6 a.m. most weekday mornings. The first shift is made up of the early birds — the teachers and commuters. As the morning wears on, the guys who work more locally start to arrive, grabbing a cup of coffee and either gathering around one of the wooden tables at the front of the Oceanport Avenue shop, or if it's just a few of them, hanging out back in the kitchen while owner Tom Caruso decorates a cake or ices cookies.
Over the past 15 years, the ritual of stopping by the shop for a cup of coffee and shooting the breeze has slowly morphed into an important part of the day for the 15 or so men who have found not only camaraderie but a sounding board, a networking system and news source in each other.
So when , the men suffered the loss of not only one of their core members but someone who had become a good friend to them over the years.
"There are people who are doers and those that sorta hover," Don Galante said while standing at the back of the shop on Sunday morning, holding a cup of coffee.
That morning, only a handful of guys were at the shop, Galante saying that with Bitman's wake and funeral service the previous two days, Sunday was a "tough" morning for the group.
Galante, who served with Bitman on the borough council for a number of years, said that his wife noted, while standing on line to pay their respects to Bitman's family at the funeral home on Friday, "I'm seeing people from town I haven't seen in years."
"He touched everyone," Galante observed of his friend, whether through his work with the Special Olympics or all the many projects he became involved with or spearheaded in town like the school referendum, the Parker Sickles Homestead or various capital projects in Little Silver.
And in that spirit, the "pie guys" or "coffee guys," as they call themselves, have often combined their resources — or what Galante called their "social capital" — to benefit other members of the community.
Over the years, they've used the Pie Shoppe as a staging area to plow out folks during snowstorms or, as the "chainsaw gang," helped remove fallen limbs and trees from homes following a hurricane.
"It's part of the fabric of the town," said Galante of the numerous groups and organizations — such as the PTO or the six softball teams in town — who "come together when something needs to be done."
"That's what's so special about Little Silver," he said, adding that for the men, "All the ideas come out of the shop."
Caruso, who's owned the Pie Shoppe with his wife since 1984, called it a "safe place." Unlike hanging out in a bar at night and raising wives' eyebrows and potential ire, "This is sort of a meeting place that's not dangerous."
Jeff Dalton, who stood around the wooden counter with the other men on Sunday, observed, "We're here usually an hour before the family even gets up."
Other than laughs, members of the group know they can bring issues about work or their wives and kids and find someone who's had the same experience and a comfortable place to share amid the pastries and coffee cups. "It's a great sounding board," said Caruso. "You can go round robin with your problem and the next thing you know, you have six solutions."
"It's also a great place to brag," Galante said, adding that he's boasted at times about his wife's accomplishments to the group. "You should have heard Jon," he continued. "He was so proud of his girls."
When asked if there were any criteria the group looked for in possible new members, Caruso shook his head "no," but quickly rethought the question. "The one requirement," he said, "is you have to be funny."
Galante agreed, adding, "You've got to have a smile."