A sheet of paper taped to the glass door of The Birchwood restaurant in Polish Town states the restaurant is closed for renovations.
“We will be Renovating the Restaurant over the next several weeks!!” reads the notice, which was still posted as of Monday and signed “The Owner.”
Although the sign was posted last month, there’s been little sign of construction at the shuttered site.
Andrea Mayer, ex-wife of the restaurant’s previous owner, James Loo, told the News-Review Monday that the restaurant would undergo “cosmetic” changes that wouldn’t require building permits from Riverhead Town.
Ms. Mayer, who recently took over The Birchwood after Mr. Loo’s death, said she hopes the restaurant will reopen in the next couple of months and said delays have been caused by legal proceedings.
“It’ll be open,” she said. “It’ll be new and fresh and good for that area.”
The sudden shuttering of the popular Riverhead eatery was the latest in a series of legal filings over the property, from foreclosure actions against Mr. Loo in 2011 to estate proceedings last month — which gave the restaurant to his 12-year-old daughter, Amanda, following Mr. Loo’s death earlier this year.
Ms. Mayer, who divorced Mr. Loo in 2004, was named as administrator of the property last month in her daughter’s stead.
Although she declined to comment Monday on the fate of the restaurant’s staff, she said The Birchwood would be “under new management” when it reopens.
Employees have said they’ve been unsure about their futures at the restaurant since they were abruptly told last month that The Birchwood would be closing temporarily.
“We were told so many stories,” said Rita McDermott, a former manager of the historic restaurant. “People are crushed. That place has been there forever.”
Mr. Loo, who previously owned The Village Crossroads restaurant in Calverton, purchased The Birchwood restaurant in 2004, taking out a mortgage with Bridgehampton National Bank in April for $775,000, according to Suffolk County Surrogate’s Court documents.
Six years later, money troubles began to plague the restaurant.
In April 2010, Mr. Loo and his company, Javan Enterprises, owed more than $16,000 in back taxes, according to New York State tax warrant records.
Then a $415,659 tax lien was issued the following year against Mr. Loo and his other company, Jakevide Inc., according to the records. By that time, both Jakevide Inc. and Javan Enterprises had been dissolved, according to state records.
In September 2011, Mr. Loo was facing foreclosure since he owed more than $869,000 in “principal, interest, late charges, property insurance, policy premiums, property taxes and/or other charges,” according to Surrogate’s Court filings.
Mr. Loo later agreed to pay $5,000 monthly installments for 36 months in order to avoid legal action, according to court documents.
But last September, the bank attempted to foreclose again after Mr. Loo stopped making those payments, as well as payments on municipal taxes and utilities.
More state tax warrants were also issued against Mr. Loo, totaling more than $156,000, according to state online records.
Then, on Jan. 8, Mr. Loo died unexpectedly at Peconic Bay Medical Center.
As friends and family grieved, Mr. Loo’s brother, Ken Loo — who owns Hy Ting, Haiku and Blue Agave restaurants in downtown Riverhead — took over running The Birchwood.
“The only reason why I helped out The Birchwood was because they treated Jimmy good,” Ken Loo said in an interview last Friday.
When Ken Loo’s own restaurant, Blue Agave, ran into tax lien problems in April and was briefly closed, he said that he was unable to pay back taxes because he was trying to keep The Birchwood afloat.
“It’s in the red,” Ken Loo said about The Birchwood. “This isn’t about money. There is no money [there].”
Ms. Mayer claims that Ken Loo had “illegally” taken control of the restaurant and left wages unpaid after her ex-husband’s death.
Since James Loo failed to leave a will, Suffolk County Judge John Czygier Jr. ruled on June 4 that Mr. Loo’s daughter should inherit the property.
Ms. Mayer said she was then appointed as “guardian” of the property and Ken Loo was removed as manager.
During that time, The Birchwood stopped ordering food, former employee Ms. McDermott said.
Ms. McDermott — who had worked at the restaurant for nearly 30 years and was demoted from her position as manager after Ken Loo took over — said she was surprised when the eatery closed.
“It was really heartbreaking,” she said. “It was a home away from home. I miss it something terrible.”
She added that former employees have kept in touch since the restaurant closed. Some have moved on to work as bartenders at other local eateries. Others, like Ms. McDermott, are still searching for new jobs.
“I never, ever, ever thought that I would not be working there,” Ms. McDermott said.