Generational family businesses reflect on years…and years…downtown

07/10/2015 6:00 AM |
Clockwise from left: Anthony Meras, third-generation owner of Star Confectionery; Cliff Saunders III, second-generation owner of Cliff’s Rendezvous; Liz Strebel, second-generation owner of Riverhead Diner & Grill; Mary Ann Alexander, third-generation owner of Reginald H. Tuthill Funeral Home; Todd Griffing, third-generation owner of Griffing Hardware; Barry Barth, third-generation owner of Barth’s Drug Store; former Star Confectionery owner Tony Meras; Christina Saunders and Erik Saunders, wife and son of Cliff Saunders III. (Credit: Joseph Pinciaro)

Clockwise from left: Anthony Meras, third-generation owner of Star Confectionary; Cliff Saunders III, second-generation owner of Cliff’s Rendezvous; Liz Strebel, second-generation owner of Riverhead Diner & Grill; Mary Ann Alexander, third-generation owner of Reginald H. Tuthill Funeral Home; Todd Griffing, third-generation owner of Griffing Hardware; Barry Barth, third-generation owner of Barth’s Drug Store; former Star Confectionary owner Tony Meras; Christina Saunders and Erik Saunders, wife and son of Cliff Saunders III. (Credit: Joseph Pinciaro)

Seated in a booth flipping through a large binder bursting with old pictures, brochures and menus, Tony Meras, the 80-year-old former owner of the Star Confectionery, and his 48-year-old son Anthony, the diner’s current owner, recently reminisced about the 95 years the business has been located on Main Street in Riverhead.

As they thumbed through memorabilia, the father and son were stopped several times by loyal customers who wanted to catch up by saying hello. Some of these patrons swing by the diner almost daily; others, only a handful of times a year. But all are treated the same way — as friends.

“It’s the people that I enjoy that come in here,” Tony said. “You don’t know how important that is — to know people and have them come in here.”

One reason the elder Mr. Meras thinks having close relationships with customers is important is because Star Confectionary gets less foot traffic today as opposed to “way back when.”

Now, each conversation feels more special.


WHO ARE THEY? MEET DOWNTOWN RIVERHEAD’S FAMILY BUSINESSES


“Years ago, you used to walk down Main Street and talk to half a dozen people on the way to where you were going and half a dozen people on the way back,” he said. “Not today, because today they’re all going the other way — to [Tanger Outlets] — and there’s no communication with each other.”

Though Route 58 continues to expand, Tanger Outlets pays more property taxes than any other parcel in town and Main Street sees its fair share of turnover, Star Confectionary is one of close to a dozen businesses that can truly attest to what downtown “used to” be like.

That’s because they’ve been there for several generations.

THE WAY IT USED TO BE

Barry Barth, the third-generation owner of Barth’s Drug Store — a Main Street staple since 1917 — described downtown as the “place to be” years ago, especially on Friday nights and around the holidays. And he wasn’t the only person to use the word “vibrant” to describe Main Street in its glory days.

“My friend Joseph Fischer, who owned [the bookstore] Bigger Better Brains, and I were trying to promote the Christmas shopping season, so we built a cart and we were grilling kielbasa and giving away free kielbasa sandwiches to people shopping on Main Street,” said Mr. Barth, 68, chuckling at the memory.

Tony Meras holds up a picture of family members working in the diner decades ago. (Credit: Nicole Smith)

The elder Mr. Meras said people had no room to even move around his store after attending sporting events in the 1940s and ’50s. And after school, kids would come in and do homework and stay until his father — “Papa Nick,” after whom the diner is now unofficially named — kicked them out at 5 p.m.

After the commercial buildup of nearby Route 58, however, Main Street took a turn for the worse as business headed north and longtime downtown stores began closing left and right.

A September 2003 Riverhead News-Review article about the closing of Swezey’s — which anchored East Main Street for more than 30 years — cited the addition of new malls as a reason for the popular department store’s departure. Richard Cox, then the president of the Riverhead Business Improvement District, said department stores no longer had a place on Main Streets across the country.

“If it’s the kind of a store you’re going to find in a mall, it’s not going to work on Main Street anymore,” he said.

At the time, the goal was to begin to introduce new types of businesses, like restaurants, boutiques and “artsy stores” to the troubled downtown area.

As for the Main Street businesses that managed to survive when others were unable to stay afloat, what kept each one going during this hard time varied.

“It’s kind of like a car dealership — if you have a good car shopping experience you might come back again,” said Eric Alexander, the fourth-generation manager of Reginald H. Tuthill Funeral Home. “With the funeral industry, as long as you keep having a good experience, you’ll always go back to that funeral home.”

Consistency was also key for others.

Pointing to their signature steaks, burgers and wings, “a lot of our staples are the same,” said Jerry Dicecco Jr., who co-owns Jerry and the Mermaid, which his parents opened in the mid-1990s.

For some, a little more evolution was necessary — but not too much.

“We have a good base core of customers — great loyalty,” said Christina Saunders, who owns Cliff’s Rendezvous with her husband, Cliff Saunders III. The restaurant was opened in the mid-1970s by Cliff Jr.

“I think they appreciate the fact that we haven’t changed too much,” Ms. Saunders said. “There’s a fine line between staying current and not changing.”

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