Is there hope for Farm Country Kitchen as we know it?
The popular restaurant’s owner, Tom Carson, and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter met last week to discuss alternatives — if any — that would allow Mr. Carson to keep his business open in its current location along the Peconic River, both said in separate interviews after the meeting.
The sit-down came last Thursday, the same day a story appeared in the News-Review reporting that the Town Board had authorized filing suit against the business in state Supreme Court for a lack of permits and other issues.
The town says Mr. Carson’s property isn’t approved for a restaurant, only for a takeout operation, and is seeking a court order to close it down over safety and other concerns.
The restaurant, located in an old farmhouse at 513 West Main St., sells paninis, salads, sandwiches and wraps for both lunch and dinner. Parking has been a problem at the busy lunch spot, with many patrons forced to leave their cars along West Main Street from the restaurant to Art Sites gallery. The eatery is open seven days a week and began serving dinner in 2010. Its website describes it as a unique, rustic eatery nestled on the banks of the Peconic River in Riverhead.
During their meeting, Mr. Carson told the News-Review, Mr. Walter urged him to consider a new location closer to the downtown business district, but he insisted that was impossible, saying the entire operation would lose its charm.
“Farm Country is just a special spot,” Mr. Carson later told the News-Review. “It’s more than you can imagine. The energy here is so positive and for the town to want me to move out of here is understandable, on paper. But in real life you have to put a little soul into your [business]. Ask any customer to take a poll; this is not the same thing as walking into a TGI Friday’s.”
The two men also discussed other alternatives, such as transforming the business into a bed and breakfast and operating the restaurant as an accessory use. But even if the B&B option were feasible under the town’s Country Inn zoning, Mr. Carson would still have to address fire protection, parking and handicapped accessibility issues, Mr. Walter said.
Either way, a comprehensive proposal would have to go through a site-plan approval process to keep Farm Country Kitchen operating at its current location, the supervisor said.
“I’m into public safety and welfare,” Mr. Walter said Friday. “[He’s] got people dining on a deck that has not been zoned. So I said, let’s open up the zoning code to find out if there’s a way to allow you to stay there. My philosophy is business compliance, and by that I mean here’s the code; make sure you deal with it.”
He suggested that if Mr. Carson wants to stay put, he should hire the necessary architects and engineers and start planning to refurbish or rebuild at the restaurant’s current address, which would be a pricey endeavor.
Mr. Carson said in a later interview that he purchased the old white farmhouse in 2002, when it was used for Section 8 subsidized housing, and that the restaurant helped bring life to a depressed area of Riverhead. He also said he’s currently shopping for parking lots within a few hundred feet of Farm Country Kitchen so customers don’t have to park on the street or otherwise slow down traffic.
“We just opened the place to do take out and delivery,” said Mr. Carson, recalling when the business was just starting out. “We couldn’t even afford to buy tables and chairs. We had a shoestring budget. The customers would be standing around, waiting for their food to take out so we started adding chairs and then people starting sitting down with their plastic containers to eat.
“People would say, ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful. We just want to sit and eat our food by the riverside.’ ” he said.
The restaurant grew from there, said Mr. Carson, adding, “It really is a great story.”
Mr. Walter said he agreed — as Mr. Carson’s lawyer had asserted in the June 23 News-Review article — that Mr. Carson “was a victim of his own success.”
“Success has its price,” Mr. Walter said. “Like any successful business, you have to expand. Maybe he has to move to expand.
“But that’s a good thing,” he added, “so let’s get him to where he belongs; a more commercial location.”
Mr. Walter said the possibility of off-site parking would be considered only during a site plan approval process.
“There used to be a provision in a code where you could park on adjacent properties,” Mr. Walter said. “I don’t know if he’ll be able to accomplish that.”