Fast chat with The Riverhead Project owner Dennis McDermott

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | Dennis McDermott, owner of The Riverhead Project on East Main Street, in the Vault Room of his restaurant.

Dennis McDermott was working for a catering company in Manhattan and spending time at his home in Southold only on the weekends about a decade ago.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he could no longer live in his apartment, which was four blocks from the World Trade Center.

As the catering industry grew quiet in the months that followed, he began spending more time on the North Fork and eventually opened The Frisky Oyster, which became one of Greenport’s most popular restaurants.

Mr. McDermott sold The Frisky Oyster about two years ago and opened his third restaurant this past spring in downtown Riverhead.

He called it The Riverhead Project.

Mr. McDermott was named 2011 Person of the Year by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, after doing business in the town for just six months, and will be recognized at a celebration at The SeaStar Ballroom at Hyatt Place Long Island/East End on Dec. 9 from 6 to 10 p.m. We recently sat down with Mr. McDermott in the Vault Room of The Riverhead Project and asked how business has been going over the past six months.

A: Business has been amazing. When I look at why I opened a restaurant here and I explain it to people, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re so smart.’ I’m like ‘No, it’s just obvious.’ If you look at what’s in a 20-minute driving radius from downtown Riverhead, Westhampton, Hampton Bays, Quogue, Remsenberg, Baiting Hollow, Wading River, Yaphank, Manorville, Farmingville, everything along the Sound —Shoreham, Rocky Point — everything west of Mattituck. A lot of people live here year-round. Everybody comes to Riverhead at some point for something.

I also have a built-in clientele from out on the North Fork from my two restaurants. I have friends from Greenport who come to Riverhead to go shopping. So there’s a built-in history of relationships with customers to help drive the beginning of the restaurant.

Q: How is owning a restaurant in Riverhead different from owning one in Greenport? 

A: Running a restaurant in Greenport is difficult. Riverhead is a lot less seasonal than Greenport. Riverhead has greater access to staffing than Greenport. The access to staffing makes my life so much easier. And there’s also the addition of purveyors. Sometimes it’s difficult to get people to deliver to Greenport. There’s so much more availability in Riverhead.

Q: Have there been any hurdles you’ve had to overcome? 

A: Before I try to isolate difficulties or hurdles, I have to say the Town of Riverhead has been amazing. It started with an introduction to Sean Walter and he said he would do whatever he could to make sure this endeavor had a chance to get up off the ground. So he organized a summit in Town Hall with the building department, the site plan department, the fire marshal and everyone else that needed to be involved in mounting a business like this.

When I left this meeting, I had all the permits I needed to have. It was orchestrated by Sean Walter, and his administration had let everybody know that how this project goes, so goes Riverhead. I felt like there were rose petals placed in front of my feet. It was very accessible and very fluid.

So, hurdles? Not so many. This is my third restaurant; I sort of know what to expect. There were really no surprises. I’m not saying I’m Superman and everything was a piece of cake —keeping my costs down for the build was a bit of a challenge. But it all worked out.

Q: Are you undertaking any other projects, commercial or otherwise? 

A: The Peace Project. I’m a little bit friendly with Richard Gere and his wife Carrie and I know Richard’s got this thing called The Gere Foundation, and he helps support the Tibetan Monks and they spend a lot of time praying for world peace. They do mission work — they’re ambassadors for world peace. So I want to raise money for The Gere Foundation to help promote world peace.

We’re selling bracelets, the guests are making donations on the guest checks, the waiters are donating half their tips on Sundays and I’m donating 10 percent of the sales of all holidays parties I have. On Dec. 11 I’m having a cocktail party all the proceeds will be donated. It runs from Thanksgiving to New Years Eve.

Q: What do you think earned you the 2011 Person of the Year title from the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce?

A: I don’t know. I think it’s because I could be a shining example of how to open a business in Riverhead and help turn Riverhead around. I think it was because if they shined a lot on me, they’re shining a light on The Riverhead Project, which is then shining a light on the future of Riverhead.

The above transcript was condensed to fit space limitations.

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