At Modern Snack Bar, vintage sign a link to bygone era
The neon lights — a mix of red, yellow and blue — glow against the dark sky each night as drivers approach the iconic sign in Aquebogue. Over the past six decades, the vintage sign at Modern Snack Bar has become a North Fork landmark.
“Because [the sign] has been there for so long it’s become iconic,” said Otto Wittmeier, who owns the restaurant with his younger brother John.
Now 77, Mr. Wittmeier said he remembers when the sign was first installed. It was 1956 and he was 16.
“It was a momentous thing,” he said, adding that at the time, his family didn’t have much money. His parents, Wanda and John, worked hard to be able to purchase the sign, he said. He’s not sure what the cost would have been back then, but when the brothers had the sign serviced recently it cost them around $5,000. He said it’s a lot to maintain, but worth it to do so.
The sign has become a part of the town’s history.
In 2007, the Riverhead Town Board voted to grant the sign landmark status, so it would be exempt from newly passed town code requirements on signage. A Town Board resolution from that time called the sign “a piece of 1950s roadside architecture and a unique piece of Riverhead culture,” according News-Review archives.
That same year, the sign appeared in a Toyota TV commercial that aired in the fall to launch Toyota’s 2008 Highlander. As the story goes, crew members from the filming wanted to eat inside the restaurant rather than eat the catered food supplied for them.
John Wittmeier said the sign is a landmark for local residents, a compass point that alerts drivers to precisely how much farther they have to go in their travels. The younger Wittmeier was only 1 year old when the sign went up. He said anyone who was involved with the decision making at that time is now gone.
“I’m not sure where ‘modern’ came from,” he said while sitting in the restaurant Tuesday morning before the lunch rush.
He said the sign came from the Niemeyer Sign Company of Patchogue and he thinks they could have made the decision on its design. At the time, he said, that style of sign was popular.
“It’s back in the ’50s so it has a ’50s flavor because that’s what was happening at that time,” he said “It’s not a reproduction; it’s the real deal.”
He said he’s happy the sign is so recognizable and plays a role in the lives of locals. The same is true of the restaurant’s interior.
Walking through the doors of the Modern Snack Bar today is not much different than it was 10 years ago. Visiting it is like walking into a time capsule, John said. The brothers have worked hard to maintain the essence of the original restaurant their parents ran for so long. The brothers officially partnered in 1989 when their parents retired after running the business since the early ’50s.
The Wittmeiers sat in the back corner of the restaurant at a table they call “Wanda’s table” because it’s where their mother would sit to fold the napkins and prepare the silverware — even after she officially retired.
Reminiscing about the origins of their iconic sign brought up other fond memories. Otto recalled beginning to work at the restaurant when he was only 14 years old. He said he remembers working the grill with two cooks who retired after working there for 47 years.
John recalled the brothers’ unique experience growing up in the apartment right above the restaurant.
He said he remembers “midnight snack runs” where he could raid the refrigerator and find ice cream.
Even older memories include his recollection that the staff was like one giant family and he had many “aunts” who would watch him as he ran around among the tables in the restaurant.
“I do that now,” he said. “But I’m not wearing a onesie anymore.”
The brothers also highlighted how the employees have remained with the business through the years. They said about 13 current employees have been there for over 10 years, and three have been with them for over two decades.
When they open each year in April, they said, it’s like a big reunion. The same staff and customers always return. On any given August afternoon they can find a family with multiple generations sitting together at the same table they always have.
There wasn’t an open seat in the house Tuesday afternoon, and the Wittmeiers said this year, the restaurant’s 67th, has been very busy.
Doug and Carol Winsko of Aquebogue sat the at the end of the counter Tuesday joking with the brothers. The couple said they eat at the Modern Snack Bar at least three times a week.
“Good food, good service. What’s not to like?” Mr. Winsko said. Their designated spot is at the far corner of the counter.
It’s customers like the Winskos who give the Wittmeier brothers a rewarding feeling. They said they try to keep things simple and their consistent customers come back just for that. Though they have made some changes since they officially took over — like accepting credit cards and getting a full liquor license — they try to stick to what their parents built for them.
“We miss those days. We miss Mom’s presence but I think she would be proud of how things are going since her passing,” John said. “We’re always going to try and do our best to be better today than we were yesterday and we’re grateful to our customers for sure.”