Riverhead diners reacted with shock and disappointment this week to the sudden news that Spicy’s BBQ in Riverhead had been seized by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance for alleged non-payment of sales taxes.
The popular West Main Street take-out spot, which for four decades served up fried chicken out of a vintage dining car, was shut down Tuesday and remained closed as of press time.
“Spicy’s is a must when you head to Riverhead,” said Weyhan Smith of Southampton. “It’s a landmark. It’s important to the community. I have faith they will reopen.”
Hungry residents were turned away by bright orange “seized” signs hanging in the window of both the restaurant’s Riverhead and Bellport locations this week.
Online state tax records indicate Spicy’s had satisfied several warrants dating as far back as 2012 earlier this year, but James Gazzale of the state Department of Taxation and Finance said the restaurant still has three outstanding warrants for non-payment of taxes, including two issued earlier this month.
The three recent warrants — the first of which was issued last November — total more than $450,000, records show.
Dee Muma, who owns the property where Spicy’s is located, said she was also surprised to hear of its sudden shut down but she had reason to believe it would be open again soon.
She said she spoke with business co-owner Rick Stoner, who said he’s working out a repayment plan with the state that would allow him to continue to operate both businesses. Ms. Muma said she was told by Mr. Stoner that he owes the state $239,000. On its Facebook page Wednesday morning, the restaurant said it’s not permanently closed and asked its customers to “stay tuned for a grand reopening date.”
“Apparently in these type of narratives, they start with a big number and then you work it out with the state and they come up with a payment plan,” Ms. Muma said. “Once you’ve worked out a payment plan, you can go back in business.”
Telephone messages left Mr. Stoner and his father and business partner, Terry, went unreturned this week.
Ms. Muma purchased the one-acre Spicy’s property from former land owner James Capkanis in 2012, but the Stoner family continues to own and operate the restaurant through a lease agreement.
Ms. Muma said at the time she was motivated to buy the Spicy’s property because she sees opportunity in owning an iconic section of riverfront property as the town grows.
More than just a prime piece of real estate, the fried chicken business that has operated from the property has maintained a stellar reputation as a place adored by locals and visitors in the know.
Of Spicy’s, New York Times food editor Sam Sifton wrote in a column last September, “I like how they fry the birds there, how the skin is fantastically salty and crisp, how it reacts under lashings of the sweet-spicy barbecue sauce they serve on the side, yellow as a city cab, mustard-pungent and sticky. You’d think the skin would go soggy, but it doesn’t, really, not if you eat fast.”
For downtown workers, it’s a prime lunchtime destination.
“The food was good and it was convenient,” said Kim Nieves of the neighboring Lighthouse Insurance.
“They were good to us,” added colleague Joseph Sfoglia. “They’re a great family. I hope they reopen soon.”
Spicy’s established its first location under the name Spicy’s Birdland in Riverhead in 1978 before opening in Bellport nine years later. Its iconic yellow sauce with red pepper flakes was served from the beginning.
According to a 2002 New York Times story, the Kullman diner car housing Spicy’s in Riverhead was previously used as a fruit stand, meat market and doughnut shop. Rick Stoner told the News-Review in 2011 that he believed the building was about 100 years old. It was most recently a Greek restaurant before Spicy’s took over in 1978, he said.
The Times, in that same 2012 story, referred to Spicy’s as the oldest barbecue restaurant on Long Island, though the paper conceded most of the eatery’s menu would be considered southern style.
Caption: The seized signs on the Spicy’s windows Tuesday morning. (Credit: Rachel Siford)