It’s 1920. A group of Riverhead High School students pedals bikes wildly down West Main Street, chasing the sunset as it fades over the Peconic River. They’re headed to Papa Nick’s, where “Papa” Nick Meras keeps the eatery open long after dark and there’s never a shortage of ice cream for 10 cents.
Papa Nick’s — local nickname of Star Confectionery — has been a staple of the Riverhead community since its inception.
Almost 100 years later, third-generation owner Anthony Meras Jr., Papa Nick’s grandson, is keeping the landmark restaurant and soda fountain alive. For his dedication to sustaining both a business and a family legacy, The News-Review has selected Mr. Meras as its 2018 Businessperson of the Year.
“The name Meras says a lot,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said. “Anthony has really picked up and taken charge in order to make sure it’s sustainable and that people recognize the family name.”
Located at the corner of Roanoke Avenue and East Main Street, the Star Confectionery building was constructed in 1911 by a cousin of his grandfather.
As the story goes, Mr. Meras said, the cousin was a gambler and owed someone money. When Nick Meras visited his cousin in Riverhead, he decided to stick around. He bought the building in 1920, and Star Confectionery was born.
Consequently, the restaurant has always been a part of Mr. Meras’ life, even from a young age.
“I remember dinner at the table; I would always ask what was going on at the restaurant,” he said. “Not a day passed without, ‘What happened?’ ”
According to Bruce Tria, owner of local radio station WRIV, Star Confectionery got its name from the five stars on the side of the brick building.
“Those stars, in those days, actually kept the walls from bulging out,” he said. “It was part of the construction. And then they chose it as the name.”
Anthony Meras and his brother, also named Nick, attended Riverhead High School. During their teenage years, their father, Anthony Sr., was running the place, and the boys worked at the restaurant — until their mother fired them.
“We were either yapping too much or my brother would just sit and have coffee with the customers and the dishes would be piling up,” he said.
Mr. Meras attended junior college in Massachusetts and later graduated from C.W. Post. After working for the Standard Register Company in Manhattan, he came back to the Riverhead store in May 1991.
“I never had the intention of staying,” he said. “I thought I’d give it a few years, and maybe my father would retire.”
But he did stay — and he’s been the face of Star Confectionery for 27 years.
“I’m like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” he said. “I was here, and then I never got away and that was it. Although I love it, as did the character.”
People have said that Anthony Jr.’s children, Sophia, 19, Alex, 17, and Ava, a seventh-grader, will be the fourth generation of the Meras family to own the classic diner. But their father said he doesn’t want to rush them to make a commitment; none of them works at the establishment.
Star Confectionery has maintained its classic, old-time appearance, with tile floors, embossed white tin ceilings and light fixtures from the ’20s, an ice cream counter from the ’50s, and wooden booths from the ’70s.
Fellow business owner Brian Stark, whose father opened Riverhead retirement community Glenwood Village in 1959, has known the Meras family his whole life. He said the restaurant and soda fountain is a key to the past.
“I think people like the nostalgia,” he said. “You walk in there, and everything’s the same. Everything changes, but Papa Nick’s is always there.”
Mr. Stark said the hard-working fellow behind the counter has always maintained a connection with the Riverhead community.
“Papa Nick’s is a community hub, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Being in business, you have to show up every day, you need to show up on time, and he does that, and he does it with a smile on its face.”
Mr. Meras said his family connection with Riverhead is so normal that he usually doesn’t acknowledge it.
“I take it for granted, what we mean to Riverhead,” he said. “I’ve been everywhere, there’s always six degrees of separation, and someone knows the restaurant. That, to me, is my connection to Riverhead. The history of my family being in the same spot for all these years.”
Persistence and simplicity, Mr. Tria said, have helped Star Confectionery remain open for so long.
“In very large measure, they don’t change,” he said. “They’re not trying to be something that they’re not. Papa Nick’s knows who they are, they’re very comfortable in their skin — and that makes them successful.”
Mr. Tria said people like Anthony Meras, who work relentlessly under the radar, need to be recognized.
“There’s something to be said for people who go about their business, do their jobs, don’t kick up a whole lot of dust and just keep their nose to the grindstone,” he said. “We often ignore those people. But they are, in fact, the unsung heroes that make everything work. That’s Tony Meras.”
Photo caption: Anthony Meras Jr. is our Businessperson of the Year for 2018. (Sascha Rosin, file photo)
2017: Irwin Garsten
2016: PeraBell Food Bar East
2015: Jim and Barbara Cromarty
2014: Riverhead’s craft brewers
2013: April Yakaboski
2012: Richard Stabile
2011: Dennis McDermott and Kayleigh & Tahir Baig
2010: Dee Muma
2009: J. Gordon Huszagh
2008: Ray Pickersgill
2007: Ray Maynard
2006: Jack Van de Wetering
2005: Jeff Hallock and Dr. Frank Arena
2004: Massoud Family
2003: Andrew Mitchell
2002: Christine & Peter Loew, EastEnders Coffee House
2001: Jan Burman
2000: Fred Terry
1999: Jim Bissett, Joseph Petrocelli
1998: Swezey’s Department Store
1997: Pat Frankenbach
1996: Chip Cleary
1995: Ed Merz
1994: Bill Talmage
1993: Joe Fischer
1992: Liz Strebel
1991: Barry Barth
1990: Bobby Goodale
1989: Mike Kent
1988: Stan Hagler