The Riverhead community is mourning the loss of an iconic businessman who was remembered as a “big teddy bear” with a heart of gold.
Anthony ‘Tony’ Nicholas Meras, longtime proprietor of Star Confectionery downtown, died at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead Saturday at the age of 90.
“I’m going to miss him. He was my buddy,” his son Anthony, who now runs the nostalgic downtown eatery, said Monday. “I could talk to him about anything.”
Tony was born in Riverhead on August 23, 1931 to parents Nicholas and Marina. After graduating from Riverhead High School, he served in the United States Army from 1954 to 1955 and later married Catherine “Kitty” Nikoloan, who ran the business with him for more than 25 years.
Tony and his brother Peter began working at Star Confectionery when they were still children. Their father, Nicholas, purchased the business in 1920. Today, most locals still refer to the restaurant as “Papa Nick’s.”
“We grew up in here helping my father,” Tony told the News-Review in a 2016 interview. “He gave us our freedom to play sports and stuff, but he wanted us back here to help him. This was in the late 1930s and early 1940s. If you went for sports, you could play the sports, but if you didn’t, you came down here and worked. And at 5 p.m., we went home and did our homework.”
The brothers took over the business in the 1970s, running it alongside Tony’s wife, Kitty. Their son Anthony started working at the restaurant when his uncle Peter retired in 1991.
“I was just going to work the summer,” Mr. Meras recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll help my father, I’ll hang out a little bit.’ And the rest is history.”
As Tony eased into retirement, he remained an integral part of the business.
“He was still coming down every day. I used to call my mom and say, ‘Don’t you have anything else for him to do?’” Mr. Meras joked. “He’d sit in his booth right by the grill and everyone would come and have coffee with him. That place was air to him. He loved the people that came in there. It wasn’t a restaurant for him. It was life.”
Longtime regulars, friends and former employees who have become more like family each described Tony as warm, quick-witted and always a gentleman.
For local businessman and family friend Brian Stark, the business doubled as an impromptu comedy club.
“It was more like walking into my family’s kitchen, getting a few laughs. The food was secondary—even though it’s delicious,” he said. “You’d see people from all walks of life.”
Mr. Stark says he still stops in at least once a week, knowing that both a cup of good coffee and good conversations are guaranteed. He’ll miss trading quips with Tony and teasing him about installing a “damn television” already. (Tony, true to his old-school roots, was adamant that his restaurant remain television-free.)
“He was like your dad,” Mr. Stark said. “He always told it like it was, but was a big teddy bear.”
His influence and friendships spanned generations.
“He was a staple at the Star,” said Kaitlyn Ferris, a local photographer whose very first job was at Star Confectionery when she was 14. To this day, it’s still the only non-photography job she’s ever had.
“You think you’re just signing up for your first job, but the Merases immediately became family,” Ms. Ferris said, noting that Tony was like a grandfather, or Papou, to borrow a Greek term.
“When I think about my memories there, it’s Tony making the ice cream,” she said. In addition to its ambiance and classic diner fare, the landmark is also well-known for its 11 flavors of homemade ice cream and seasonal holiday chocolates.
“And if he wasn’t making [ice cream], he was sitting in his booth and we were bringing it to him,” she said, laughing.
One of Ms. Ferris’ fondest memories is helping make the handmade chocolate Easter bunnies.
“It’s truly an art,” she said. “He had such a way and rhythm to how he did everything.”
Last Easter season, the younger Mr. Meras said his father was unable to help out due to the pandemic and deteriorating health and complications from dementia.
“We were troubleshooting how to get the chocolates out of the molds and he had the special trick,” Ms. Ferris explained. So they called the expert for some advice.
“He had his moments,” Mr. Meras added. “But I asked him a couple things and he said why don’t you try this or this. Sure enough, it worked. So he was still a part of it.”
Ms. Ferris said she’s glad she recorded that phone conversation, thus ensuring the patriarch’s wisdom can be passed on along with a seemingly endless collection of memories, photographs and stories.
“That’s all you can ask for in life,” she said.
Those memories along with an outpouring of love and support are what’s kept Mr. Meras’ spirits up the past few days.
“He worked hard and treated everyone with respect. I learned that from him. He was so important to this place. He was certainly one of a kind,” Mr. Meras said.
Tony was predeceased by his wife, Kitty, in 2016, son Nicholas in 1996, brother Peter in 2016 and sister Matilda Delahanty in 2016. He is survived by his son, Anthony; grandchildren, Zoe, Sophia, Alex and Ava; and daughter-in-law, Ann Meras-Guzewicz.
Visitation will be held Wednesday, Oct. 6, from 10 to 11 a.m. at Greek Orthodox Church of the Hamptons, located at 111 St. Andrews Road in Southampton. A funeral service will immediately follow the visiting hour at the church and burial will take place at Riverhead Cemetery.