2021 Businesspeople of the Year: John and Otto Wittmeier

Few establishments have made their mark on the North Fork in the same way Modern Snack Bar has. 

The iconic Aquebogue restaurant, instantly recognizable for its landmark neon sign out front, is renowned island-wide for its vintage decor and home-cooked meals. 2022 will mark its 72nd year in business — first run by Wanda and John Wittmeier, the eatery is now operated by their sons John and Otto. In recognition of their lifetime dedication, John and Otto are the News-Review’s Business People of the Year for 2021. 

In past interviews with the Northforker, the brothers recall growing up in the apartment above the restaurant. John reminisced about “midnight snack runs,” where he’d raid the kitchen for ice cream. He also recollects the family-like atmosphere among the staff as he was growing up. That culture has continued into the present.

“We’re like a family. And I think when people come into the restaurant, they feel that as well. We make them feel like they’re family. That’s what a lot of the customers say,” said Rosetta Bulak, who has worked there for 36 years. The restaurant has a lot of regulars, she said. 

“The comfort food is delicious while the decor and music bring us back to a time when our family gathered around the dinner table every night and talked about the day we had,” said Ellen Hoil, a Riverhead author and attorney, who has been visiting the restaurant with her family since her parents moved to the North Fork in the 1990s.

“When I moved out we started to make it the place we always went to, to have a nice meal and a good time,” she said. “The staff are the friendliest I’ve encountered in a restaurant. No matter how long between visits, we are always remembered and welcomed back.”

Ms. Bulak emphasized the Wittmeiers’ “hands-on” approach. “I think that’s why it works, “ she said. The brothers take on tables, make cocktails and help out wherever they’re needed. They “truly care about the customers and staff,” she emphasized. 

“That’s why I’ve continued to work there so long,” she added. “It’s such a great place to come to work every day … They’re both around greeting the people and making sure everybody’s happy.”

The seasonal restaurant closes from mid-December through mid-April every year. In a previous Northforker interview, the brothers said reopening each year is like a big reunion with the same staff and customers.

In 2020, because of the pandemic, the restaurant did not reopen for the season until July. Ms. Bulak said Otto Wittmeier “was constantly chasing” vendors for their normal products. “Lots of times [the vendors] just didn’t have it,” she said. “They really tried to make everyone happy on their favorites, but it was a daily struggle that I saw them both go through every day.”

Newsday reported that the brothers “streamlined the menu” upon reopening. 

The restaurant started as a “true snack bar,” according to its website, with a grill, six counter seats and a pass-through window. The Wittmeier family, who took ownership of the business in the early 1950s, has grown the enterprise over the decades into an award-winning 125-seat restaurant with two dining rooms and a midcentury aesthetic. 

The home-cooked menu has been recognized on both a local and national scale. Its lemon meringue pie, created by Wanda Wittmeier, took the number one spot in Saveur Magazine’s “Top 100” list of recipes for 2013. The restaurant website similarly notes the fame of its “award-winning” lobster salad, roast duck from a farm across the street, chicken croquettes and mashed turnips. 

The turnips especially have achieved renown. Wanda Wittmeier’s creation made its debut at the Snack Bar around 1978, according to Newsday. Hundreds of people line up for Thanksgiving pints. 

And thanks to its vintage sign outside the restaurant, Modern Snack Bar has become a North Fork landmark. A neon mix of red, yellow and blue, the sign was put up in 1956 and built by the Neimeyer Sign Company. Formal landmark status was bestowed by the Riverhead Town Board in 2007 in order to exempt the sign from changed code requirements on signage.

A Town Board resolution at the time called the sign “a piece of 1950s roadside architecture and a unique piece of Riverhead culture,” Times Review has reported. Otto and John Wittmeier, who took over when their parents retired in 1988, were still children when the sign was placed. The sign was even featured in a 2007 Toyota commercial.

“The Modern Snack Bar has always been a family-owned business and a lot of the recipes and a lot of the homestyle cooking that they have in there is stuff they used to eat around their dinner table,” said Jodi Giglio, a former Riverhead councilwoman and state assemblywoman whose district includes the towns of Riverhead and Southold. 

“It was a tremendous loss when they lost their mom a few years back, but they still have all of her recipes from the meatloaf to the lemon meringue pie and the key lime pie and all of the pies they’re famous for, as well as their seafood specialties like their lobster roll,” she added.

Previous Winners

2020: Jerry Dicecco Jr. and Jonathan Perkins
2019: Beth Hanlon
2018: Anthony Meras
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