You can’t blame Liz Strebel for growing emotional when she talks about walking away from a business she’s worked in nearly all of her adult life. The tears well up despite the fact that she’s wanted to sell the diner beginning soon after she resumed ownership in 2010, following an 11-year hiatus.
Now that she has a buyer and a closing date on the horizon, it’s bittersweet.
She stood at the end of the long, shiny counter this afternoon, chatting with the new owners, Sunny and Jim Liszanckie. A customer holding a plastic bag filled with takeout interrupted to say “Merry Christmas.” After wishing the customer well, Strebel turned back to the couple who will take over operation of the iconic Main Street diner next month.
“She comes in once a week to pick up liver and onions for her aunt, who’s 100,” Strebel said. “You can’t take liver and onions off the menu. No place else has it any more.”
Jim Liszanckie laughs. “I won’t. I won’t,” he promises.
“I mentioned I was going to take liver and onions off the menu and it caused an uproar,” he explained, shaking his head a little. The uproar was from the staff, not Strebel. But she clearly agrees.
The Riverhead couple don’t plan any major changes to the place or the menu Strebel has been offering diners for decades.
“It will be freshened up,” Jim Liszanckie said. He means that literally. “We’ll be buying fresh produce from local farmers in season,” he said. There will be some new things added to the menu, but the old favorites — including liver and onions — will remain.
“We don’t want to change this place. We want to add to it,” Liszanckie said.
Liszanckie, 42, is a Greenport native who’s worked in restaurants and the food industry his whole life. He started out as a dishwasher at the Shelter Island Yacht Club when he was a kid and worked his way up. Along the way, he attended Culinary Institute of America. Locally, he’s worked at Digger’s, Fishermen’s Rest and A Mano. For the past seven years, he’s done food sales for Dairyland Chef’s Warehouse.
The diner — which will be renamed Sunny’s Riverhead Diner and Grill — will be open for breakfast and lunch at first. After a few months, it will also serve dinner every night and remain open till “at least 9 or 10.”
Liszanckie plans to open at 6 a.m. “We want to offer a place where people on their way to work can grab coffee and breakfast,” Liszanckie said.
He also plans an “express menu” that will offer people options that will get them out the door in 15 minutes. He also plans to eventually offer delivery service.
Liszanckie exudes enthusiasm. “I just can’t stop grinning,” he said.
The Liszanckies are buying not just the business but also building.
“We’re very excited about Riverhead,” he said. “There’s a lot happening downtown, with all the apartments and everything. I see this town is going straight up. I’m very excited that we’re going to be part of it.”
His wife is a Riverhead native, a 1998 Riverhead High School grad. Until May, she worked in the aviation industry doing charter sales in Islip. They have a 15-month-old son.
Sunny Liszanckie said she saw an article about Strebel wanting to sell the diner. Then their son was born and time passed. This fall, her father Duane Lewin, ran into Strebel’s cousin at a high school class reunion and asked if the diner were still for sale.
“It’s a clean break for me,” Strebel said. “That will be different.”
She sold the business in 1999 but retained the property. The deep recession took its toll and the new owner — who had been a waitress at the diner for a decade — signed the business back over to Strebel in 2010.
Strebel freely admits her heart has not been in it the second time around. “I’m sort of stuck, sort of stale. I don’t have any new ideas,” she said. “I just don’t have any enthusiasm for it any more.”
Strebel began working at the Grill at age 17 and it became the hub of her young life, just as it had become the hub of a then-bustling Main Street. When her father had decided to retire and received an offer on the business in the early 1970s, Liz decided she couldn’t let it go. She purchased the Grill in 1973 and ran it herself with much success until 1999.
Main Street’s first diner opened in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, and it was an instant success — in spite of the dark economic times. The business grew along with Main Street — the Suffolk Theatre opened the following year — and the diner’s former proprietor, John Moustaka, expanded, purchasing the current shiny steel structure from a manufacturer in New Jersey in 1937. Moustaka sold the business to Strebel’s father Joseph and his brother Frank in 1961.
“The history of this place is important to us,” Liszanckie said. “It’s been here since 1932, so you know this is a very special place.”
“Our mission is to be family-oriented and community-minded,” he said. “If we do that I know this place will be successful.”