Bagel Lovers & Deli owners Ro and Frank Murphy, who first opened their Riverhead bagel shop and delicatessen in 1990, say it’s time to retire.
After being shut down by the COVID crisis in March, the husband-and-wife team have decided at this point in their lives — he’s 68 and she’s 61 — they lack the energy or inclination to restart when state guidelines finally allow. They have put the business up for sale.
“It’s time to pass the baton to younger people,” Frank said. “This is a great space and a great location,” he said. “We just think the time is right for us to move on.”
The Murphys moved their shop from East Main Street to larger quarters on Osborn Avenue, near the main campus of the Riverhead school district, in 2009.
Bagel Lovers was always a popular spot for high school students, even when they had to travel to the East Main Street location. But it was also a go-to breakfast and lunch spot for office workers, court personnel and shoppers.
When they opened the shop in Riverhead, Main Street still drew shoppers to Swezey’s Department Stores, Woolworth’s and Sears. Other retail shops dotted both sides of East Main Street. One by one, the anchor stores closed down and the smaller shops followed suit.
Moving to Osborn Avenue, taking over a much larger space previously operated as an Italian restaurant and before that a longtime popular bar and grill, was a great move for the business, the couple said. Loyal customers followed and the proximity of the new spot to the schools ensured a crowd weekdays and on weekends too.
“Our place was always filled with young people and had such a great energy,” Ro said. Years after graduating, former students, even those who’d moved far away, have always returned to say hello and grab a favorite sandwich or bagel. She grows emotional talking about the kids she watched grow up and the older customers who touched the couple’s hearts.
“We always knew our customers by name,” Ro said. “Everyone on our staff did, too. Customers knew each other too and those that didn’t got to know each other. We got to know people personally over the years. We met so many cool people. I had a great time,” she said, growing teary-eyed.
Her husband likened the shop to the bar in the 1980s sitcom “Cheers” and broke into his rendition of the classic TV show’s theme song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”
The Murphys were in the darkened restaurant yesterday afternoon, clearing some things out, collecting mementos and reminiscing.
Ro pointed to the St. Patrick’s Day decorations that still adorn the walls of the dining rooms.
“I was in the middle of taking them down when COVID hit,” she said, looking around wistfully.
It’s as if the pandemic froze time inside the sprawling eatery. The calendar on the wall reads March 2020. Three-month-old newspapers and magazines sit on the shelf waiting to be picked up and thumbed through by customers waiting in line at the counter, where a plastic tip jar sits.
On the wall above the serving counter, signs advertise sandwich specials named after the Riverhead High School students whose taste buds helped design them: the “Cobis Special” — grilled chicken, lettuce, BBQ & hot sauce on a whole wheat wrap with ranch dressing or the “Spencer Vogel Special — chicken cutlet, melted Swiss, bacon, lettuce with Russian dressing on a roll.
The Murphys, who owned and operated a deli in Centereach for five years before opening Bagel Lovers & Deli in Riverhead, said theirs was the first bagel store in town that combined the traditional fare of a bagel shop with a delicatessen featuring hearty sandwiches and specialty salads — showcasing skills they learned from the prior owner of the neighborhood deli they bought when Ro was just 21 years old.
“The other place in town at the time was just bagels and cream cheese,” Frank Murphy said.
The community embraced their concept right away.
“We were lucky,” he said. “It was like everyone was waiting for us.
After so many years here, the couple said they “feel more at home” in Riverhead than in the town they’ve actually lived in for decades.
They knew retirement was on the horizon, but they didn’t expect it to be as abrupt as the COVID crisis made it, the Murphys said. They lament the idea that they won’t be able to say goodbye in person, but the soonest they’d be able to resume full operations — with the commencement of Phase Three of the state’s reopening plan — would be in two weeks.
“It just doesn’t make sense for us to restock and re-provision to reopen,” Frank said, repeating, “It’s time to pass the baton.”
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