The vintage diner on Main Street in Riverhead has been in continuous operation since 1932, but on Aug. 31, it served its last order of eggs over easy with rye toast and well-done home fries. Sunny’s Riverhead Diner & Grill is another casualty of COVID.
Sunny’s was only the third tenant in the diner’s 89-year history. The original Riverhead Diner & Grill was opened by John Moustaka in 1932 but, in 1937, it was replaced by the current steel-clad building. In 1961, Moustaka sold the diner to Joseph and Frank Strebel. Joseph’s daughter, Liz, bought the diner in 1973 and operated it until she sold it to the Jim and Sunny Liszanckie in 2017.
The Liszanckies changed the name, slightly, to Sunny's Riverhead Diner & Grill and, Jim said, "at the end of year three, we felt we had created an amazing thing."
Then the pandemic hit, and Sunny’s struggled. First, the community vibe that kept customers coming back was incompatible with takeout, and Sunny’s did not serve dinner — the biggest takeout meal. Nor could they figure out how to make money with third-party delivery services that charged up to 30% of sales.
Even when indoor dining returned, the challenges did not abate. "Last winter was the worst," Jim Liszanckie said. "There were 100 rules and they were changing every five minutes. It was a daily grind just trying to keep our heads above water."
Aside from securing a low-interest loan offered by the Small Business Administration to offset the impact COVID-19, the Liszanckies had nothing to fall back on. "We didn’t come from money. We scraped together everything we had for Sunny’s."
Despite the sad ending, Jim considers his time at Sunny’s to be "the best four years of my career." A veteran chef who had worked at A Mano in Mattituck, Fresno in East Hampton and Diggers in Riverhead, he loved having his kitchen "in the middle of the dining room. I loved seeing my regulars every day — some of them I still have breakfast with every week. We loved being part of the community and, even during the pandemic, I loved being able to help people." (Jim already has a new position; he’s the executive chef at Kenny’s on the Green, the restaurant at Indian Island Golf Club in Riverhead.)
When they opened Sunny’s in 2017, the Liszanckies had the foresight to buy the building, which means that they will be able to recoup some of their losses. The new owners have already leased the space to a new restaurant operator.
Sunny’s figured prominently in a 2019 Newsday story, "Will Long Island Diners survive for the next generation?" In it, Riverhead resident Diane Sherman explained why she had breakfast at Sunny’s four or five mornings a week: "They see me walk in and they pour my coffee," she said. "Look, I can make breakfast at home — I’m a pretty good cook. But I like connecting with my community, and that’s why I go to Sunny’s. Every town needs a diner."