Wednesday, December 12 2012 09:26
Her voice may be faltering and she can't run around her restaurant the way she used to, making sure everything is up to snuff, but don't let that fool you.
The matriarch of the Wittmeier family, who built the Modern Snack Bar from a 16-seat roadside diner to a 125-seat icon of North Fork dining, is still very much in charge.
Wanda Wittmeier turns 90 today. She's lightened her schedule considerably in her golden years: she now works only six days a week, noon to 4 p.m.
The Aquebogue resident's landmark birthday was celebrated a couple days early by her extended family — which for Wittmeier includes Modern Snack Bar staff and longtime customers — with a birthday breakfast cooked by her sons John and Otto and a chocolate birthday cake.
She didn't want any parties, Otto Wittmeier said. And he seemed a little concerned that he might be in trouble with the boss for sneaking one in before the Snack Bar closed for the season, as it does each December. It served its last meal of 2012 on Sunday evening and will reopen the first Tuesday in April, 2013 — its 63rd year in business.
A dressmaker by trade, Wittmeier left her job at the Riverhead clothing store Bon Marche in 1952 to help her sister Lilly at the Snack Bar. Lilly had opened the Snack Bar with her husband in 1950 — the year the Wittmeiers moved to Long Island from Upper Falls, Mass.
Four years later, Wittmeier bought the business. It took some cajoling to persuade her husband John that buying the restaurant was the right thing to do. It was a huge risk. They gave their house as a down payment and got a bank loan to finance the rest of the purchase price. They moved into the apartment upstairs at the restaurant, where they lived for 32 years.
"We took this over without a dime," Wittmeier recalls. "If we lost it, my husband said, we'd be in the road. But I was determined to make it. I wasn't going to let it fail."
There are two reasons for the restaurant's success, she says. One was hard work, plain and simple. The Wittmeiers worked 16-hour days, seven days a week for years. They did it all themselves: cooking, baking, serving, cleaning, bookkeeping.
"We couldn't afford to hire people," she said.
The other reason is satisfying the customer. "You have to give them what they want: good food at a reasonable price."
That's what kept people coming back and grew the business, Wittmeier says.
The Modern Snack Bar as it stands today on Main Road in Aquebogue has grown up around the original structure in place when the Wittmeiers took over. It had six stools at a counter and two tables. They added the kitchen in 1957, the rear dining room in 1964 and the front dining room in 1975.
When the farm just north of the Snack Bar went up for sale, she wanted to buy it. Again she had some convincing to do. Her husband was reluctant.
"I told him, 'We've got to protect the Snack Bar,'" she recalls. There was a proposal being discussed for a low-income housing development for the farm. That could have been bad for business, she reasoned.
Wanda Wittmeier had a vision of her own for the site, and today it's an over-55 mobile home park. Like the restaurant, the park is spotless and tidy. It was the last mobile home park to get approval in Suffolk County, she says with pride. "I had to fight for it."
Her sons, who had moved away to pursue their careers, came home in 1989 to take over the business. Otto worked for Howard Johnson and Marriott, while John Jr. worked for the Ground Round.
"I'm so grateful they decided to come home to work here," she says. "It was getting to be a lot for me and my husband." But it was their decision, Wittmeier adds. "I couldn't ask them to come home. If they weren't happy, I'd be unhappy."
The Wittmeiers stayed on part-time "to help them out," she said. The boys promised they wouldn't change things, except on customer feedback. They've added some things to the menu over the years, she said, but they've been true to their word and true to the Snack Bar's reputation for serving up good, home-cooked meals. John Sr. passed away in 2001.
Wittmeier's daily post at the restaurant is a corner table in the front dining room, where she wraps silverware in paper dinner napkins, chats with customers, and generally keeps an eye on things.
"I never sit idle," she says, as her hands quickly and expertly wrap knife and fork inside a big white paper napkin, then secure the tight cylinder with a wax paper strip. "When I'm home, I knit, I sew, I read."
The restaurant that started out with a staff of six — maybe — including its owners, today employs about 30 people, she said. Former employees are frequent visitors, stopping in to say hello.
"For all the years she's been here, she knows them and remembers them all," Otto said.
The manager emeritus pauses in her work to bid an affectionate goodbye to a teary-eyed teenage waitress. She asks about the girl's college applications and whether she's heard from her top choice yet.
"I'll see you in April," Wittmeier tells her after a hug. "Be good."
Wittmeier's grandchildren have all worked at the restaurant during school vacations and on weekends, just as her sons did. They all learned the Wanda work ethic.
John's daughter, Claire, was waiting on tables Sunday afternoon. She was a full-time volunteer at a soup kitchen in Philadelphia for two years after college graduation. She recently returned to the North Fork and is hoping to pursue a teaching career. Claire laughs at a suggestion that she might be the third generation of Wittmeiers to run the Snack Bar.
"But you never know," she says, smiling at her grandmother.
"I always wanted to own a dress shop. I wound up owning a restaurant," her grandmother says, laughing. "You never know."
Her pride in her family and her satisfaction in life are obvious.
"God has been very good to me," Wittmeier said, clicking through the images on her digital camera, showing off her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"I'm so grateful for the many blessings I've had: my family, health, the strength to work hard... and for all the customers who love the Snack Bar," she added.
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