The members of The Ward Melville Heritage Organization board said protesters only know part of the story about their negotiations with the owner of a popular restaurant in Stony Brook Village Center.
After Pentimento Restaurant, owned by chef Dennis Young, announced on its Facebook page at the end of July that it would be closing Sept. 30 due to their lease not being renewed with Eagle Realty Holdings, customers and former employees began protesting the decision.
Eagle Realty, which this year paid $725,000 in real estate taxes, according to President Gloria Rocchio, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the not-for-profit WMHO. The realty company leases the commercial businesses in Stony Brook Village Center as well as a few offices and residential homes surrounding the shopping center.
In the last few weeks, protesters have rallied in front of the restaurant as well as Rocchio’s home. The supporters created a Save Pentimento Restaurant Facebook page and posted a petition on Change.org.
There were also campaigns to call and email all of the board members which include Richard Rugen, chairman of the board, and trustees Mary Van Tuyl and Charles Napoli. People have been calling the WMHO office, too.
Rocchio said a couple of times a box truck and car have been parked in front of her home with Save Pentimento signs, and at a Sept. 12 protest, a person was banging a pot.
Rugen said as president, Rocchio has taken “the black eye.”
The board feels the protests exacerbated the problem instead of letting the trustees work things out with Young and his lawyer. The trustees said they were working on the issue with the owner for eight months.
“That’s what’s so frustrating,” Rugen said. “The demonstrations and so on, especially in front of Gloria’s house, have actually exacerbated the problem to the point where it was no longer viable.”
Napoli said people don’t have all the facts and the board was just trying to get clarity, while the public has labeled them “demons.” The board members said they have had a good relationship with Young through the years, and he’s always paid his rent on time. Rocchio described Young as “a wonderful chef.”
Napoli said the protests were “counterproductive.”
“It was unnecessary,” he said. “It could have been resolved, just between us and Dennis.”
Van Tuyl, who has received numerous calls at home and her business, added that the protesters know who the board members are but the trustees don’t know who the people are calling and emailing them.
“That’s a scary situation for anyone to be in,” she said.
Rocchio said it was difficult for her and board members to comment on the lease situation to the press and residents as the terms of a lease and negotiations are normally kept between the lessor and lessee. She added that each lease is for a different length of time.
“These are landlord-tenant matters that are negotiated, and you really don’t discuss in public,” Rocchio said.
Young and the restaurant’s manager, Lisa Cusumano, said in previous interviews with TBR News Media that they were supposed to notify the landlord a year before the end of the lease term about the intention to renew. Young, who wants to retire in the near future, said he forgot due to trying to keep his business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. A few months ago, someone he knew wanted to buy the business, but he was told the lease could not be extended. If Young was able to sell the business, the restaurant would remain as Pentimento, and he and Cusumano would continue to work there as well as the current staff.
The board said they were open to extending Young’s lease but not for as long as he originally asked for. When they proposed a shorter length of time, their offer was rejected by him. The board members added that they interviewed the buyer Young suggested as well as others. They suggested a couple of them to Young. However, when the potential buyers contacted the restaurant owner, he didn’t provide them with the information they needed to make an offer.
There was one more caveat, Rocchio said, as obligations in a present lease have to be fulfilled before letting another person buy a business, and the septic system needs to be replaced. Cusumano said in a Sept. 16 The Village Times Herald article that Young has maintained the septic system properly and replaced it approximately 10 years ago.
Rocchio said the current septic system had been reviewed by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services when it was installed, and the architect who designed it used the standard specification for a restaurant with 125 seats. However, according to the board, the septic system that is a dedicated system for the kitchen, interior of the restaurant and outside patio has been overtaxed. It doesn’t handle or affect the bar area or the bar bathroom.
The owner had expanded the restaurant years ago by taking over a former clothing store. While he didn’t have enough funds to finish the project, the board said Eagle Realty Holdings put up the rest of the money. In the event that he sold the business, the realty company would be repaid.
“It was to our benefit for him to sell the business,” Rocchio said.
She said with the restaurant closing at the end of the month Eagle Realty will not be paid back the money, and it will be responsible for the new septic system.
In a Sept. 16 The Village Times Herald article, Cusumano said that the restaurant’s last day would be Sept. 30.
“We walk away after 27 years with nothing,” she said.
Napoli said they were doing everything they could to help Young.
“No one on the board wants to hurt Dennis,” Napoli said. “Everyone, all the trustees, want him to get something for the restaurant. For 27 years, he has served this community very well and the community has supported him, and we’ve encouraged it. We’ve worked together. It would be only fair that he did get something.”