After closing their kitchen at the start of this year, the Suffolk Theater — newly branded as The Suffolk — has a fully revamped and excitingly inventive new food program to go with their updated name.
The changes come as part of executive director Gary Hygom’s broader vision for the performing arts venue, which includes more diverse programming and an emphasis on supporting restaurants and businesses in the surrounding community.
While he did shut down the kitchen soon after taking the reins at The Suffolk, Hygom says reopening with a more well-considered program was always part of the plan. “We didn’t know what the menu would be, we didn’t know who would be preparing it, but we knew that it was inevitable,” he explains, noting that it took some time, but they decided a few months ago that the food should continue to be made in-house.
To make that happen, Hygom hired Cassandra Dotzel as food and beverage director and Tara Siegmund as kitchen supervisor. “She has really done amazing things,” he says, pointing out that Dotzel and Siegmund created a brand-new menu, and overhauled the bar with much higher quality liquor, an expanded wine list and unique specialty cocktails for every show — all while redesigning how both the kitchen and bar function.
Dotzel also worked with a baker to come up with some incredible desserts, made specifically for The Suffolk.
“I think now we have a little bit of something for everyone,” Hygom says. “We had a little bit of a soft opening for about the past three weeks, tweaking and changing, and now we think we’re kind of locked in,” he adds, acknowledging that there will always be new additions and changes over time, but the core menu is right on target. “Right now, this is the menu that we’ve gotten the best response from, and the great thing is, it’s there to complement,” Hygom says.
“You can go there and have a cheese board and a couple glasses of wine, and after a show go out to dinner. You can go to dinner and come and have dessert at the theater,” he continues, noting that the goal has always been to help generate business in downtown Riverhead and its restaurants, “so that we do what performing arts centers are supposed to do,” which is to generate business for everyone in their vicinity.
“The thing that I love about it is, The Suffolk is probably the hippest venue I have been in, and this (new food and bar program) makes the experience more full and well rounded. It’s a great one-stop venue,” Hygom says. “I’ve got to say, so far, so good.”
Perhaps most interesting, and smart, among the many changes, is the way food is served and how people eat it. Hygom points out that a venue like The Suffolk could seat 60 people one night and 500 on another, and it’s imperative, no matter how many are eating, that food goes out quickly without quality suffering. At the same time, they had to consider the fact that guests aren’t always at tables.
“Sometimes we do some seated sections that are just rows of chairs,” he says. “All of these menu items are adaptable for those.”
To make eating convenient for everyone, Dotzel made it so each item can be served in a bamboo cone, which is filled with offerings such as cheese, meats, French fries, mini empanadas, pan-fried dumplings, coconut shrimp and even desserts, like “funnel fries” topped with powdered sugar, caramel and chocolate sauce. “You can actually get food and hold it in one hand and pick at it,” Hygom says. “So it kind of takes that cool, to-go idea to a different level with this, that makes it available to people who are without a table.”
“We have worked to create a simple menu to ensure great service while attending our shows,” Dotzel says. “We didn’t want ‘simple’ to lack flair though! We are continuing to add some items into the fall and we are so excited about our special, locally hand-crafted desserts.”
Hygom adds that, along with the new food and the innovative way it’s served, they’re trying to “modernize” with QR codes at every table, so guests can pull up a menu with a swipe of their phone. “We have a new system coming in shortly where they will be able to actually order from their phones from the table, so it will make it that much faster and more efficient as well,” he says, though servers will always be on hand.
The Suffolk – New Name Explained
As for the new name, changing the Suffolk Theater to The Suffolk, “I talked to the owners and we came to a consensus that ‘theater’ didn’t fit with who we are. Because when people think of a theater, people think of bolted down, fold-down theater seats, and that environment. We are much cooler than that,” Hygom says, explaining that they are adding more standing-room-only shows targeting “a very different demographic,” with club-like acts and performances.
“I think it evokes kind of a cooler vibe, which is what we’re striving for and what the room is,” he adds, pointing out that the marquee already says, simply, “Suffolk” without the word “Theater” anywhere on it, “so it’s perfect.”
Visit suffolktheater.com to see everything on the new menu and a list of upcoming shows at The Suffolk, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead.