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A scene from Santacon on Saturday night. (Credit: Paul Squire)

Can Santa get a little service over here?

Ordering a drink at Joe’s Garage and Grill on Saturday wasn’t exactly easy for Jolly Old Saint Nick — or really my friend Jaan in a cheap red suit — as he stood at the end of the bar waving a $20 bill. That’s not a knock on the downtown eatery; it was just slammed with scores of fake-white-bearded customers clamoring for a bartender’s attention. 

Downtown Riverhead was in rare form this weekend as nearly a thousand revelers took to the streets for the inaugural Santacon, a charity pub crawl that raised more than $8,500 for The Brendan House Project, a long-term care facility for people suffering from cognitive disabilities. The money was raised through the sale of $10 bracelets.

“No one expected to see a thousand Santas in Riverhead,” said Bunnii Buglione, marketing director for the Suffolk Theater, which organized the event. “We were expecting maybe 300 people. I’d say it was a smashing success.”

And that was with less-than-stellar weather.

Roll your eyes over Santacon if you want, but it accomplished one thing that so many other events and initiatives have failed to do over the years. It got butts on bar stools in Riverhead. And it did it without any arrests, bar brawls or causing drunk driving accidents.

The event filled downtown establishments, often near-empty even on weekends, with locals looking to have a good time.

Like it or not, a lot of people still think of Main Street as crime-plagued, a place where a group of young women might not feel safe walking from bar to bar. But no one felt in danger Saturday with hundreds of other people around and beat cops walking the street.

I took two friends, Long Island natives who moved to Georgia four years ago, and we enjoyed a glass of McCall merlot and bottles of Dogfish Head beer while lounging on the couches at Vines & Hops. They couldn’t believe how the scene has changed.

To put it in perspective, Vines & Hops owner Jeff McKay reported the single busiest night at the East Main Street bar since it opened last year.

“We finally saw local patrons coming downtown,” he said. “I would say less than 10 percent [of locals] make up our patrons. It was good to see the Riverhead community was active for this event.”

So now that people have seen the inside of that lovely establishment, with its twinkling Christmas lights, woodsy decor and respectable wine and beer list, I bet they will come back.

My call to the downtown business owners is to get to work on similar events. Bring back Santacon next year and start planning Easter Bunny-con, Uncle Sam Fourth of July-con and Leprechaun-con. Marketing the fun side of Riverhead is key to bringing people with disposable income downtown and getting them to return.

Vera Chinese