Maple Tree BBQ, which transformed from a longtime deli into a barbecue house three years ago, earning praise from food critics and hungry End End customers alike, will be in the hands of a new owner next week.
Kevin Judge, the owner and chef of Maple Tree, said Monday will be his final day at the West Main Street restaurant in Riverhead. The closing date to complete the sale is set for Tuesday.
“We’re in our 14th year and it’s time,” Judge said in an interview at the restaurant Saturday. “We enjoyed very, very much our time here. We appreciate the community. We feel like it’s time to move on.”
The restaurant will be sold to Dennis O’Leary of Riverhead, who said he plans to keep the Maple Tree name and retain most of the current staff. The restaurant will be closed starting Tuesday with a grand reopening scheduled for Feb. 11, O’Leary said.
“We love Kevin’s business,” he said. “We’re keeping the same name and the same great base menu.”
Judge’s sons, Luke and Sean, who have become familiar faces behind the counter, will no longer work there as they pursue their own career paths, Judge said.
O’Leary, 47, will be entering his first foray into the restaurant business. He previously worked as a finance executive for Viacom. He left at the end of the summer looking for a change, he said.
“I traded my two-hour commute for a 10-minute commute,” he said. “I just really wanted to do something different and something local.”
O’Leary’s wife, Andrea Glick, is a culinary arts assistant professor at Suffolk Community College. Glick will add some expertise as a consultant chef, O’Leary said.
He expects Evan McDonough, who originally hails from Virginia, to become Maple Tree’s new executive chef.
“He really has some extensive experience,” O’Leary said, noting that McDonough was currently down south doing research at barbecue places.
The barbecue theme has been a hit at Maple Tree. Judge said last year was the best business they’ve had.
“It’s nice to be leaving with a success,” said Judge, who lives in Melville.
Judge and his staff served up an array of slow-cooked meats from ribs, chicken, pulled pork, pork shoulder to beef brisket topped with homemade sauces. It earned the distinction as one of the 100 best restaurants on Long Island in 2014 by Newsday, which also listed it as one its “must-try barbecue spots on Long Island.”
“Our goal with the food was to have fun food,” Judge said. “One of the most fun things we had going on here is that guys who do their own barbecue and smoking would come in and talk about it. We would have so much fun talking over the counter.”
The shift into barbecue dates back to when Boar’s Head deli meats became readily available in local supermarkets, Judge said. There became less incentive for people to stop into the deli to pick up cold cuts, he said.
They needed to find a way to stay relevant.
The answer was to produce and roast their own meat.
“As we started to roast our own meat, we found that people like the barbecue flavors. And that’s what took us into barbecue.”
Through trial and error, they grew to where they are today.
“To me, barbecuse just goes hand in hand with the vibe of the North Fork,” O’Leary said. “It’s authentic, it’s real. We want to take what Kevin has done and even make it that much more authentic.”