Published in - The Foodservice Consultant - November 2014
BEST FOOD FORWARD
Buffalo became a backwater in the 20th century, but this has allowed many of the city’s iconic architectural gems to remain intact. ________ investigates how renovating these treasures for foodservice usage is creating a gourmet-led revitalisation of the city
Napoleon reputedly said: “An army marches on its stomach.” But so, it appears, does a city. In Buffalo, New York, the march of progress is being led by the stomachs and through these, the hearts of its citizens. And it’s a progress long overdue.
Buffalo’s fortunes have waxed and waned. In the 19th century, the city boomed. Its prime location at the western end of the 524-mile Erie Canal, which opened in 1825, propelled its growth into one of America’s busiest cities. Waves of European immigrants manned the steel and grain mills.
The country’s top architects – such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan – built magnificent buildings for the industrial giants of the time. And nearby Niagara Falls provided the power that made Buffalo the “City of Light”, America’s first electrified city.
But by the mid-20th century, progress elsewhere re-routed ships and business. Buffalo found itself with abandoned silos, warehouses, office buildings and homes. It’s young people left.
Curiously, there was an upside to Buffalo’s downturn. While other American cities tore down their 19th century masterpieces to make way for glass and concrete, Buffalo had little incentive to do this. Consequently, it has kept the magnificent Art Deco City Hall and the Beaux Arts Electric Building. Indeed, dozens of handsome old architectural gems still stand empty.
And today, Buffalo is enjoying a revival that is resuscitating structures disused for decades.
West Buffalo: the coffee house effect
Eight years ago, Prish Moran bought a whole block of boarded up buildings in a dilapidated North Buffalo neighbourhood. With a loan from the Community Preservation Corporation, and her son’s help, she began its restoration. She charges tenants reasonable rents and the shops are busy.
But it was her opening of Sweetness 7 Café on the corner of her block that breathed new life into the street. It has become a local hub. “Coffee houses are so important in every neighbourhood,” she explains. “People of all means gather here.”
The success of this café has encouraged others to embrace the community. Across the road, a small book shop, Westside Stories, gives free books to new immigrant children.
Next door, Esther Pica’s vegan shop, Press Raw Foods and Juice, has grown so much in one year that she’s moving to larger premises up the street. Two doors down, a 1950s ice cream kiosk has been repurposed as Freddie J’s. Behind the counter, Freddie, who emigrated from Liberia 30 years ago, cooks his locally acclaimed fried chicken and waffles.
Nearby, Five Points neighbourhood was once home to drug dealers. “You wouldn’t walk here at night,” says Kevin Gardner, owner of Five Points Bakery, who moved his young family here. “It was the only place I could afford to buy such a big property.”
The barn of the Stokes Bros Building Supply Co, a thriving lumber business in 1905, is now filled with the aromas of fresh baking and coffee. Flowers grow on the land around it. In just a year, Gardner and his family have created a new ethos for the area. “Build something nice and nice people will come,” says Gardner. “You just need someone to get the ball rolling, and property values go up.”
Downtown Buffalo: if you build it, they will come
Another good example of how an area can benefit from the courage of one entrepreneur is Sea Bar, which opened three years ago on the fringe of the city centre. This was a rough area, but Sea Bar’s success has encouraged others to join the move to bring Ellicott Street to life.
Much of this rebirth has been thanks to Rocco Termini who spent millions restoring the nearby historic Lafayette Hotel to its original elegance. Determined to revitalise the core of the city he loves, he has gone to extraordinary lengths to help small restaurateurs to open their own places here.
In one of Ellicott Street’s now beautifully restored buildings, James Roberts cooks the Louisiana cuisine of his youth. “It was terrifying at first,” says Roberts. “The building was a slum. We carried out shovels full of needles and filth. It took two years to renovate, with money going out and nothing coming in.”
Today, lines regularly form outside at his restaurant, Toutant, and just three months after its opening, returns are growing.
A few doors away, Tappo Wine Bar’s Italian American menu features 40 different wines at $15 a bottle, a move that has ensured its success. In fact, the venue’s unique wine wall was so heavy the floor had to be reinforced to hold more than 1,000 bottles. But in just a year Tappo is repaying its investment.
The story is the same around this neighbourhood. A young microbrewery, Big Ditch Brewing, recently launched a food menu to accompany its successful line of microbrews. And around another corner, Termini used empty shipping containers to fill a 20-foot wide vacant lot creating Dog é Style, a gourmet hot doggery featuring variations from seafood to foie gras.
“For me, it was about building a neighbourhood,” he explains. Termini’s approach is patently, “If you build it, they will come”. And come they have.
Southeast Buffalo: it’s about the fun
Howard Zemsky grew up and worked in his family business in southeast Buffalo. When he sold his company, he bought the old Larkin Soap Co warehouse and office buildings here, repurposing them into Larkin Square. Every Tuesday night 30 food trucks – serving everything from meatballs and Pad Thai to ice cream and gooey desserts – park here to feed as many as 6,000 hungry visitors. They come to eat, listen to live music, and buy crafts from local artisans.
The Filling Station once filled the Larkin trucks with gas; now it’s filling hungry office workers with lunch. And opposite, Hydraulic Hearth, an artisan pizza and brew pub, is run by Howard’s son, Harry. With funky features like the world’s smallest art gallery in a phone booth, and food trucks serving brunch on weekends, it has become a gathering place for locals who have begun to fondly call this area Larkinville.
Perhaps the most significant reason for the success of Larkin Square is the fun-filled ambiance, courtesy of Howard’s wife, Leslie, Larkin Development Group’s ‘director of fun’. The square buzzes with constant activity such as pickleball games, fitness sessions, live music and free mini golf on a unique course – each hole was designed by a different local business.
“Seventy years ago, this was the most vibrant part of Buffalo. Thousands lived and worked here. I wanted to bring it back,” says Zemsky. “People thought we would implode but our success has made others more confident.” Stores are opening, the offices are filled, and nearby, other old buildings now are condo developments. Thousands are living and working here again.
Taking a chance on the ‘hood
In what was the Italian centre of Buffalo, Steve Gedra is “taking a real chance on the ’hood”. A year ago, he opened Black Sheep, in a refurbished old piano key manufactory, later a biker bar. On four inexpensive lots he has planted fruit trees and vegetables to serve his farm to table menu. Black Sheep is acknowledged as one of the city’s best new restaurants.
Last year, Jeff Ware left his New York City job to launch Resurgence Brewing, breathing new life into the Sterling Boat Engine building, which also briefly served as the dog pound. On a Sunday afternoon, Resurgence is packed with families playing games like Giant Jenga, taking tasting tours of the brewery, or enjoying a bite and a brew on the patio.
The food is simple: a cheese plate composed of local cheeses paired with their beer; homemade dip in a bread bowl from a local bakery made with their own spent grain; artisan pizza.
“What’s amazing to me is that kids like my son, who grew up in Buffalo and left to work elsewhere, are returning to the area, bringing their youth and entrepreneurial spirit with them,” beams Jeff’s father, Don Ware.
Even the old grain silos are getting a makeover. RiverWorks has only just begun, with two ice rinks, a 5,000-person concert venue; a flat roller derby track; four bars; and a restaurant. The first ever fully functioning brewery to be retrofitted into an existing grain silo is in construction. It will use direct tank-to-tap lines. It’s bringing a desolate part of the city back to life.
The city councillors haven’t been slow to recognise the importance of revitalisation. At the tip of the Erie Canal is Canalside, a spectacular recreational area offering waterside activities with food and craft kiosks in summer and a giant skating rink where you can rent ice bikes in winter. It’s only 10 years old, yet Canalside saw 1.4 million visitors last year.
The results of all of this activity are clear: Buffalo is booming. What’s remarkable is the positive attitude of all of these small-scale entrepreneurs who are taking big chances on a city that most had abandoned nearly a century ago. “There are no nightmare stories now,” says Prish Moran. “It’s been fun and it’s so gratifying to see these old neighbourhoods coming back to life.”