Food Start-ups Bring Style and Sustenance to Newly Rehabilitated Buildings in Buffalo, New York
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It’s the middle of winter in Buffalo, New York, and Robbie Gianadda is growing mushrooms. And while it may be sub-zero outside, on the first floor of what was originally the Double Truss Cornice Brake Company Factory, it’s a relatively balmy 58 degrees. Gianadda keeps his twin 500-square-foot grow rooms at a sticky 90-plus percent humidity, an environment that makes the mushrooms—as well as anyone looking to escape a Buffalo winter—quite content.
Gianadda, 44 years old, bearded, and sporting ample tattoos along his forearms, cultivates roughly a half-dozen different varieties, from globe-shaped lion’s mane to deep-brown chestnut mushrooms.
In November of 2019, he moved his then-5-year-old indoor farm here from a windowless basement in a nondescript 1940s industrial building. There, he says, he and his employees saw scant few people outside. Now he’s an anchor tenant in a community of culinary start-ups, and part of a neighborhood on the verge of being Buffalo’s Next Big Thing.
“It’s a game-changer,” he says of his new location, built in 1902. “Without this space we probably wouldn’t have made it through the pandemic. Our plans for expansion would be closer to the dream side than the reality side.”
At more than 5,200 square feet, Gianadda’s farm, which he calls Flat 12 Mushrooms, occupies most of the first floor of 37 Chandler Street. On the floor above him are four other food-related businesses: One makes gourmet ice cream, two offer meal prep kits, and one serves as headquarters for lloyd Taco Factory, Buffalo’s first food truck operation. A new, 20-foot-long second-story skywalk links 37 Chandler to 27 Chandler, which boasts nine culinary start-ups on three floors, as well as an upscale restaurant and wine bar on the ground level. That redbrick building, also built in 1902, was originally home to the Jewett Refrigerator Company. Now it hosts culinary entrepreneurs whipping up chocolates, baking miniature cake pops, and selling salmon shipped from Alaska.
The two properties at 27-37 Chandler are the latest developments along this former industrial thoroughfare. Credit longtime Buffalo developer Rocco Termini with seeing potential in a mostly abandoned manufacturing zone. He began buying properties here in 2012, and has developed five on Chandler Street and three others in the Grant-Amherst section of the larger Black Rock neighborhood, about 5 miles north of downtown. His projects house a mix of apartments and offices, as well as a brewery, cidery, restaurants, a fermentation shop, and a gym. Next up for Chandler Street is an outdoor swim club, with a bar and poolside restaurant, on the site of the former Niagara Lubricant plant.
“Chandler Street was sort of hidden,” says Termini, 70, a straight-talking Buffalo native with a penchant for sporting colorful sweaters in winter and golf shirts in summer. “It was totally ignored. There were no curbs, no streetlights, no sidewalks, nothing. The buildings were all in pretty rough shape. No one really wanted to take the risk.”
He says his goal is to “Google-ize” the street. When I ask him what that means, he tells me the plan is to make the area irresistible to employers looking for a hip, happening neighborhood loaded with desirable, big-city amenities, like those at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. “You’re trying to create a cool environment for small companies to create jobs,” he says. “So if you have a start-up that’s writing software or something, this is where you’ll want to locate because this is the type of place that your employees will want to go.”
With 27-37 Chandler, Termini, who owns several restaurants, saw the need for an incubator to help nascent food-based businesses overcome expensive equipment and start-up costs. Many had been operating out of their homes, using church kitchens, or struggling in shared spaces. “They couldn’t get into a food store or supermarket because they didn’t have certified kitchens and they couldn’t afford to go to the next step,” he says. “The [exhaust] hood, coolers, and all the equipment cost a lot of money. They have the expertise, they have the know-how to make stuff, but they don’t have the ability to get money to pay for things.”
Termini received a $2 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation for 27 Chandler, provided by the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC) through the Irvin Henderson Main Street Revitalization Fund. The building earned $2.3 million in federal and state historic tax credits, also supported by NTCIC. Combined with $3.2 million in brownfield tax credits for the whole project, plus Termini’s own equity, it was enough to rehabilitate the buildings and also produce the kinds of kitchens the start-ups required. Each tenant received sinks, an exhaust hood, offices, and a choice of a walk-in cooler or freezer. Most tenants, he says, pay less than $1,000 a month in rent.
So far, his plan appears to be working: The two buildings were 80 percent leased the day they opened in October of 2019. Even during the pandemic economy, the complex is currently fully leased. Gianadda says Termini’s developments have given Black Rock new life. “The neighborhood is becoming a destination for sure,” he says. “Our buildings and Chandler Street are definitely becoming a draw.”“What’s exciting for us about Chandler Street,” says Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, “is that it shows that this type of development is not just possible but profitable, and that adaptive reuse can really breathe life into the existing buildings, while also creating more centers of opportunity for existing neighborhoods. From our perspective, this is really the poster child on how to reuse these industrial types of buildings.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Chandler Street buzzed with activity. The recently constructed Belt Line of the New York Central Railroad, with a stop in Black Rock, brought industry and jobs to the neighborhood. Eastern European immigrants—many of whose descendants still remain in the area—settled in modest two-story duplexes, colloquially known as “Buffalo doubles.” They took jobs at newly established factories, including the neighborhood’s largest employers, the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company and the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, which employed some 18,000 people at multiple Buffalo locations during World War I.
At the Double Truss Cornice Brake Company Factory on Chandler Street, workers used heavy cornice brake machines to bend and shape large sheets of metal for use in a variety of industries. By 1930, the company had departed 37 Chandler, and was eventually replaced by Acme Steel & Malleable Iron Works. That business used the building as offices and a pattern and machine shop to support its nearby foundry until 1985, when the space was converted into a warehouse.
Next door at 27 Chandler the Jewett Refrigerator Company helped fuel the burgeoning market for home refrigerators. It claimed some of the country’s wealthiest people as customers—John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and Charles M. Schwab, among others, all had Jewett fridges in their mansions. The company may have been best known to locals for its distinctive, bottle-shaped “Beerador” fridges, with rotating shelves that were ubiquitous in area taverns and restaurants. In 1929, Jewett sold its Chandler Street factory to the Buffalo Davenport Company, a maker of mattresses and upholstered furniture, which remained in the space until its 1958 bankruptcy. After a series of short-term owners, the building also became warehouse space.
When Termini bought both buildings in 2017, the front of 37 Chandler housed a pet-grooming operation, while the other spaces were empty. Both properties were generally in decent shape but neglected, says Benjamin Siegel, principal at BMS Design Studio, who has teamed with Termini on roughly 20 projects since 2011.
The initial challenge was ridding the property of the toxic chemicals that had seeped into the ground. The buildings’ parking lot had to be completely excavated down to clay, refilled, and repaved after an underground stormwater retention system was added. The deteriorating ground-level oak floors at 27 Chandler and the concrete ones at 37 Chandler were contaminated, too, so they had to be removed and replaced with new concrete.
Both factories’ roofs also had to be replaced, as well as all of the windows except for eight in the front of 27 Chandler. (These eight were restored.) The second and third floors in that building were sagging and had to be raised with new support beams.
But the toughest hurdle may have been just figuring out a way to satisfy the requirements of both the state historic preservation office (in order to qualify for historic tax credits) and those of the local health inspectors. Materials such as brick and wood absorb moisture, creating mold and mildew that can be hard to clean—both no-nos when it comes to preparing food.
“SHPO [State Historic Preservation Office] wants as much exposed as possible—walls, ceilings, windows—to really maintain that character of 100 years ago,” says Siegel. “But we’re also working with the health department and the FDA and other groups that want washable surfaces and no exposed brick, so we had all sorts of issues trying to make these two [sides] happy. There was a lot of back and forth before we even started designing.”Siegel and Termini had opened restaurants in older buildings before, but 27-37 Chandler was something different. “Normally, if it’s a historic building, we can maintain the historic look in all areas except the kitchen,” says Siegel. “But when the entire building is a commercial kitchen, it really becomes an issue.
To overcome this obstacle, crew members applied a food-grade clear acrylic to every exposed brick and wood surface throughout both buildings, preventing any future issues with mold, mildew, or flaking. That way, they were able to keep the majority of the wooden ceilings, thick support beams, joists, and brick walls exposed.
The team also was able to preserve many other historic elements. The freight elevator shaft openings on each floor of 27 Chandler were transformed into offices, retaining their call buttons and original swinging wooden doors. Sturdy oak banisters remain in the stairwells of the building; the fading white paint of the Jewett Refrigerator Company sign still marks its exterior. And although the original light fixtures were long gone, dangling industrial-chic replacements look straight out of the Taft administration.
“I really think they did an incredible job from a design perspective,” says Fisher. “It’s one of the most successful industrial conversions I’ve seen in many ways. It feels like a modern space, but you can read the history of what was happening there. It continues to read as an industrial space.”
Rosalie Caruso, owner of Buffalo Cake Pops in 27 Chandler, says her customers are almost as fascinated by the building as they are with her baked confectionaries. “It’s funny; people will come in and pick something up and we’ll be having a conversation and they aren’t looking at me the entire time. They are looking at my ceiling! They love the floor, the old staircase. A lot of people ask about the building’s history. … People will come into the neighborhood and say, ‘Oh, my God, I used to live around the corner; what the heck is happening here?’ Suddenly, it’s cool. It’s hip to be in Black Rock.”
Ryan Fernandez, owner and operator of Southern Junction, a barbecue eatery with an Indian twist (think Texas-style smoked chicken and beef spiked with curry), says the space was a major attraction for him. “It’s just very unique. You’re not going to ever find a kitchen that has a whole row of windows. That’s just not a thing that would happen almost anywhere. They left all these [architectural] details in but then still gave us this space with all these modern appliances. You’re not going to get an environment like that in any other kitchen.”
Fernandez says the camaraderie between the different tenants also has been a huge plus—particularly during the pandemic. Last summer, vendors organized an outdoor market in the space between the two buildings and successfully continued it over the chilly winter months. Many pick each other’s brains or buy and sell products from one another. Fernandez sources all of his mushrooms from Flat 12. Gianadda also supplies shiitakes to lloyd Taco Factory and various kinds of mushrooms to Waxlight Bar à Vin at 27 Chandler.
Waxlight was the first tenant to sign on with the development. Its 2,450-square-foot space occupies the front of 27 Chandler, in what used to be the showroom for the Jewett Refrigerator Company. The restaurant is a lush space, with dim lighting and blue velvet couches, and a playful menu that ranges from roast chicken potato chips to “spaghetti parm” ice cream cones. After opening to a flurry of positive reviews in October of 2019, Waxlight has been offering outdoor dining and takeout meals and drinks since the pandemic started.
Edward and Jessica Forster (two of the restaurant’s five owners) agree they love the space’s mix of modern and historical touches, including the original brick-lined vault that now serves as the wine closet, the chunky wooden headers atop the support beams, and the bathroom’s replica penny-tile floor. Edward Forster worked for Termini in one of his restaurants before opening Waxlight, and he credits the developer with having the foresight and hands-on dedication to turn an underutilized area into an emerging community. “I feel like with Rocco, he doesn’t just roll up for press interviews and photographs. He’s there on a day-to-day basis and he truly cares about developing the street and revitalizing neighborhoods. He has his thumbprint on everything.”
Gianadda says he was stunned when Termini offered him the entire first floor of 37 Chandler for his farm. “I mean, this is a quarter-million-dollar build-out to a company that didn’t have $10,000 in the bank! I think he probably needed an anchor tenant, but I also think he did a lot of this out of the kindness of his heart. ... I think he really wants to make it so there is incubator space that continually churns out successful businesses that are open to the public and appreciated by the public.”
Termini admits 27-37 Chandler was a labor of love. He says his firm doesn’t expect to turn a profit on the properties for at least seven years. Ironically, he says, he’ll know the project is a true success once his tenants move on. “In five or 10 years, I hope we’ll see 100 percent turnover of all our tenants because that means they’ve grown, and they can go on and create more jobs,” says Termini. “This whole project was about job creation. You hate to see somebody leave, but that means they’re advancing and creating more jobs. The next [one] coming in will start the cycle all over again. I’m happy to see [people] leave to go to bigger spaces because that means we’ve accomplished our mission.”
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