January 25, 2024

From a Derelict Warehouse to a Bustling Business Incubator, West Side Bazaar is Uplifting Buffalo’s Cuisine Scene

photo by: Matthew Digati

West Side Bazaar's new home on Niagara Street in Buffalo, New York.

West Side Bazaar had long needed more space to grow. For years, the small-business incubator housed about a dozen restaurants and retail shops in a 3,200-square-foot former Blockbuster Video on Grant Street in Buffalo, New York. With just a 47-seat capacity, the market accommodated 90,000 visits a year.

“The space really became a cultural hub for the city of Buffalo,” said Carolynn Welch, executive director of WEDI (Westminster Economic Development Initiative), the nonprofit that founded the bazaar back in 2011. “People came in droves.”

WEDI had plans in motion to find the bazaar a larger home. The organization purchased an early 20th century warehouse on Niagara Street in 2018 that once housed a Prohibition-era bootlegging operation run by the Illinois Alcohol Company.

After the illegal operation was shut down by authorities in 1929, the Niagara Filter Corporation took over the space and brewed non-alcoholic beer until Prohibition ended in 1933, at which point the company switched to manufacturing brewing equipment. When WEDI purchased the building nearly 100 years later, it came complete with the original century-old scale that once weighed barrels of booze.

The space had been vacant for years and was in rough shape when the organization closed the deal, but WEDI had a vision.

“The building was basically an empty shell,” said Welch. “It was like a concrete bunker. So I think it was a perfect blank slate for us to figure out how to set the space up.”

The pandemic stretched out the timeline, but by mid-2022, the renovation was finally underway. But another challenge was right around the corner.

photo by: Erin St. John Kelly

The original scale used to weigh barrels of alcohol when the Niagara Street warehouse housed a bootlegging operation during Prohibition.

Surviving a Disaster

Early in the morning on September 20, 2022, a cash register at West Side Bazaar’s Grant Street location shot a spark, and the place caught on fire. Suddenly, more than a dozen business owners were without a place to make their livelihoods, and the bazaar’s new location wasn’t slated to be finished until the following year.

“I’m not sure how we survived that,” Welch said.

But survive they did. WEDI soon found a space downtown for the businesses to move into, now known as the Downtown Bazaar. A few graduated from the incubation program—which provides not only space but also training and technical assistance to participating business owners—and got started in locations of their own. And on October 31, 2023, the new West Side Bazaar opened its doors with a whole new class of eight incubating restaurants inside, selected from more than 100 applicants.

photo by: Matthew Digati

Contractors added a large new skylight to make West Side Bazaar's new home as bright as possible, while keeping original windows intact.

“It’s taken me a while to get to this point, but I feel like it was kind of was a positive thing,” Welch said of the fire. “When the bazaar burnt down, we got support basically from around the world. And it was all people saying, ‘We really love this space. We want to see it going.’ A woman gave up her wedding favors in order to do a donation. So as bad as it was, and as horrible as it was, it was super uplifting, the amount of support that we received from the community to keep going and start over.”

That being said, Welch added with a laugh, “I don’t ever want to get support that way again.”

photo by: Brody Walsh

A West Side Bazaar business owner stirs up something tasty for patrons.

Historic Transformation

The resilient spirit of the West Side Bazaar community is evident in the feel of the newly unveiled space. Colorful hexagonal tiles dot the front counters of the incubation program’s new restaurants, which serve up everything from Korean to Egyptian food—cuisines that are hard to come by in Buffalo, Welch said.

Some dappled light filters through the building’s original glass block windows, but most of the space’s brightness is thanks to a giant skylight added to the warehouse’s roof during the renovation. The second floor was opened up in the center to allow sunshine to flood into the space. Welch credits CJS Architects, and specifically CJS Senior Project Architect Courtney Creenan-Chorley, with the concept.

“The light kind of became the heart of the bazaar,” Welch said.

The presence of the original glass block windows allowed the building to qualify for state and federal historic tax credits. WEDI secured these and New Markets tax credits, both crucial to the viability of the project, with the support of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation (NTCIC), a mission-driven National Trust subsidiary. Since their inception in 2000, NTCIC has helped save over 200 historic places nationwide through tax credit investments, creating vital goods and services to underserved communities in the process.

photo by: Matthew Digati

What's now West Side Bazaar's new home needed a lot of work when WEDI first acquired the building.

photo by: Matthew Digati

The building was "basically an empty shell" when WEDI purchased it, said executive director Carolynn Welch.

At first, Welch was nervous about what keeping the block windows would mean for the space—they’re visually compelling, but they don’t let in as much light as traditional windows. Yet between the skylight and the bazaar’s new glass-paned garage doors that flank the front facade, the finished space feels plenty bright.

“The windows were actually in remarkably good shape,” said Welch. “[The contractors] were able to clean them up and they only had to purchase a few [blocks] to take the place of some that had broken. CJS and Hayes Construction worked with the restoration team on that one. It was pretty painstaking—each individual piece of glass was taken out, cleaned, and then put back into place.”

WEDI’s preservation team included Kerry Traynor, founder of historic preservation firm kta, and Richard Rogers, an attorney with a specialty in historic tax credits.

photo by: Brody Walsh

Customers ponder what to eat at West Side Bazaar.

Restaurant Resiliency

Now that West Side Bazaar’s new space is up and running, WEDI can focus on what it does best: supporting business owners on their journey to self-sufficiency.

Nathalie Zola Malu, chef and owner of Malkia & Co. African Gourmet at the West Side Bazaar, said having WEDI in her corner has allowed her Congolese restaurant to thrive.

“WEDI, they have our back,” said Zola Malu. “We have someone to help out, to figure out our business—just working with us with our journey as a [business] owner.”

photo by: Brody Walsh

Nathalie Zola Malu serves up Congolese cuisine at the West Side Bazaar.

The flavors in Congolese and Central African food are new to many of her customers in Buffalo, said Zola Malu, but those trying the cuisine for the first time will probably recognize dishes like braised pork shoulder and haddock on the menu.

“It’s something that in America they already have, but they didn’t have it the way in Africa we make it,” she said.

WEDI Director of External Relations Erin St. John Kelly said that’s exactly what the bazaar is meant to be: A place where people try food they’ve never tasted before and connect with people with whom they may not ordinarily cross paths.

“The West Side Bazaar has really become a community hub and a tourist attraction, where locals come to show people ‘the new Buffalo,’” said Kelly. “The kind of Buffalo where everybody, from every walk of life, is sitting literally shoulder to shoulder sharing food. Food is love.”

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Malea Martin is the assistant editor at Preservation magazine. Outside of work, you can find her scouring antique stores for mid-century furniture and vintage sewing patterns, or exploring new trail runs with her dog. Malea is based on the Central Coast of California.

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