Sunday, November 29, 2020

Help available for winter heating costs

 By Julia Kavanagh

            Buffalo is well known for its cold days and long winters. November is here and that’s when the weather usually takes a turn for the cold and snow. However, most people have heat and fireplaces that can keep their homes nice and toasty.  

            Some families may not be as lucky as some when it comes to easily heating their homes for the coming winter.

            According to National Fuel Gas, the cost to heat a home is $19.95 per thousand cubic feet in the month of August. That represents a decrease from $20.14 the same time last year.  

            Pam Lazio, director of residential rehabilitation and energy services, West Side Neighborhood Housing Services, said there are some simple fixes to keep houses nice and warm. “First, and most importantly, having your furnace cleaned and tuned along with changing the filter,” Lazio said.

            Keeping your house warm doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars when simple at home fixes can be done, she said.

            “We also tell families to check their stripping around doors to reduce the drafts and re-shield doors of need be,” Lazio said.

            PUSH Buffalo is another program that helps families on the West Side.

            “We provide up to a $4,000 grant to help families replace a furnace or hot water tank,” Clarke Gocker, director of policy and strategy, said.

            PUSH Buffalo participates with The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, which offers an energy audit for families that are at 60 % of the area median income.

            “Being part of NYSERDA has helped over 1,000 homes alone on the West Side,” Gocker said.

             PUSH is looking to electric heat as a more affordable option.

             “We are trying to advocate for this new possibility of electric heat where it can be more affordable for families instead of the typical natural gas,” Gocker said.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

'Friendsgiving' a take-out affair this year


By Kiera Durning

              Friends of Night People will continue its annual Friendsgiving event this year but with a bit of a pandemic-inspired change: All meals will be offered on a take-out basis only.

Friendsgiving is a special Thanksgiving Day meal for the homeless and those struggling within the community that is usually served sit-down style in the organization’s dining room at 394 Hudson St.

Patricia Krehbiel, relationship manager, said to ensure the safety of guests, staff and volunteers, the meals will be available to go as the dining room has been closed since March.   

 Meals will available from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26

“We will serve a traditional Thanksgiving meal, turkey, stuffing, potatoes and vegetables,” she said. “And of course, we will not forget the pie. What’s Thanksgiving without pie?”

Alternatives will be available for guests with dietary restrictions, Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel said  the organization is continuing to hand out personal protective equipment kits that include masks, hand sanitizer and hygiene products, thanks to donations Buffalo Resilience, Hanes, Ford, Colvin Cleaners and others.

Anyone who enters the building must wear a mask. Staff and volunteers being required to partake in temperature screenings and ask screening questions while wearing masks and gloves at all times.

            The organization also is disinfecting surfaces every 30 to 60 minutes and has plexiglass shields at contact points and air curtains at each door, Krehbiel said.

 Friends of Night People was founded in 1969 and is open daily throughout the year. The organization provides lunch and dinner, a food pantry, medial services and housing assistance.






Sunday, November 15, 2020

What's Pop-In' defies pandemic with brisk sales

 By Johnathan Ciolek

            Both sweet and savory smells of fresh popcorn fill the air as Stefan Coker enters his store. White walls are contrasted by dozens of custom stamped bags filled with various flavors of mouth-watering popcorn ranging from sugary and fruity white chocolate raspberry to the fiery spice of mango habanero.

            Coker, owner of What’s Pop-In’ Gourmet Popcorn, 418 West Ferry St., opened his storefront in November 2019. Since then, he has hustled and travelled across the United States to put his business on the map and to prove all of his doubters wrong.

Stefan Coker, top left, with a staffer and his two children
              Starting as a joke, Coker went from being an executive chef at Larkin Filling Station to creating a gourmet popcorn business. Sick of the redundancy of the kitchen, he partnered with his friend, David Whelan, to sell gourmet popcorn.  

             “The concept is really just a joke, just messing around, but the more people that said we couldn’t do it or create it, the more I was like well wait a minute, you know, now we got something here,” Coker said.

            Like Coker, there are others looking to make their ideas a reality, but this comes with some difficulty.

            Dr. Susan McCartney, the director of the Small Business Development Center in Buffalo, has worked with many small businesses across the city and helps with advising people how to get the most success with their businesses.

             “There are many challenges that come with starting a small business,” McCartney said. “At times it can be directly related to the entrepreneur themselves or in other cases the challenge is the shifting market.”

            Coker has successfully been able to identify that shifting market. According to AlliedMarket Research, a market research and advisory company of Allied Analytics LLP, the value of the global popcorn market is projected to increase to just over $15 million in 2023, a $6 million jump since 2016.  

            Despite being in a pandemic, Coker is not letting that stop him from continuing to feed off this market and keep his business successful.

            “When COVID hit, we were one of the first small businesses on the street who shifted immediately to delivery,” Coker said. “We were all over Western New York pretty much doing five bag minimum deliveries and we just flourished. The pandemic did not hurt us.”

            Due to COVID, a little more than 132,500 total business closures have been reported according to Yelp. What’s Pop-In’ has continually made it a point to not fall into those statistics.

            Part of this success can be attributed to Coker’s strong social media presence and determination to stand out from the rest.

            “There’s certain popcorn businesses that I respect,” Coker said. “But none of them were hustling like we were. I’m very adamant about posting every day because content is important.”

            Customers can go on the Instagram and Facebook page of What’s Pop-In’ and see daily postings about the business, new flavors, and the people that make it all possible.

            Coker is not content with just selling popcorn on the West Side. He is actively looking for different ways to get out and enhance people’s taste palates with his creations and cash in on this booming market.

“We are really setting up shop in different cities  because it’s more than Buffalo,” Coker said. “Some people get into business in their city or their hometown and I guess some people are content with that. I want to be this household name. I want to take over the popcorn industry.”

What’s Pop-In’ is approaching it’s one-year anniversary, but Coker refuses to rest on his laurels and acknowledge the success so far.

“I’m afraid to step back and be like look what we have done,” Coker said. “I don’t have any feelings on being open a year because as far as I am concerned, our job’s not done.”


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Big Big Table area's first community cafe

By Rosemary Gonzalez

            Big Big Table Community Cafe, 272 Hudson St., will feed everybody and anybody who comes to the West Side.

             “Everybody eats. Everybody gives. Everybody matters,” Mandy Bailey, founder of Big Big Table, said.

            Bailey’s love for food and a lunch date with a friend inspired the start of the business. Her friend showed her an article she found on the Internet about the concept of a community café.

            Big Big Table will be the first non-profit community café in Buffalo. The cafe was expected to open in 2020, but due to COVID-19 its new opening date will probably be in Spring 2021.  Big Big Table’s mission is to respond to hunger in the community. The café will provide affordable meals with pay-as-you-can pricing.

            “You can walk in and could pay a quarter,” Stephanie Smith, Big Big Table’s board president, said.

             As board president, Smith leads the board of volunteers in business plan goals, fundraising, insurance, and legal matters for the café.

             “We together can make this dream of Mandy’s a reality,” Smith said.

            Bailey, the former French teacher, taught and constantly talked about food.  After one year of teaching she decided to venture on her passion.

             Encouraged by one of her friends, Bailey moved 1,000 miles north to work in a food company in Buffalo.

            “While working there, I saw a lot of food being thrown away, and a lot of people, even employees being refused food. This broke my heart. I quit and started to think about what I am actually supposed to be doing with my life,” Bailey said.

            After her experience working in the food company and doing research Bailey came across the One World Everybody Eats organization and its founder, Denise Cerreta. Cerreta is the woman who introduced the idea of a community café.

            “This awesome lady started the first one of these running a little café on her own,” Bailey said. “She and I started talking via email and phone, starting to figure out what could happen in Buffalo.”

            Bailey, who has a bunch of songs on her Spotify playlist especially about food, said the café’s name Big Big Table was inspired by a Christian rock song called Big House by Audio Adrenaline.

            “I was hanging out with some friends and we were brainstorming sitting on Elmwood on the sidewalk and eating frozen yogurt when the song came to mind,” Bailey said.

            Smith said Big Big Table is different from other cafes.

            “We always wanted to have a literal big-big table so the café will have big tables,” Smith said. “You can be sitting next to your neighbor or someone you never met, and you have no idea how much someone pays for their meal, you just know that you are all there sharing the same dining experience.”

            The Big Big Table team hopes the café will unite people of different backgrounds and promote inclusion.

            “Hey, if these people have money and these people don't have money that means that these people and those people can never be friends, but why?” Bailey said. “We can create a different world where everybody gets together.”

            As stated on the website, community cafés like Big Big Table are supported by donors and volunteers.

            “We believe in a culture of contribution,” Bailey said, “where everybody has something or some way to contribute.”  




Thursday, November 5, 2020

Restaurants fear second COVID-19 lockdown

 By Rifa Tasfia

Owning a restaurant has always been an unpredictable business, and because of the pandemic, many restaurants across the U.S have closed forever. 

            With a feared second lockdown, many restaurants are struggling to find creative ways to attract customers. Buffalo Eats, an information-based website, has written reviews on hundreds of restaurants and has guided customers to find the best food and drinks in and around Buffalo.

The website stated that since last year, 59 restaurants had permanently closed in

Buffalo. With such failure in the food industries, restaurant owners have become restless as they are desperately seeking ways to promote their businesses.

The National Restaurant Association surveyed over 5,000 restaurants and reported that

From March 1-22 sales of restaurants declined 47% nationwide While industries like liquor stores and Amazon saw business thriving, businesses like Starbucks or Hong Kong Chinese  have not been so lucky.

The National Restaurant Association stated that restaurant industries had lost more than

3 million employees and $25 billion in sales. It said that 3% of restaurant owners have permanently closed their restaurants, 44% have closed momentarily, and 11% of owners are waiting to shut down their restaurants within the next 30 days forever.

The Starbucks, 933 Elmwood Ave, has been taking additional precautions to maintain

and take part in following the social distancing rules. The manager of Starbucks, Becca Wagner, said that with this upcoming winter, the arrangements for handling the café would be the same as it was in the summer.  She said that everything has become a lot stricter than it was before.

“So, like the last lockdown, there’s a lot less hands-on stuff,” Wagner said. “There’s a lot

less touching and more repeated washing of utensils. With the number of customers, we have coming, we have to make sure everything is sanitized frequently.”

 She said because of the frequent washing of instruments and utensils, sales were affected

as the customers would have to wait in line to order for more extended periods of time

“We had to throw out a whole basket of sugar packets because a customer decided to

contaminate it by touching it,” Wagner said. “Even though the poster on the wall clearly stated not to touch it.  

Wanger said that the  business had to close down for six weeks when the pandemic

started. She said many of the Starbuck’s customers were slower to come.

“We now have 100 fewer customers compared to before the pandemic,” Wagner said.

Hong Kong Kitchen, 1120 Elmwood Ave, is owned by Mimi Chang and her husband, who are

the restaurants only employees.  Chang said her restaurant was closed from January until May. She was disappointed hearing about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s  proposal of a lockdown for the second wave of COVID-19. To follow the social distancing rules, she does not let anybody into her restaurant. Patrons need to call in their order and pick it up at the door.

 “Because of Buffalo State students do not come here anymore, and we are having problems in paying the rent,” Chang said. “The rent here is high, and we barely have any customers.”

She said her business was not doing well in part because President Donal Trump referred to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus.

            She said her businesswas making only $100 every day and stated that she might have to close the business permanently if she’s unable to pay her rent.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Gutter Pop bets on future of comics

 By Joseph Morganti

Gutter Pop Comics, 986 Elmwood Ave.
          While the warmer months begin to fade and many wait for this year to come to an end, Gutter Pop Comics, 986 Elmwood Ave., has kept its doors open for the many comic enthusiasts it has served since opening in 2016.

Many aren’t aware of the comic, zine, and graphic novel scene on the West Side, with many residents never stepping foot into a comic bookstore. Still, people’s ignorance toward comics doesn’t stop a place like Gutter Pop from thriving over the years, no matter how challenging of a year it can be for a business in 2020.

            “We are still open due to the support of a very sympathetic customer base and folks who feel invested in the store's existence and success,” Gutter Pop Owner Stephen Floyd said.

            After moving down the street from 1028 Elmwood Ave. to 986 Elmwood Ave. at the beginning of March, Floyd was forced to close Gutter Pop’s doors because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Floyd relied on curbside pickup services until he was able to reopen Gutter Pop’s doors to a limited capacity in June.

            “The pandemic has been a real challenge as it has affected a lot of our customers financially, and so overall revenue is down,” Floyd said. “We really made a point to reorganize and spent the better part of the first two months of COVID synching all of our inventory to our website and making everything available for pick up or delivery.

“But one of the main strengths of the store was being able to browse, which I think is huge as it sets us apart from Amazon and other online retailers.”

Gutter Pop will stay at 986 Elmwood Ave. until the end of the year but another home for the shop is in the offing.

“While we never were planning on being in this location permanently, we were surprised to have our lease cut short and to leave so soon during the pandemic,” Floyd said. “We are sort of scrambling to relocate and balance our priorities as far as making the shop as good as it can be.”

Many turn to Gutter Pop as not only a hub for great comics but as a place for artistic inspiration since it’s jammed pack with numerous artistic expressions in a comic book form  for people to examine.

“Places like Gutter Pop give people access to so many different kinds of art that they can be inspired by,” said University at Buffalo student Sydney Williams. “Gutter Pop has a large selection to choose from, including local publications, which I think is really important since it gives local artists the ability to reach a wider audience and it brings the art community together.”

Floyd is determined to keep Gutter Pop’s legacy going with its many loyal customers.

“I think what we provide is a showcase of everything the medium has to offer, and it gives local folks the opportunity to interrogate the medium and see what works or doesn't work for them.”



Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Kiosko Latino graduates W.S. Bazaar

By Randy Sargent

On the West Side, you will find Maria Del Carmen Rodriguez and her husband preparing and serving authentic Mexican-Puerto Rican style dishes, fulfilling their vision of one day owning a franchise.  

While most businesses might be intimidated by the recent pandemic, the owners of Kiosko Latino had outgrown their space at the West Side Bazaar and dug their roots deeper into the West Side with a stand-alone shop at 345 W. Ferry St.

“We outgrew our space at the bazaar, it was getting too small for the number of people we were getting,” Rodriguez said.

Kiosko Latino is the latest graduate of the West Side Bazaar, a non-profit business incubator run by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which helps small businesses to become successful. After three years at the Bazaar, the Rodriguezes found success.  

Rodriguez was born in New York City but grew up in Puerto Rico, where she would see many vendors selling foods in booths or kiosks. Years later, her love for cooking was fused with the culture she was raised in, and that is what she says inspired the name Kiosko Latino.

            “Hispanic culture has kiosks everywhere. At the beach, town squares and curb side. Kiosks are part of the culture. This is something I have wanted to do for a long time, I love cooking,” Rodriguez said.

            Three years ago, Rodriguez was referred to WEDI by a member of the Westminster Church who knew she had a desire to bring her food cooking talents to the community. WEDI provided help with her vision, business plan, financial planning, promotion and advertising.

            Esperance Rwigamba , economic development specialist, who works closely with the clients at the bazaar.

            “It is so good to see how businesses grow from an idea to the actual business being up, it is the reason why we are here,” Rwigamba said.

            The dream of owning their restaurant came with some challenges for the Rodriguezes when COVID-19 hit the community, and all vendors at the bazaar were suspended until further notice. However, with the help of technology and the influx of driving services, Kiosko Latino found itself thriving within a few months and decided it was time to move into their building to keep up with the demand.

“For the first couple of months during the pandemic business was very slow, but then we started to get a lot of orders through delivery services like Grubhub, Uber Eats, Door Dash and Postmates.  Since then we have been so busy,” Rodriguez said.

One of the customer favorites on the menu is called the Mexican-Rican Burrito, which brings both the Mexican and the Puerto Rican flavor together.There are also vegetarian and gluten-free options.      

Although we are in the midst of a pandemic Rodgriguez says she is confident from the tools she received and the continued support by West Side Bazaar and WEDI that they will achieve their goal to expanding locally and eventually nationally.