Founder of the Feast / Harry Zemsky
Harry Zemsky, restaurateur
Photo by kc kratt
Name: Harry Zemsky
Restaurant name: Larkinville, Hydraulic Hearth, Angelica Tea Room
Title: Restaurateur and Placemaker
How many years in the business: 7
Larkin Square, known affectionately to many by the Suess-ian moniker Larkinville, has become something of a foodie hotspot. There’s Food Truck Tuesday, the longstanding weekly warm-weather assembly that pulls in crowds numbering well over a thousand, as well as the lovely Filling Station restaurant, which serves breakfast and lunch in its deftly designed and pastel-hued dining room.
Across the street, Hydraulic Hearth features a menu of woodfired favorites, a brewery, and a beer garden that’s home to wildly popular Gospel Brunches, shuffleboard, and a fair number of live music performances. More is on its way, too, with exciting food and drink projects in progress just blocks away in the newly revived 500 Seneca building. We have the Zemsky family to thank for the revival of this part of the city, but also for the peregrine vision with which it has come together.
Harry Zemsky is an important cog in that machine. In Larkin's early days, he envisioned and managed much of the programming that’s transformed it into what it is today. He’s also the creator and operator of Hydraulic Hearth. This year, he has two projects launching. The Angelica Tea Room (with barkeep Jon Karel) will open on Washington Street downtown, and, in the fall, he and business partner Amanda Amico (Amy’s Food Truck) will unveil the Swan Street Diner, a fully restored 1937 diner located in Larkinville near Zemsky’s other projects.
Four words that best describe you:
Optimistic, funny, tired, space case
Best thing about owning a restaurant?
The work environment. Meeting and working with amazing people both inside and out of the industry.
Are you a numbers guy, a people guy, or both?
Both, I enjoy cultivating new relationships with people, as well as a good day spent in the office combing over the numbers. This business is equal parts numbers and people.
What is the worst advice someone gave you about the business before you opened Hearth?
When you’re opening a restaurant, everyone has an opinion. If every item my mom suggested wound up on our menu, it would be 100 pages long. I think it’s important to stay focused on your vision, and not try to do everything.
Are there challenges you would say are unique to restaurateurs located in Buffalo?
The population size isn’t ideal, creating less potential revenue per day. In a major city, reservations might be full from 5 to 10 p.m., here it is more like 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. People are more price conscious, so that will shrink your profit margin a bit. And, of course, there’s the weather. On the flip side, cost of entry is relatively low—key word is relatively—and the market has not been saturated with new concepts yet.
What is the most unexpected outcome of your work, something you hadn’t imagined when you were planning the restaurant?
Becoming involved in Larkinville and HH has introduced me to the world of new urbanism and the idea of placemaking—concepts that are so, so, so important to the success of a restaurant, neighborhood, [or] city. They are simple ideas, investments in goodwill, that center around being hospitable toward people. It could be a well-placed bench, Adirondack chairs facing the lake, wide sidewalks, a free mini-golf course—all things that won’t show up on your bottom line, but provide invaluable goodwill.
What do you think is the next big thing in Buffalo’s restaurant scene?
Tea room cocktail bars are going to be huge! Just kidding, I have no clue. If every restaurant, bar, and store in the city had a hand-painted sign, and a bench out front, we’d be sitting pretty. Let’s push for that over something trendy.
If the background music at HH only had to please you, what would it be?
Ha, my staff will attest it already does. Lots of funk and Steely Dan.
Christa Glennie Seychew is a freelance food writer and the producer of Nickel City Chef.