A conversation about Buffalo’s restaurant scene
Photos by kc kratt
Western New York’s burgeoning economy has transformed our habits, and it’s especially apparent in the local food scene. More ethnic cuisine, the prevalence of food trucks, and even the way we shop for and prepare food at home have undergone significant changes recently. Spree sat down with a few local restaurateurs—some longtime players, some newer to the game—to discuss how Western New Yorkers’ food purchasing and consuming habits have affected their outlooks.
Kevin Lin is head chef and owner of Sun Cuisines, which recently added a Williamsville location. Lin, originally from Dawei, Burma, has been in the food service business for twenty-five years and is credited with bringing the first black rice bar to the United States.
Jonathan Rowan is part-owner of the Cheesy Chick. The Cheesy Chick has a food truck and location at the Eastern Hills Mall. He lives in Clarence and has been in the food service industry for ten years.
Kujo Kumro is executive chef at The Mansion on Delaware. Kumro has been in the restaurant industry for over eight years, and, as of October 2016, was Buffalo’s youngest executive chef.
James Roberts owns Toutant and (soon to be) Dobutsu. Originally from New Orleans, Roberts has twenty-seven years of professional experience and graduated first in his class with a culinary degree from Johnson and Wales University. He also holds an executive chef certification from the American Culinary Federation.
With Buffalo’s renaissance comes an explosion of new restaurants. Does WNY’s food scene ultimately benefit from more restaurants, or is the market oversaturated?
Kevin Lin: Absolutely, customers benefit from more restaurants. It creates a variety of cuisines and dishes to try, and it’s a positive push for WNY chefs to create more dishes to stand out.
Jonathan Rowan: WNY ultimately benefits from its plethora of great local restaurants. But, because there are so many options, I believe that yes, the market may be starting to become oversaturated. The concern for me is the disposable income of WNYers has not gone up, yet the prices of food and drink have. This is something I witness working on the food truck. In any given week after a three-day weekend, I’ve noticed our Tuesday lunches and events have dramatically decreased sales.
Kujo Kumro: I do feel as though the field has become a bit overcrowded. The crowds are staying around, but I personally think we need more incentives like happy hours or daily specials to introduce them to new places.
James Roberts: I think new restaurants are a great thing. Oversaturation is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and I don't think we are there yet. WNY is a really big total metropolitan area. People are getting out and trying new places outside their neighborhoods.
Do you see food trucks as competition to restaurants, or are there enough diners to support both?
Rowan: Our restaurant and truck work really well with each other. We have been able to build stronger relationships with our customers because we don’t rush them at the truck. Our social media numbers and interactions have increased, our menu is bigger, and we are also able to offer sit down service, online ordering, and a relaxing atmosphere in the mall.
Kumro: I think there are plenty of diners. If anything, the food trucks are more so affecting the chain and fast food restaurants that people resorted to when crunched for time. Considering most trucks tend to lean toward health and organic trends, it’s a huge plus for consumers.
Roberts: I personally don't see it as competition to our concepts because of our high levels of service. If they want to eat standing outside or in their car, they can do that. I do it all the time, and don't see my food truck experience as a substitute for my restaurant experience. It’s great to see some of the more experimental concepts take shape on trucks as an incubator, but now I see some establishments have them as additional revenue streams, which you can't blame. There are customers for both.
Are you willing to get out your crystal ball and predict the next big foodie trend?
Lin: I see the emphasis of opting for healthier options such coconut oil, black rice, acai, etc. Consumers are more educated on the health benefits of certain foods. So, I can see people treating food as medicine.
Kumro: Color. Vibrant colors. More hydroponic cross breeding of stunning vegetables that take the classic dishes (that everyone loves) and turn them to something new and unexpected.
Roberts: I'm banking, literally, on seafood being a bigger part of our dining future and the logistics of global shopping becoming easier to manage and more cost effective, especially for landlocked areas.
Speaking of trends, consumers are moving more toward…not moving. Apps like Skip the Dishes and grocery delivery options all cater to a growing number of people who prefer to use technology to get their meals delivered instead of going out. Have you seen this effecting local restaurants? Do you think it will in the future?
Lin: I don’t see it affecting local restaurants. There are people who like to go out to restaurants, but there are also days we are too busy or like to stay in our pajamas, watch Netflix, and have a nice restaurant meal. These apps are the best medium to provide what and when the customer needs.
Rowan: These food trends have not hurt our business as of yet; however, we are considering using Skip the Dishes in the future, seeing as it has really become a popular staple in many consumers’ routines. Personally, I have used and love the apps. They’re easy and provide a lot of satisfaction in having a restaurant-quality meal brought to your door. I also think the apps help restaurants and trucks stay competitive through providing stronger customer service and experience. Keeping the customer happy is essential to our success, and an app can’t sell that.
Another biggie: cook at home services like Blue Apron. Do you see these as a threat to the restaurant industry?
Lin: No. Eating out at a restaurant isn’t only about the delicious meal you can get there. It’s about the whole experience, including the ambience and environment.
Rowan: I don’t see these services as a threat at all. Sometimes, people want food made for them or to enjoy a meal out. I also think that some of those services have too much detail for the average consumer, take too long, and sometimes don’t preserve the quality of their ingredients as promised.
Roberts: I think they’re really cool, opening peoples’ eyes to new cuisines and ingredients they might otherwise be intimidated to try. It also shows how much work it actually is to prepare a great meal, so, if anything, customers have a greater appreciation for restaurants, and it opens their palates to try new dishes from us. A win-win.
Ten to fifteen years ago, ethnic cuisine in WNY meant Italian (we’re exaggerating, but only a little). Now we’ve got so many global foods to try. Why do you think Buffalonians have become more diversified eaters?
Lin: Buffalonians have always been adventurous eaters from my experience. I was one of the first chefs to introduce sushi to WNYers when I opened a sushi bar at Tops and Wegmans. I’m amazed at how often people are open minded and willing to try new things.
Roberts: I think people have begun to branch out due to pure curiosity. These foods are now presented with quality and approachability, and people are realizing there are incredible global cuisines. Social media also enlightens people, and Google can put them at ease quickly.
Last, have we “arrived?” Does Buffalo now rival or even top other mid-sized US cities as far as quality and quantity of dining options?
Lin: I don’t think we’re there quite yet, but I also don’t see a reason why we won’t be able to get to where larger cities are eventually. Buffalo is a diverse and open-minded community.
Rowan: All in all, we have a really good thing going with the restaurant scene. If we continually reinvest and reinvent, there will be no stopping Buffalo from remaining as a popular destination for great, unique eats.
Roberts: I think as far as variety and quantity of offerings, we are on par with most regional cities of our same size and population density. I don't think we are yet in the league of more major cities, just because our population and demographic don't yet support both casual eateries and ultra-fine dining establishments at the same time. Those two categories together are what usually put bigger communities “on the map.” But if you're talking about the quality of everyday dining, we have definitely enough merit. We have increasingly bettered our service, sourcing, and trend knowledge. Above all, we have found how to make our community happy. That’s the hallmark of any great restaurant scene, big or small. So, in that respect, we have arrived, yes.
Is there a food trend you’re tired of and want to see diminished, or even gone?
Kumro: Everything and anything deep fried! The fact I’ve received deep fried pita or croutons before just makes me wanna...
Roberts: I think we’re seeing a diminishing of molecular gastronomy and the modifying of food textures just for the sake of novelty. I think we’re finally to a point where the mastery of those techniques now add to a solid cooking and flavor development skill set and are not used in place of or to mask subpar cooking skills.
Have you ever created a dish that customers weren’t as enthusiastic about as you’d thought?
Rowan: I joke that one of our “epic fails” over the years was when we attempted a pizza grilled cheese. Quite surprisingly, given the popularity of pizza in our area, nobody wanted it, even though the sandwich was very good.
Roberts: Anytime we offer anything with some kind of offal, it’s a toss-up, like liver preps. Chicken liver mousse is incredibly delicious, but for some reason, people don’t trust it, even from us. Unless we make a BLT with it.
Tara Erwin is a PR professional and regular contributor to Spree.