I don’t know why he does it. I don’t know whether there’s some gene that disposes people to generosity. I have no idea whether giving is genetic or a learned behavior.
Yes, Russ Salvatore is in a better position than most of us to be philanthropic. But there are folks richer than the restaurateur who have tighter pockets.
Yes, the 79-year-old Salvatore grew up not having much, which might dispose him to give more. But many others who went from rags to riches do more hoarding than giving. So the man, in a sense, is a mystery.
Maybe when his time is up, scientists can examine his brain. They might get further if they examine his heart.
People will watch the Bills game on television Sunday at nursing homes, in bars and in countless living rooms because of Russ Salvatore. The upscale restaurant/hotel owner spent tens of thousands of dollars to buy enough tickets to lift the local TV blackout. He did the same thing two years ago, donating the tickets to military and youth groups. Last month, he bought 350 TVs for patients’ rooms at ECMC.
These are just recent milestones in a history of generosity. A history that he has no special insight into or explanation for.
“People have been good to me,” he said in our conversation Wednesday. “It feels good to be able to do this.”
We met in his wood-paneled office inside Russell’s Steaks, Chops and More on Transit Road. He sat schoolboy-straight in a black leather chair, Florida tan offset by snow-white hair, dapper in a custom-made suit and diamond-clustered pinky ring. He exuded an air of unforced authority, chatting with the just-folks ease of someone who has come far in the world without forgetting where he started.
I got the sense that he has received more from life than he anticipated, and is happy to share the proceeds.
He started working in his father’s East Side saloon when he was 15, shining shoes and cleaning spittoons. He dropped out of Kensington High School – “I think they eventually gave me an honorary degree,” he says, chuckling – taking over the bar/restaurant at 19. He soon replaced the paper cups with glass and the throwaway napkins with linen.
“Even then,” said the man renowned for high-end glitz, “I couldn’t help myself.”
Economic liftoff came after he bought a hot dog stand and 8 acres on Transit Road in 1967. The local population of cows may have outnumbered people. “I wanted to be out by the airport,” he said. “I thought good things were coming.”
I’ll say. The stake grew into the mini-empire of culinary kitsch called Salvatore’s Italian Gardens. Known as much for its excess of statuary as the prime-cut steaks, the place – later sold to his son – became a destination. Despite success, the infusion of humility that comes with struggle never wore off. Salvatore mentioned friends, uncomfortable with the spotlight, who give more than he does for less attention.
“Sal [Alfiero] just donated $5 million to Children’s Hospital,” he said. “That’s really something. … I just bought a bunch of tickets so people could see a football game.”
It may not seem like much to him. But it means a lot to us.