James “Jay” Manno worked at many Buffalo nightspots starting in 1989 as a barback at the old Stuffed Mushroom on Main Street before taking jobs at the former Pier Restaurant, Croc Bar and Coliseum.
For the past 14 years Manno has operated Soho Burger Bar on West Chippewa Street, where he’s built a reputation as an outspoken advocate for the entertainment district downtown.
Last year, he was part of a $600,000 makeover that transformed Soho Bar to Soho Burger Bar – not surprising considering Manno comes from a family of butchers. In September he became Soho’s sole owner.
At age 44, the father of two young children is settling into his life as a family man in North Buffalo. Manno, you’ll see, thrives in an urban setting.
People Talk: What attracted you to the Chippewa Strip?
James Manno: I don’t know that anything did. At first I think I was a little bit anti-Chippewa when I was younger. My mother and father got divorced when I was 5, and my mother always either cooked or ran restaurants. Several of those we lived above or near. When we moved to Indiana, my first job was washing dishes for a restaurant.
PT: Did you go to college?
JM: I went to so many colleges. I went to Wabash College first in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Remember [Buffalo Bills tight end] Pete Metzelaars? He was the Knute Rockne of Wabash. I hated it there: 800 guys in the middle of nowhere. So I went to Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, and then moved back to Buffalo in 1989. School became less of a priority, and that’s my only regret – that I don’t have that piece of paper. If I would hit the lottery tomorrow, I would go back to school.
PT: But you’re married and the father of two.
JM: I didn’t get married until I was 39. I always wanted children; that was a foregone conclusion. But if I married every girl I thought I was going to marry I would have been married at 17. I actually have a 22-year-old son, and it’s kind of strange but we didn’t know of each other until he was 18. That was a Jerry Springer moment, and now he has a daughter so I’m a grandfather. So I have a 3-year-old son, a year-and-a-half-old daughter and a 6-month-old granddaughter. And a 34-year-old wife.
PT: What’s your secret vice?
JM: Not so secret but I smoke a lot of cigars – sometimes three or four a day. For me it’s kind of relaxing. Sometimes if I don’t eat enough I get a little lightheaded. It catches me off-guard. My wife will tell me I’m turning green. My real vice overall is eating. I’m in the gym six days a week so my cheat day is Sunday.
PT: What were you like as a kid?
JM: I was always the art teacher’s pet. They would give me art supplies to take home. But then I took art history, and now I wish I knew more. A few years back I started drawing and painting again at 4 in the morning instead of watching TV when I got home to wind down from work. I’m not good at it anymore, but I would like to be.
PT: Describe your personality.
JM: I’m definitely opinionated. Stubborn, too. I think some people who don’t know me would say I’m kind of arrogant, a little flashy. I tend to dress a little flashy sometimes, but I don’t shop like I used to. I try to buy stuff that’s timeless. I’m a hat freak. I’ve had four custom hats made. I have an Armani fur coat, not real fur. I’m not O.J. walking through the airport in the ’70s. If it’s possible, I want to be a little Renaissance-ish. I want to know a little bit about everything. I’ve got good taste in food, good taste in wine. I smoke a lot of cigars. I appreciate art, fashion, architecture. I sold men’s retail when I was still in Indiana. I was selling Hugo Boss in 1988 when no one knew who Hugo Boss was.
PT: Why not add boutiques to Chippewa?
JM: It’s tough for a boutique to pay the rent that landlords can get from a bar. What someone really has to do is take over Main Place Mall. It’s an eyesore that used to be – when I was a kid – the coolest mall. My father bought me my first pair of Jordache jeans at the Main Place Mall. Now it’s a dump.
PT: Aren’t you president of the Buffalo Entertainment District Association?
JM: I don’t even know anymore. I’m just the guy who gets things done. The whole age commingling thing was a real divisive factor with our association. We just had a meeting last week, and we’re trying to work on things for Cinco de Mayo. This is a very good year to make a nice night out of that.
PT: Do you think in terms of drinking holidays?
JM: It’s not just that. It’s days to build nights that you can be known for, and not just drinking. We’re open every Sunday now, and I don’t care if we close at 9 o’clock.
PT: Chippewa needs to get the age commingling debate settled once and for all. Where do you stand?
JM: Frankly, I think the 18 and over is a boring topic. We debated it in public and it gave us a black eye. At this point I’m not really worried about the other places and the ages. My main focus is my business, and the aesthetic improvements of the area – trees and benches.
PT: Do you still see a need for a paddy wagon on Chippewa?
JM: For years we were calling for a paddy wagon as a deterrent for these kids who come down and loiter. Certain nights are unruly, like New Year’s Eve when there’s 200,000 people downtown and 50 cops. You don’t want to get thrown in the wagon if you’re fighting. Or if you’re belligerently drunk and a cop approached you. Or you’re underage and you have no business being down there hanging on the corner with your white T-shirt and your butt hanging out of your pants.
PT: What went wrong on Chippewa?
JM: Gang initiations for one. Honestly? And don’t get this wrong, but the press hurts us more than the reality.
PT: Do you own a gun?
JM: Yes. Mine was more for my family. I had taken my class for my permit, and that thing sat on my desk for almost four years. Then the City Grill thing happened, and I decided to turn it in. What happens if someone does follow me home? I still only have one gun, a simple old-school .38 revolver, five shots. It’s something that won’t jam. I hope I never have to use it. I keep it in a safe with a push-button combination. Eventually, after all this craziness – this arms race that’s happened recently – I’d like to get a smaller one, believe it or not. It’s a pain to carry.