Many local restaurants help to showcase the region’s cultural and ethnic diversity while serving as economic anchors in their neighborhoods.
As the industry prepares to launch Local Restaurant Week on Monday, the owner of one participating business thanks a supportive community for convincing him to call off plans to close.
Jerry Scharf operates Scharf’s Schiller Park restaurant on South Crossman Street, one of the area’s last remaining authentic German taverns.
He talks with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer about a volatile industry and the importance of Local Restaurant Week. Here is a summary of some of the issues that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series.
Meyer: You almost closed last summer. What prevented you from going dark?
Scharf: The overwhelming response of Western New York. The people just came through in masses. We’ve never seen that kind of volume before.
Meyer: Did they stay, though?
Scharf: I’ve had people that said: “We used to come like once a year, now we’re coming maybe every couple months just to make sure that we can keep you going.”
Meyer: You are one of about 200 local restaurants that are participating in Restaurant Week, April 22-28. How important is this type of an event as it relates to generating long-term customers?
Scharf: I find a large number of new customers that come through that do come back. You win them over with your specials and your cuisine. If you can save people [money] and they feel they’re getting a good value for their dollar, they will come back again.
Meyer: A lot of restaurants are doing the $20.13 [specials].
Scharf: Exactly, For lunches we do two meals for [$20.13]. For dinner, we do almost a full-course dinner for [$20.13].
Meyer: You mentioned the chains. Deep-pocketed corporations in almost all instances. Many times, if not most times, with locations near the malls ... Is it a losing battle for the small, family-owned independent?
Scharf: I think it’s what caused us ... to be close to going under. Because our neighborhood really doesn’t have all the shops, the mom-and-pop stores that used to draw people to the neighborhood. At one time, you used to be able to get everything on Genesee Street. Now, there are other businesses there which people [who] are our customers wouldn’t frequent.
Meyer: You said [before the interview] that “the restaurant business isn’t nearly as fun as when my mom was running it.”
Scharf: That’s the truth ... there’s more regulation. You are being scrutinized a lot tighter by government and by the health department. It’s really gotten a lot tougher. It used to be a lot easier for her in her days. And she put in long hours. She was open until four in the morning and back down here at eight o’clock in the morning cooking. But she had more fun doing that than us with the shortened hours ...
Meyer: There’s a lot of talk, at least in some circles, about the momentum that we see in some pockets of Buffalo. Canalside. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The Elmwood [Village], etc. Do you see any momentum [in Schiller Park]?
Scharf: I see stability here. It has not gotten that bad yet. There are still businesses on Genesee Street. They just cater to a different clientele than we do. They refurbished the park about 12 years ago and it has brought life back to the park. It has brought families back to the park, instead of the teenagers and the riffraff that were around prior to the refurbishing.
Meyer: ...But it’s a perception issue, isn’t it?
Scharf: Absolutely. So many people are just plain afraid. I’ve gotten letters from people saying “we can’t come down there anymore because we’re just afraid, and we wish you would move to the suburbs.” The funny thing is, no customers have ever been harmed, knock on wood.