The Buffalo School District is about to find out if an untested -- and, at one time, somewhat unwelcome -- idea can make it on Chippewa Street.
Emerson Commons, an off-site extension of Emerson Vocational High School's culinary arts program with a student-run restaurant, opens to the public Monday in the Root Building, 70 W. Chippewa St.
The district is leasing 22,000 square feet on two floors of the 70-year-old building, and the renovated space houses classrooms, conference centers, a restaurant, a food court, a banquet room, a laundry and two professionally equipped kitchens. The students will offer breakfast and lunch as well as a catering service under the supervision of instructors. And although the program includes a professionally licensed restaurant, district officials say it is here to educate, not turn a profit.
Students will have to meet all of the state's new academic standards, as well as participate in the Emerson Commons portion of their vocational training, said Jim Weimer Jr., the project administrator.
"Academics are number one," he said. "We really would be doing the students a disservice if we were here to make a profit."
Amid Wednesday's bustle of preparations for today's opening gala, students contemplated their own plans as they prepared entrees, salads and appetizers under the guidance of culinary instructors.
For Edwan Manuel, 18, attending Emerson is a first step to becoming a premier chef. Still wearing his chef's whites and paper toque from his day's lessons, he talked about how he hopes to take advanced training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, or at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris.
"I used to watch cooking shows all the time," said Manuel, who began cooking at home at age 8. "Oh, this is marvelous -- a state-of-the-art building -- I love it."
Nearly 10 years in the planning, Emerson Commons was at first an idea in search of a home. The district looked at other sites in the early 1990s before settling on the Root Building, which it is leasing from The 70 West Chippewa Corp. Annual rent on the 15-year lease will range from $120,000 to $250,000, 84 percent of which will be reimbursed by the state Education Department.
Several area businesses and organizations are donating time, services and money to Emerson Commons. Rich Products Corp., the Buffalo-based international food products company, signed on as a business partner to the venture and will be providing supplies, career counseling and instruction.
Through Rich's, students will have summer job opportunities at Dunn Tire Park, and Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse will provide training in decision-making, problem-solving and other career skills.
The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation provided a $78,000 grant for two distance learning laboratories, which allow students to receive instruction through computers and video monitors. The University at Buffalo, Erie Community College, the International Food Service Executives Association and the American Culinary Federation of Greater Buffalo are also expected to participate.
With all that involvement, Emerson Commons would seem guaranteed for success. In fact, the idea initially faced some opposition from area restaurateurs, who viewed it as potential competition in a suddenly booming section of the city.
"I admit at the beginning, we were somewhat concerned about having two programs somewhat similar in the same area," said Ken Cowdery, president of the Clarkson Center. The center, a private social-services agency, operates the Clarkson Institute at 660 Main St. in the Theater District as a culinary institute, restaurant and training program for adults leaving welfare.
District officials overcame those concerns by explaining that Emerson Commons would only be open during daytime school hours, and would not undercut market prices, said Principal Jon Lyon. Now, restaurateurs in the Chippewa Street neighborhood say Emerson is a welcome presence.