Jason Agro saw big potential when he opened up a deli on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus four years ago.
The numbers, after all, are impressive.
Companies with a presence in the 120-acre neighborhood have grown from three in 2002 to 150 today.
By next year, 15,000 people are expected to work on campus as a new children’s hospital and medical school open.
But turning those employees and patients into customers has been a challenge for some restaurant owners and service businesses that hope to build on the growth.
“Everyone thinks you’ll be rich instantly,” said Agro, who opened the Twisted Pickle on the eastern edge of the campus by Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “It turns out to be more of a marathon than the sprint I thought it would be.”
Agro is part of a crop of new restaurant owners that see potential in the growing number of people working on the Medical Campus, where more than $1 billion of development and investments have turned a once-dead area into a neighborhood dominated by doctors and patients, medical researchers and entrepreneurs.
The boom in development helped rescue the storied Ulrich’s Tavern from the brink of death nearly three years ago after new owners invested in the 1868 bar.
Still, some merchants are holding out for better days. They see hope in the opening of the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital and the move of the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences later this year.
“It’s unpredictable right now,” said Hamada Saleh, who targeted the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus when he opened up Caffeology coffee shop a block away on Allen Street two years ago. “I think the medical school will make it more consistent.”
To be sure, restaurants are a notoriously difficult business to start, with studies showing a third of new restaurants fail in the first year.
And the Medical Campus has attracted new investment in adjacent neighborhoods, where developers have bought up properties and proposed hundreds of new apartments in the vacant Trico complex and other buildings.
Matthew Enstice, president and CEO of Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus Inc., the nonprofit organization that coordinates services on campus, said it’s tough to pin down the amount of anticipated spinoff business generated by the growing campus.
“I don’t know we’ve been able to quantify this,” Enstice said. “But with the medical school coming down, if the businesses can just hold on, I believe that’s when they’ll start to see a change. I believe it’s going to be a positive uptick.”
Enstice said UB’s new medical school, slated to fully be open by January, should punch a significant impact – more so than a hospital, where doctors and other medical staff are on tight schedules that don’t easily allow for long lunch breaks.
“With the medical school, they don’t have to get back to surgery,” he said. “I think the medical school is the game changer.”
Waiting on the medical school
Saleh, 34, is also waiting for the medical school to open. He moved here from Milford, Conn., opening Caffeology coffee bistro at the corner of Allen and North Pearl streets – a short block from where the medical school building is under construction at Main and Allen streets.
Some days are better than others. A walk along the western edge of campus in the immediate Main Street perimeter yields a half dozen food establishments and an occasional bar amid vacant storefronts advertised by developers looking to lease space.
A straight shot down Allen Street leads to a smattering of retail and restaurants that stretch for several blocks.
“I thought, let’s win the neighborhood customers and then the campus workers will come,” said Saleh, who holds a master’s degree in applied economics from UB. He signed a five-year lease to run the cafe with five employees. “My passion was always coffee. I wanted Allen Street, and I knew the Medical Campus was coming.”
He had such high hopes when he opened that he kept his doors open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. But after a few months, Saleh realized it wasn’t worth it. Now, the cafe opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. weekdays, with weekend hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
A year and a half later, “it’s still hit or miss,” Saleh said, with a line out the door some mornings and just a customer trickle on other days.
John Papp, a server at Giacobbi’s Cucina Citta that opened in Allentown last June, is measured in his thinking of what may come.
“The hope is that when all of that finishes and the UB medical school, that that will bring a huge amount of business and a flow up and down Allen Street,” he said. “I think we will see some business from it, but I don’t think it will be Manhattan-style.”
Still, some have seen success.
A few blocks away, Ulrich’s, a tavern that dates to 1868, has found new life on the doorstep of the booming Medical Campus.
Saved from the brink of financial woes, the tavern at the corner of Ellicott and Virginia streets is a lure for patients and families, as well as employees on campus.
“It was very much struggling and was just sitting there, and there was talk of making it a parking area, if you can believe it,” said owner Thomas Eoannou, who invested substantially to restore the building after buying it in 2014. “I fell in love with the building, and it was such a part of the city’s history. It was literally having its last breath, but over the past year, the business has picked up dramatically.”
Bartender Chris Seymour estimated that probably 80 percent of the tavern’s lunch crowd is driven by the Medical Campus.
“People come to celebrate if they go into remission,” said Seymour, who recalled a couple who came to lunch regularly for two years while the husband was treated for cancer. Recently, he said, they came in for a celebratory beer. “He was cancer-free.”
Bringing lunch to the workers
But building service businesses and restaurants on the growth of the Medical Campus, where many health care workers have tight schedules and short lunch breaks, may require more creativity.
Some business owners are cooking up ways to take their food directly to campus workers in food trucks, catering or delivery services.
Patrick Ryan, owner of Fat Bob’s Smokehouse, an Allentown staple, hopes staff at the Conventus medical and research building and UB’s medical school will find their way to the barbecue hot spot. Ryan believes additional traffic will likely come from medical students and staff living in the neighborhood as more apartments are renovated and rented.
Ryan and others, though, noted that many employees at Roswell and Buffalo General Medical Center have been coming to work there for years and “come in on the 33, get in their cars and go home.”
“There’s that routine,” Ryan said.
Ryan and his team are starting to brainstorm ways to get food to campus workers, and last year, Fat Bob’s saw an uptick in in its takeout business, although Ryan said it’s tough to pin down how much is due to the Medical Campus.
“We’re still working up a game plan,” Ryan said. “The idea is instead of waiting for them to come to us, how do we get to them?”
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