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BUSCEMIS ARE BACK IN FOOD BUSINESS

When one kitchen door closes, another one opens -- at least that is case for Buffalo's Buscemi family, the folks behind the former Vito's Gourmet Markets.

Just seven months after closing popular restaurants in downtown Buffalo and the Village of Williamsville, and filing corporate and personal bankruptcies, the Buscemis are back in business.

Vito's the upscale eat-in/take-out restaurant, is now Vito's the wholesale food supplier.

In that transition, trendy $6 sandwiches served up in eye-catching dining rooms have been traded for surprisingly similar $3 sandwiches found in coolers at Starbucks Coffee cafes, Noco Express shops and Mobil On-The-Run stores. And highly visible restaurant locations have been swapped for 2,400 square feet of utilitarian space in the Tri-Main Center, at 2495 Main St. in Buffalo.

"It's been quite a year," said Mary Joy Buscemi, who along with her brothers, Vito and Jim, and sister, Tina, watched their 7-year-old food business cave in under the weight of debt in early March.

"We've gone through exhaustion, frustration, humiliation, fear, mixed with with hope and confidence. It's been a wild ride," she added.

Failure is routine in the restaurant business, where eateries seem to pop up one day and disappear the next, as under-capitalized, inexperienced operators collapse under the pressure of long hours, high overhead and slim profit margins.

But the Buscemis seemed like a sure bet to beat those odds.

What started as a small food stand in the Market On Main in 1990 blossomed into Vito's Gourmet Market at 206 S. Elmwood Ave. within a year. The downtown restaurant instantly drew the praise of diners and food critics alike with its eclectic decor and innovative line-up of Italian-inspired sandwiches, soups and baked goods.

The popularity of the Elmwood Avenue site caught the attention of management at the now-defunct Adam, Meldrum & Anderson Department Store Co., which was searching for a way to pep up its faded Yankee Doodle Room restaurant.

The Buscemis stepped up to the task in 1994, investing more than $300,000 to transform the worn-out dining room into a Vito's. But almost as quickly as the new-look eatery caught the fancy of the downtown lunch crowd, AM&A's announced it was selling out to The Bon-Ton Stores Inc.

And the other shoe dropped in early 1995, when Bon-Ton closed the landmark store, resulting in the closure of the brand new restaurant. Nearly simultaneously, discussions with CA One Services, the airport services division of Delaware North Cos., to locate mini-Vito's in several major airports, fell apart.

"I think at that point none of us thought things could get any worse," said Vito Buscemi. "We were sure that was the darkest hour."

Mounting debt from the abruptly closed Main Street restaurant forced the family to move quickly to open a new restaurant to boost revenues. The closing of a Friendly's Restaurant in Williamsville presented an opportunity to try a new neighborhood with minimal investment and within a few months the Vito's empire was again two restaurants strong.

In a repeat performance of their other locations, the Buscemis were buoyed by full dining rooms and rave reviews for their food, but that popularity didn't translate to enough profits to cover both operating expenses and the old debt on the closed downtown restaurant. By March of this year, with personal and corporate bank accounts tapped out and loan officers knocking at the door, they hung up their aprons and turned off the lights.

"This better be the hardest thing we ever have to do, because it nearly killed us," Jim Buscemi said. "We wanted to do the right things by all the people we owed money and our customers, but it wasn't possible. It was unbelieveably embarrassing."

Corporate bankruptcies were filed for both the Buffalo and Williamsville businesses and all four siblings filed personal Chapter 7 bankruptcies.

Fortunately, while the Vito's business was crumbling, Dolly Buscemi, the family matriarch, was busy setting up her own little company.

Mrs. Buscemi's business, Accadia Food Corp., named after the Italian village were her father, Vito, was born, was going to be a lunch counter to serve the on-site food needs of the 200 or so people who work at Tri-Main.

As it turned out, it was the perfect location for her children to set up a wholesale food operation.

"In the last weeks of Vito's, we had been contacted by Starbucks, asking if we could serve as the local source of their sandwiches and baked goods," Vito Buscemi recalled. "It was something we wanted to do, but with everything happening, it didn't seem possible."

But when both Vito's outlets closed, the family members saw the Starbucks offer as the vehicle to start fresh. Initially, their entire workload amounted to daily orders for a single Starbucks, which still left them without paychecks, but with time on their hands, they drew up a plan for a wholesale operation that eventually could service just about any kind of business in need of fresh, tasty, affordable food, without the expense of a full-scale kitchen and food staff.

"Our niche is to be their kitchen," Jim Buscemi said. "We can supply places like Starbucks, convenience stores like Noco and Mobil, grocery stores and even bring hot foods on site for corporations."

One of their newest clients is Janis Klein, owner of the Mobil On-the-Run franchise at 585 Elmwood Ave. in Buffalo. She added a cooler full of Vito's brand sandwiches, salads, pastas and pizzas to her operation earlier this month.

"I was really in need of a lunch program to go with our Tim Horton's breakfast program," she said. "It's been a hit from the first day. People really recognize the Vito's name. I think they still miss the restaurant and get excited when they see the sign in the window."

Just last week the fledgling Accadia business added Guercio & Sons gourmet grocery on Grant Street to its client list, and talks are under way with a handful of potential corporate clients.

Another breakthrough for the Buscemis is that they recently received their first paychecks, ending a seven-month earnings drought during which they used every penny they earned to purchase used restaurant equipment. This is especially thrilling for Vito, whose wife, WGRZ-TV news anchor Victoria Hong, is due to deliver the couple's first child this week.

"A new business, a new baby, I am feeling very positive about what's to come. Everything is pulling together," he said.

For the near future, expect to see foods and baked goods bearing the Vito's logo turn up at more retail shops around Erie County. The coming Christmas season also will find the now 13-member Vito's staff serving as contract bakers for other food companies, turning out racks of holiday cookies, cakes and pies.

Vito, Jim, Mary Joy and their mother plan to tinker with their food mix, using the Tri-Main Center workers as their in-house laboratory. Tina Buscemi, who helped get the new business off the ground, is now exploring other options outside the family business.

"We don't have that upscale ambience we were used to, but all that ambience cost us a lot of money," Vito said. "We've found our food is just as fresh and delicious without all the overhead."