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BREW PUB'S HASTY EXIT REVIVES TALK OF TRAFFIC ON MAIN

The Empire Brewing Co.'s midnight departure from downtown last week has whetted the appetites of local restaurateurs and unleashed another round of interest in returning traffic to Main Street to help the Theater District.

"Without vehicle traffic on Main, we'll be behind in our ability to attract customers to that area," Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said. "Chippewa (Street) is successful only a half-block away. Main is struggling."

Plans are expected to be revealed soon, the mayor said, for "creative" ways to return traffic to part of Main, including the Theater District. He declined to discuss specifics. Main has been closed to cars since the downtown transit mall was built 20 years ago.

In the meantime, city officials are optimistic the space in the city-owned Market Arcade that Empire Brewing abandoned will be reoccupied in reasonably short order.

Peter Cammarata, whose confrontation with Empire Brewing's owners late last Sunday night interrupted the brew pub's abrupt exit, said his office received nine calls this week from business people interested in the location at 623 Main.

"Our phone has been ringing off the hook from local restaurateurs who want to get into the space," said Cammarata, senior executive vice president of Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the city's development agency. "These are people running top-notch operations."

Michael Hodgdon and David Katleski, the owners of the Empire Brewing Co., did not return phone calls from The Buffalo News. But in an interview last week with the Rochester Business News, Katleski said he did not recall signing a lease for the Buffalo location, which opened in December 1999.

Cammarata said he and other city officials were startled by his comment.

"The lease signing was done as part of the whole closing on the deal," he said.

Katleski and Hodgdon also own restaurants in Rochester and Syracuse and were participants in the Fuel Pizza Cafe, another trendy Rochester restaurant that, according to the Rochester newspaper, went out of business abruptly in 1999, five months after it opened.

Fashun Ku, commissioner of economic development for Rochester, said Hodgdon had reassured him this week that his Buffalo troubles would not harm his brew pub in that city.

"He said, with the closing of the Buffalo establishment, he and his partner will have more time to manage their businesses in Rochester and Syracuse," Ku said. "I took that as a positive sign."

Buffalo is in a good position to recoup the $100,000 loan it extended to Empire Brewing, according to Alan DeLisle, executive director of Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. He added that legal issues associated with Empire Brewing's exit shouldn't delay finding a new operator.

"We have a strong, secure loan that does impact on their Rochester and Syracuse facilities," DeLisle said.

M&T Bank also lent the brew pub $210,000. The bank declined to comment. The Rochester restaurateurs are expected to meet soon with their creditors.

The performance of the Empire Brewing owners, before and after the business closed, has persuaded most observers that the location has no drawbacks that some good restaurant smarts -- and perhaps a few cars rolling by on Main Street -- cannot overcome.

"What kind of businessmen pull out in the middle of the night and take their wares down the Thruway?" wondered Michael Schmand, executive director of Buffalo Place. "The question that has to be asked is, are these the kind of people you want to pin your downtown redevelopment hopes on?"

DeLisle confirmed what he called a "phenomenal" local interest in the Empire Brewing space and said the city would prefer to go with a local owner, now that out-of-town operators have failed twice at the location.

Colorado-based Breckenridge Brew Pub, Empire Brewing's predecessor, went out of business in August 1998.

Mark Croce, owner of the Brownstone Bistro, said his business on Franklin Street, two blocks from Empire Brewing, has been doing so well that he is moving ahead with plans for another restaurant.

"Downtown is booming," he said. "I'm ecstatic to be here."

The new establishment -- the Buffalo Chop House, a 200-seat restaurant at 282 Franklin St. -- is expected to be open by late spring.

Croce and Nick Wesley, co-owner of the Pearl Street Grill & Brewing Co., another successful downtown restaurant, said the out-of-town owners of Empire Brewing were out of touch with the local market.

"It's a tough business to begin with, and to think you can run it from another city is arrogant," Croce said. "The money is made in the details. If you can't effectively manage a place, that money walks out the back door."

Wesley said Empire Brewing got off to a bad start.

"I was shocked at how poorly it was run," he said. "I went to lunch four times in a row, and the lunch was cold. I think they tried to operate it from Syracuse. This is no hayseed market. You have to be good."

Another problem was the lack of banquet facilities. Both the Pearl Street Grill and the Bijou Grille, a popular restaurant only a few doors from Empire Brewing, report that banquet operations are a good extra source of revenue.

"We do a lot of banquets, a half-million dollars in business," Wesley said.

Empire Brewing also missed opportunities by closing on Sundays. Patrick Fagan, president of Shea's Performing Arts Center, said his theater did record business last year with 331,000 people attending shows, many of them on Sundays.

Last month, for example, 3,000 people attended a B.B. King concert on a Sunday.

"When you're not open on a Sunday with 3,000 people . . . I don't understand why they couldn't make it with us having a record year," Fagan said.

That gets to one of the most critical points -- knowing your market, according to Bea Militello, co-owner of the Bijou Grille. The restaurant will celebrate its 10th anniversary in May.

"It's a lot of hard work, and you do have to know downtown -- what's going on, being up on Shea's and the Studio Arena, and being part of the Theater District Association," she said.

Militello also said providing the personal touch -- instructing employees to greet customers as they arrive and having a kitchen prepared to cook a special dish if requested -- brings people back for return visits.

"That's the difference between a family-owned restaurant and a franchise; we're on the premises all the time," she said. "We want to take care of the customer."

One thing the city can do for businesses in the Theater District is help customers find them by returning traffic to Main Street. DeLisle said tearing out pedestrian malls has brought resurgences of private-market investment in other cities.

"Reopening Main would have a major impact," he said. "To the extent you can drive traffic past a site, that's where retailers will want to go."

Fifteen months ago, the Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council submitted a series of options for returning traffic to Main. The suggestions ranged from reopening parts of the street by eliminating some Metro Rail stations to a $15 million plan that would remove the light-rail system entirely.

The options were supposed to lead to serious discussion about which route the city would want to pursue. Masiello promised that discussion will begin soon.

"We are partnered up with Buffalo Place and other institutions to look at new, creative ways to get autos on Main," the mayor said. "Hopefully we'll be hearing something in the near future."

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