Inside a vibrant but spare East Side restaurant, a preacher is fighting to infuse a struggling community with hope through his new business venture.
Buckeye's Chicken has opened in the location once occupied by KFC at 401 Michigan Ave., employing 24 in an effort to "get kids off the streets," said Bishop Perry Davis, its founder.
Davis, a 50-year-old former Internet company employee, has poured at least $260,000 of his retirement savings into the effort.
The community activist, who also started the Stop the Violence Coalition and leads New Life Harvest World Ministries, says the enterprise aims to prevent crime by satisfying the need for money.
"If you take away the need, it will go away," he said.
All his employees have joined his organization, which works to reduce crime and provides meals, elderly assistance and youth activities.
"I love it," said Prince Bradshaw, 23, who was hired while grabbing a bite to eat. He said he was unsure what to think before trying the restaurant since it isn't affiliated with a chain. "After I got a feel for it, I loved it. Everyone is real respectful."
Although the restaurant seems to be off to a favorable start -- business has been brisk since Tuesday's opening -- getting it up and running has been difficult. "The place was a wreck," Davis said. "Everything was stolen."
Missing heating and cooling systems and extensive water damage contributed to a need for $150,000 in renovations, before he had to purchase equipment. Davis did much of the repair work himself.
"I did the outside and the inside. I did everything for this place. It was terrible."
Davis makes it clear to his employees that they are working at a business, not receiving assistance from the coalition. He already has dismissed some employees for suspected theft.
Davis said he wants to ensure he offers a quality product in a professional environment, like fast-food giants KFC and Popeyes.
Customers seem to appreciate the service and, most importantly, the food. Friday, three diners praised the homemade sauce on the menu of fried chicken, chicken sandwiches, red beans and rice, green beans and baked macaroni and cheese.
Davis also recommends the gator tails, which are brought in from Florida, and "A Little Bit of Heaven," a specialty dessert resembling a souffle with strawberries and ingredients he prefers to keep a secret.
While he acknowledged the area's dearth of food options, especially leaner offerings, he said his primary goal is to provide opportunity to young people and a good product to consumers.
Business has grown stronger with media attention, he said.
Bradshaw constantly cleaned the floors as patrons filed in and out during the Friday lunch rush. "It's real busy," he said with a laugh.
Many chose to eat their meals inside, where the mostly white decor is accented with blues and orange.
Davis said he was able to generate significant attention for the business just by removing the long-standing boards from the windows. People approached and asked questions as it was prepped for opening.
Another Buffalo minister began a similar effort years ago. Ellicott Councilman Darius Pridgen opened a Subway shop in his True Bethel Baptist Church, also with the goal of employing young people.
Pridgen said running a business that also aims to improve lives can be difficult.
"Under a different business model, if people don't immediately help you make money, you remove them. Here we train, retrain and invest," he said. "And it's hard to get grants and loans if you don't have at least 100 jobs."
Through building relationships, he said, he is able to handle behavior problems. He strives to mentor employees so that he can advise them what behaviors and decisions may hurt their chances to obtain other jobs.
Pridgen describes Davis' project as more ambitious and challenging than his own, noting that the Buckeye's owner "built from the ground up without any advisers or directors and with maybe all his own money." The Common Council member pointed out that he, by contrast, went to a franchise that already had worked out the kinks of running a business.