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Passion for cooking turns hobby to moneymaker

Jim Maloney wanted to spend more time with his family, so he abandoned a promising but hectic law career at a prestigious firm and became a business owner.

First, the Clarence native bought Buffalo Hardwood in 2005, and this past summer he embarked on a specialty olive oil and vinegar venture in East Aurora.

Despite the slow economy and lull in the construction of new homes, Buffalo Hardwood has remained profitable.

"Overall we made made it through the worst housing crisis in the country's history very strong," Maloney said. "I think our commitment to quality and service is what got us through."

The flooring company generated $5 million in revenue last year, so when Maloney and his wife, Marlena, opened Tuscany on Main, it wasn't expected to be a big-time moneymaker. It was supposed to be a side business to explore and indulge in their shared culinary passions.

"We both love to cook, and we thought the store would be fun -- something we could do as a family," he said.

But in just a few months, their family hobby evolved into a promising enterprise.

"We were surprised from the very beginning at how good business was," Maloney said.

And it got better.

Tuscany on Main opened in June 2011, and before the end of the year, the Maloneys opened a second store in Buffalo, became suppliers for a luxury hotel in Florida, local restaurants and a culinary arts school, and just last month, Wegmans McKinley began carrying its products. During the holiday season, the supermarket sold out of Tuscany on Main oils within a couple of days. Wegmans is now considering putting the oils in its other stores, Maloney said.

"Wegmans is well-respected in the community, so it's an honor," Maloney said. "It's huge opportunity for a small business."

The company went from one employee to seven and is seeking to hire more.

"It's been well-received. We can't keep up with the demand," Maloney said.

A third location is planned for the second quarter of this year, and the Maloneys are in talks with investors to expand the business.

Maloney, a graduate of UB and Albany Law School, harbored interests in business from childhood. But he pursued law and worked as a tax attorney at Hodgson Russ for seven years. "My years at Hodgson Russ, working with some of the most successful business people in the world began to revive my interest in business," Maloney said. "My education, experiences from practicing law, and a supportive wife allowed me to finally pursue my ultimate goal -- business owner."

Today, he applies the critical thinking skills and eye for details from his law days to his businesses.

Driven by passion and not the bottom line, the Maloneys are running Tuscany on Main on their terms. They will only use local suppliers, like Elm Street Bakery and Vidler's 5 only hire residents of the community; and won't franchise the company. Business experts might not recommend some of their practices, though, like the couple's refusal to create an online operation.

"Absolutely not," Maloney said. "I want customers to come in and taste the products. We're not going to be selling blindly online."

But their not-by-the-book business approach has worked. For one, they pride themselves on one-on-one customer service. "We want to get know our customers, so we invite them in to walk the store and sample our oils," he said.

And Maloney also credits their dedication to authentic and quality products from Italy, Spain, Greece and California. The Maloneys travel the country and Europe tasting oils, and even have a personal contact in the Tuscany region of Italy who acts like a middleman between the couple and their suppliers.

Tuscany on Main offers 35 different oils and 40 to 45 balsamic vinegars. It also carries 35 flavored oils, like garlic, habanero and blood orange.

Customer education is a big part of the company's business plan.

While Europeans have fully incorporated olive oils into their diets due to awareness of their health benefits and culinary range, Americans are still coming around to the idea. The couple spread the word by giving presentations at schools, community groups and at the town's community center.

Maloney said olive oil is a lot like wine, with flavors that vary depending on the location, climate and crop. The oils are supposed be to condiments because of their distinct tastes and certain oils go best with certain meals.

The East Aurora location hosts free community tastings every first Thursday of the month. In both stores, they provide recipes and encourage customers to taste.

"They are blown away by the taste," he said. "And they find an oil they like and tell others about it."

Maloney was a senior associate, who was up for partner within a year at Hodgson Russ. While the money was good, the 70-, 80-hour work weeks weren't. He bought Buffalo Hardwood while the company was installing the floors in the home he and his wife built in East Aurora.

"I love wood, the beauty of wood, and I like working with my hands," Maloney said. "And I melded that with my interest in owning a business." Buffalo Hardwood has 31 employees.

The couple have two daughters, ages 2 and 5, and balancing the two companies can be challenging.

"But one thing I don't do is cut into time I spend with my family," he said. "It is, however, a family store and you will often find my family in one of the stores or traveling together to explore and find new products for the stores."