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Airport meeting has unexpected destination: owning a Clarence restaurant

Beth Gross’ path to owning Gertie’s restaurant in Clarence started in a Florida airport.

She was traveling home to Chicago in late 2007 when she crossed paths with Gary Held, who was flying back to Buffalo.

They noticed each other, struck up a conversation, and exchanged contact information before going their separate ways. Held, a print broker, offered to meet Gross for dinner the next time he was in Chicago.

They stayed in touch periodically. Gross finally urged him to follow through and visit her. “I could never get him off my mind, and I really wanted to see him,” she said.

They hit it off, eating at a Brazilian steakhouse and watching a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, with front-row seats courtesy of her employer. A long-distance relationship began to take root,

Held had been a widower for about six months when he and Gross first met, so he took things slowly. But as time passed and their relationship grew, they realized one of them would eventually move to be with the other. Gross, who was working as payroll and benefits manager for the Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria chain, decided to go east.

“I had this great job, which was really, really hard for me to leave,” she said. “But I’ve kind of got a gypsy in my soul, so I said, ‘I’ll come to Buffalo.’ ”

Their initial plan was for Gross to move here in September 2011. But just as their first meeting was serendipity, more was in store for the couple.

In fall 2010, Gross was visiting Buffalo when she and Held went to have lunch at NovelTea, a restaurant on Goodrich Road in Clarence that Held had heard was for sale. Once inside, Held believed he had found yet another match, this time between Gross and the restaurant. “Babe, it’s all you,” he told her. He was convinced Gross would buy the place, and he was right.

“I’m looking at it thinking, this could be a really nice place for her,” Held said. “It was just one of those things where I knew we could make our lives more complete and bring her here.”

Gross sped up her move here to May 2011, and moved in with Held in Williamsville. She bought the restaurant, renamed it Gertie’s, and stepped into the whirlwind known as running a business.

The quaint setting at the Four Corners in Clarence Center was part of the appeal to Gross.

“I liked it because I loved the little town and the whole setting of the restaurant,” she said. “I love the city, yet I love the country. This kind of gave me that feeling again.”

She liked what NovelTea’s owner had on her menu, choices with a “bit of European flair,” as well as vegetarian options. But Gross also saw a need to change some things, like interior decor that was too “frilly” to attract male customers. “We knew we had to man it up,” she said.

Flat-screen TVs were added. Gross and Held stocked the bar with favorite wines they had found and enjoyed in their travels. Above the bar is an enlarged photo of Gertie herself, Gross’ grandmother. Gross added meatloaf – using her mother’s recipe – to the menu, as well as some of her own recipes.

The first year was especially tough, since she had never run a restaurant before.

“I feel you have to be a perfectionist, because really every day when you open those doors, you’re being judged on what you can do and how good you are,” she said. “And that’s a little scary at first. I was very apprehensive about that.”

Gross likes running a “scratch kitchen” with fresh ingredients; almost nothing comes from a can. She developed a menu catering to different tastes, the vegetarian and hamburger lover alike.

While Gross is the sole owner of the restaurant, Held works some nights at the bar and helps cook breakfast on weekend mornings.

Gross took a leap when she uprooted from Chicago to move to a new place, develop her relationship with Held, and run a business, all at once. She likes the results.

“You find out what you’re made of when you do something like this,” she said. “It’s a scary, challenging venture, but it’s rewarding when people are happy and they thank you for being here. That makes it all worthwhile.”