When Greg Stennis opened his bar, J.P. Dwyer’s, on Webster Street in 1997, the street was a shell of its former glory. Gone were the days when men and women would ride the Carpenter Line bus to downtown North Tonawanda for a fountain soda at the Sugar Bowl or shop at G.C. Murphy Co.
Retail and restaurants had moved to shopping malls and strip plazas. As was the case with many canal town business districts, Webster Street was no longer a destination.
“There was nothing around. There were a lot of businesses that were on their way out, holdovers from the 50s and 60s, a lot of empty storefronts,” Stennis said. “It was not what Webster Street is today, that’s for sure.”
Twenty years later, with a fully restored Riviera Theatre and a thriving mix of restaurants, retailers and cultural stalwarts, Webster Street is a destination once again. Dwyer’s, which started as a one-man operation, now employs more than 30 people and has expanded its footprint twice. Here’s how he did it.
Q: Was it called J.P. Dwyer’s when you took over?
A: No, it was an empty storefront. I was adopted and I was born John Paul Dwyer, so that’s where the name came from. It had been an auto parts store, a candy store and a couple of other things, but since around World War II it was a bar/restaurant.
Q: Did the Riviera’s turnaround help?
A: There wasn’t a lot going on at the Riv when I first opened; they had school plays and $1 movies. The first big show was Phish. I was the only bartender, the only person working. The next thing you know, it’s like five deep at the bar and I’m getting destroyed.
This girl goes, “I’m a bartender, do you want help?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” So she jumps behind the bar and says, “I don’t know any of your prices” and I’m like, “Just charge whatever you charge wherever you work!” That was the first time we ever really got nailed.
Now the shows are a mainstay on the street for all the restaurants and bars. They all do well and they all get hit before shows and after shows.
Q: Do you regret not having bought the real estate?
A: No, I’m good. I get to use that property without owning it and the headaches that go with it.
There’s a demand for property now. When I opened, it seemed like property owners were trying to give away their property. It was like, “Please, buy my building. Are you sure you don’t want to buy my building?” And I remember being asked that by numerous property owners. “Why don’t you move Dwyer’s to this building? Move here and you can buy this one.”
Q: You guys are known for your wings. How did that happen?
A: I honestly don’t know. I never thought wings would be our thing because you can go anywhere and get wings. I guess I know how I like my wings and that’s just how we made them. You gotta make sure they’re crispy and you gotta make sure they’re big.
And then all the flavors started developing. I think we're up to 35 now. I always tell my cooks, if you’ve got an idea, let’s try it and see how it is. One of my cooks came up with a beef on weck wing last week. I didn’t think I was going to like it, but they’re really, really good. So kudos to him.
Q: You’ve got more competition nearby now. Is it a rising tide lifts all boats kind of thing?
A: It certainly seems so. It’s still growing. I think at some point it’s going to max out, kind of like Chippewa did. One bar opens on Chippewa, one bar closes, because it just reaches a critical mass. But I don’t think we’re there yet. And I think Webster Street has more of a variety of stuff to do than Chippewa.
Q: A lot of people want to go into the bar or restaurant business, but most don’t last. What do you think people don’t realize about it that puts them out of business so fast?
A: That it never sleeps. It never turns off. If you want to get married and have a family, this business is probably not for you. I was there open to close in the beginning, working 70 to 80 hours a week. After the first year, I was just at the end of my rope.
Q: You run the Riviera’s beverage program now, too.
A: It’s funny. I went to the Board of Directors a couple of times back in the day and I said “You should sell alcohol.” They were like, “Well, we don’t really want to get into that.” Finally, I went to them and said, “Look, let’s just do one concert. We’ll get a temporary beer and wine permit and if you like it when we’re done, great. If you don’t like it, I’ll never bring it up again.”
So we did the band the Lowest of the Low. We did two shows that day and when it was done, I gave them a check for like $10,000 or whatever it was. And then they were like, “Uh, yeah. We wanna sell beer.”
Q: So, what’s next?
A: I think within the next year, we need a bar outside on the patio. And our kitchen is too small, so I don’t know what I’m going to do about that. It limits our menu. It’s smaller than most household kitchens.
And I’ve thought about having another bar and restaurant in Austin, Texas. But I gotta get this one running right first.