Pastor Al Robinson and his wife, Vivian, look around the Lovejoy District and see hope, a word seldom used to describe the East Side of Buffalo.
This hope stems from La Verdad Cafe, the Robinsons' new barbecue enterprise, inside the former "crack house" they took over at 1132 E. Lovejoy St. in early September. The restaurant is warm and welcoming, and that's intentional, given the ardent Christian beliefs of the owners who have led Spirit of Truth Urban Ministry, at 115 Gold St., for the last eight years.
"[Our customers] want to eat, pray, cry or whatever and I want to be there for them," Vivian Robinson said. "It's a restaurant, but it's also a ministry. It's a place of refuge. Not only do their tastes matter to me, their hearts matter as well. They're important to us."
Al Robinson's barbecue is unlike most other options found in the city. The art of smoking meats has evolved from a hobby to a profession for the pastor, who now sees his brisket, smoked chicken and pulled pork as an opportunity to connect with the surrounding community separate from the pulpit.
"Smoking meat is a passion that gives you time to think," Al Robinson said. "It's man-type stuff."
Armed with a custom-built, 1,100-pound cabinet smoker by Lone Star Grillz in Texas, plus observations gleaned as the son of a Southern-born pit-master and, more recently, a student of the science behind meat smoking, Pastor Al is prepared and meticulous - there are no shortcuts.
"We do things - like competition trimming - that you don't have to do in a restaurant setting," he explained.
"We don't have to St. Louis-cut, you don't have to trim the pulled pork the way I do to get the money muscles and the tubes. We do excellence."
Al praises Lone Star's smokers' consistency. They keep the temperature at 233 degrees and, despite their size, aggressively permeate the meat with smoke. He picks red oak and cherry as his two trusty woods, and primarily uses bourbon and maple to glaze.
The meat is the foundation of the Stretch Mark ($11), a heaping pile of cherry wood-smoked brisket that has spent 16 hours in the smoker, and served with kale apple slaw, and jalapeno macaroni and cheese laid atop to finish a gargantuan sandwich. The brisket is tender, juicy and smoky, with traces of the hard-to-create, bourbon-glazed bark that causes brisket lovers to swoon.
Ribs are the star on Fridays, the lone day when La Verdad sells the Swole Combos, which near sellout every week.
La Verdad means "The Truth" in Spanish, which connects the Robinsons' religious bent with how early eaters responded to Vivian's cooking: "That is the truth!" Vivian didn't want to name her restaurant The Truth, so she settled on something similar.
Judy Weber, a regular La Verdad customer, appreciated the blend of the owners' hospitality and tasty barbecue.
"They make you feel like they’re really glad you’re here,” she said. “It's the best food around, and it’s made with love."
Embers of change
It was November 2017 when Stevie Alejandro and three others were arrested for running a large cocaine operation behind the moniker of Barberians Barber Shop, the tenant before La Verdad at 1132 Lovejoy St.
Further details emerged when Alejandro's co-conspirator Aaron Hill, 31, of Cheektowaga, was sentenced to 37 months in prison in August; more than 500 grams of cocaine (a little more than a pound) were sold in Lovejoy from May to October 2017. The barber shop was kitty corner to Public School 43, known also as Lovejoy Discovery School, for elementary and middle school students.
For Buffalo residents who follow the news, this drug bust may have seemed just another blight on a forgotten segment of the city, certainly one left out of the discussion of an urban renaissance.
But for Spirit of Truth Urban Ministry, La Verdad and perhaps the Lovejoy District commercial strip as a whole, the transformation from drug operation to promising barbecue joint is seen as a beacon of hope, the first step in a shift away from the negative reputation cast upon much of the East Side.
"It's a difficult reputation to shed," Pastor Al said, "but over the last eight years we've made major inroads into Lovejoy - it's now a safer neighborhood. This church that was a 'valley of dry bones' has now got all these families in it."
The Spirit of Truth community, numbering roughly 100, has been invaluable in helping the Robinsons open the cafe. The congregation was invited to sample potential menu items in return for feedback, which the owners took seriously in determining their food offerings.
"Pastoring in Lovejoy has been wonderful," Al Robinson said. "Our church has impacted a lot of people, whether it's [recovering from] fires, marriages, burials, fighting heroin. We're a community church so we're battling on all these different fronts."
No one is confusing Lovejoy with flourishing Hertel Avenue or even Seneca Street, a neighborhood that has also seen tough times but is undergoing a renaissance. But the slow transformation of the Lovejoy Street commercial strip is noticeable, from the $275,000 from the Buffalo Billion dedicated to building improvements to new curbs, sidewalks and street lighting.
"We want people to know what Lovejoy is - it's not the racist area that people think it is anymore," said Pastor Al. "Our property values have gone up 50 percent in the last two years. Gentrification is occurring at a massive rate. We wanted to get cemented here for this. People might not want [gentrification], but it's happening. La Verdad wants to be a cornerstone of the future of Lovejoy. We want people to see excitement and innovation - that's Buffalo."
Linda Hastreiter, president of the Iron Island Preservation Society and its museum (998 E. Lovejoy St.) and a lifelong Lovejoy resident, cautions against such blanket statements comparing "a former Lovejoy" to its present state.
Many older residents - especially in the Iron Island neighborhood in which these businesses reside - have kept the community alive and would certainly bristle at being called racist. She contends Lovejoy isn't quite as resurgent as Al Robinson suggests, mostly due to the district's political representation.
"The City of Buffalo has not given Lovejoy the help it needs to be part of the renaissance of Buffalo," she said.
Reshaping a neighborhood
Even so, Hastreiter is excited for what La Verdad brings to the table, from well-reviewed barbecue to what the restaurant represents as a young, positive business in the neighborhood.
"It's phenomenal," Hastreiter said. "[The Robinsons] took an old storefront and made it beautiful, and people rant and rave about the brisket. [La Verdad] is a wonderful thing, it's what we need more of on the business strip.
"And make sure you try Vivian's peanut butter cookies," Hastreiter said. "She is a fantastic woman."
Hastreiter and the Robinsons, among other business owners on the strip, agree that further development of the right new businesses can continue to reshape the neighborhood, at least economically.
"We're trying to encourage others to do something with the rest of these properties, so we want to be able to reach people," Al Robinson said. "This is not just Spirit of Truth Urban Ministry, it's together as a community, as a family, and we're getting really nice results."
"People should not be afraid of Lovejoy," Hastreiter said. "There's truly no reason to be afraid."
"We're letting people know that Lovejoy is 'love joy' - it is what it stands for - and that everything has changed," Pastor Al summed.
INFO: La Verdad Cafe, 1132 E. Lovejoy St. 768-3150. May be found on Facebook. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays and Mondays.