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'We were over our head,' Gigi's owner says after soul-food staple closes for good

Darryl Harvin learned a painful lesson in the hardest way possible over the past few weeks: Being a part of a family that has a successful business does not mean you will be successful running the family business.

“We were over our head in a lot of different areas," the owner of the now-defunct Gigi's Restaurant said Thursday. "I’m not a restaurateur or a chef, and there were a lot of things I was unprepared for."

After a rough opening period, following the death of its longtime owner, Harvin's mother Blondine, officials announced earlier in the day that the East Side soul-food restaurant would not reopen in the Northland Workforce Training Center.

Buffalo Urban Development Corp. officials announced the permanent closing of the popular restaurant just two weeks after it reopened to great fanfare following a devastating fire that shuttered its prior location four years ago.

Gigi's had been serving breakfast, lunch and dinner to both students and faculty at the training center, as well as to customers from throughout the region. Its rebirth had been championed by city, county and community leaders.

"It's very disappointing for us," said BUDC President Peter Cammarata. "This is an important amenity for the whole Northland development, which is very successful. We're the developer here, so we wanted to make sure this got off to a good start."

Cammarata said the volume of business had exceeded "all projections and expectations," marking a "very successful" opening. But that also overwhelmed current owner Harvin and his staff, who were not prepared for the high level of activity.

The restaurant struggled to keep up with customers, ran out of food on its first two days and closed several times during the course of its first week, prompting Mayor Byron W. Brown and other city officials to raise concerns about its future.

"We were definitely surprised," Cammarata said. "We had a strong conversation with Mr. Harvin this past Monday to see where his head was at, so that this didn't continue to move forward. It was a mutual decision for him to get out of the business at this point."

In a telephone interview following the morning news conference, Harvin said he was the only full-time employee. He left a career in the pharmaceutical industry to come back and launch the restaurant, and he said it took being in the position to see that he did not understand what that would require.

"I feel very bad about it. The community had such an outpouring of support. It was in my heart to do it for the community, for my mother, but it wasn’t in my heart, for me, who Darryl is," he said. "I have some understanding of the restaurant business, but not enough to handle what was presented to me.”

Cammarata said the closing of the restaurant doesn't represent a failure by the agency or the overall Northland project. He noted that "all of the equipment here belongs to us, so we'll still be able to move forward and offer it as an excellent marketing tool for the next purveyor." BUDC invested about $350,000 in equipment that remains.

He said there's no impact to taxpayers. The lease was structured for a startup restaurant, with no rent for the first three months anyway. Harvin said he will cover any other costs incurred during the time he was operating.

What breakfast spot should open in Gigi's place?

Cammarata said Thursday that BUDC will "tweak" and reissue its request for proposals for a new operator, ideally by next week. "We would hope to get it out as soon as possible," he said. "It's an important piece, for the students and for the community, as an amenity for the whole facility."

He noted that the facility is now fully built out, the Workforce Training Center "is really flourishing" and expanding for next semester, and Buffalo Manufacturing Works will move in by the fall. "We do expect more proposals this time than we got the first time," he said. "Everything else is very positive, and we want to get this back as quickly as possible."

This time, he said officials will make sure any new operator is more prepared and will encourage them to start out "a little bit smaller," with just breakfast and lunch.

"The staffing that he had in place and originally in his business plan never anticipated that type of volume," Cammarata said. "It was difficult to judge right off the bat. Was this just going to be a cafeteria for the school students that would get some support from the community? We thought that that was the case, but it was very much overwhelming."

Brown today echoed the sense of disappointment Cammarata expressed, noting that the large crowds were partially a reflection of how popular the soul food restaurant was during its 50 years of operation.

The mayor also said he would like to see the Gigi’s name and recipes transferred to another operator taking over the site, so the food that has been part of Buffalo for decades could continue to be served.

Gigi's had been a fixture on the East Side for decades, featuring home-cooked favorites such as macaroni and cheese, sweet potato pie, smothered pork chops and its famous peach cobbler. Customers ranged from celebrities and political figures to local residents and even the homeless.

The business had been run for more than 50 years by Blondine Harvin, but it was destroyed in a blaze that started as a grease fire in November 2015. When BUDC announced last year that Darryl Harvin would reopen it at Northland, the news was trumpeted around town.

But his mother's death in January at age 80 left Harvin grieving and without the institutional knowledge and expertise that she had amassed over decades in the business.

"This has been a very emotional experience for him, both on the personal side and the community side, and I think we need to respect what he's been going through," Cammarata said. "He's very disappointed. This has been the most difficult four weeks of his life."

As for the future of Gigi's, Harvin said he has not given up on the idea of it coming to life again.

“That’s a possible option down the road," he said. "Under different management.”

News staff reporter Susan Schulman contributed to this report.

New Gigi's, overwhelmed by soul food fans, closes for a day to regroup

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