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An international love story: Buffalo and Swiss Chalet

Andrew Z. Galarneau

After checking seismograph data, I have determined that the tremor Buffalo experienced Tuesday morning was not an earthquake.

Which confirms my suspicion that the earth moving was instead a collective shudder of delight, as Buffalonians learned that Swiss Chalet would soon be even closer.

When the announced Fort Erie, Ont., location opens this spring, their beloved rotisserie chicken, fries and sauce – oh, that sauce – will be just a mile away.

On the other side of a secure, well-patrolled international border, to be sure. At first, I could not understand why the line at the Buffalo Passport Agency on Genesee Street was not out the door.

Then I realized that the true Swiss Chalet fans have a broader vision. Going through the regular passport-holder lanes on the Peace Bridge could leave them tied up in traffic.

"Could be time to sign up for Nexus," said Steve Cichon, communications director for Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School and a Buffalo News contributor. A Nexus pass holder, registered and precleared, can cross the border in seconds.

[Related: '70s Buffalo - Swiss Chalet downtown | Torn-Down Tuesday: Swiss Chalet on Niagara Falls Boulevard]

In 2010, the Depew and Amherst locations – the last two Swiss Chalet restaurants in the United States – went dark. Since then, Cichon and his wife, Monica, like everyone in a similar predicament, did what they had to do.

They made pilgrimage to Niagara Falls, Ont., where Swiss Chalet locations still operated, on Lundy’s Lane and Montrose Road. They arrived with lists in hand, orders to supply other Chalet cravers, and leakproof containers to transship appropriate volumes of that sauce.

"My wife and I go every month or two now, really for something to do as much as the chicken,” said Cichon. Perhaps keeping it at arm’s length – a half-hour’s drive on a clear day – might be the best. “Shaving off a total of 40 minutes from a Swiss Chalet trip might be dangerous for Monica and me," he said.

Right now, the nearest Swiss Chalet is across the border in Niagara Falls, Ont. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

In 2013, just three years into the drought, I visited the nearest Canadian stores, which were offering solace to New York customers who had made the restaurants part of their lives for generations. A manager told me about customers who made the 90-minute drive from Rochester once a week. The guy with a detailed order to feed half the families on his block. The woman who filled 30 gallon bottles with sauce, and took them back across the border, to auction for charity.

The Fort Erie Swiss Chalet will be under construction this fall at 575 Garrison Road, on Highway 3. Terry St. Amand, who already operates a Swiss Chalet in Welland, said he expects to break ground in November. The site will pair the chicken-centric restaurant with a location of Canadian burger chain Harvey’s.

Placed on an 8.5-acre parcel, the newly built structure will have the chain’s most up-to-date décor, including a fireplace, St. Amand said.

His daughter, Lisa Lynchehaun, owns another Swiss Chalet in Port Colborne, Ont., which also sees its fair share of American visitors, he said, even though it’s no closer that the Niagara Falls, Ont. ones.

The Fort Erie Swiss Chalet will have full service, and seating for 130.

More importantly – most importantly? – for the Buffalo chicken cravers, it will have a drive-thru window.

With a Nexus-equipped driver, Swiss Chalet for lunch should be an option for downtown Buffalo offices.

There is much I do not understand about the Buffalo love for Swiss Chalet. There is nothing I can do about it now, since I didn’t grow up counting down the days until a Swiss Chalet birthday visit, or lunch with my grandparents.

This culinary blind spot has occasionally been a stumbling block in my appreciation of the landscape of Buffalo hunger, but you don’t have to share the gnawing hunger to respect it. You don’t have to tailgate at New Era Field to appreciate how much people care about the Buffalo Bills.

Properly made rotisserie chicken is terrific, sure. I’m such a fan of the life-changing aspects of french fries that I would not consider it overkill to award their most skilled practitioners a Nobel Prize.

That sauce, though? Tastes like watered-down ketchup with lots of garlic powder to me. Yet if you were raised on the stuff, nothing else compares. Fans speak of it with reverence and awe, of using it as not just a condiment, but a cocktail. That’s how you can tell the truly hardcore Chalet fancier: They’re not just dipping, they’re sipping.

"They love the Swiss Chalet sauce. That's their thing," St. Amand said of the restaurant's faithful fans. "They would take it home in a 45-gallon drum if they could."

News Staff Reporter Samantha Christmann contributed to this report.

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