Jan. 24, 1961 – Jan. 9, 2020
Mark Croce was a pioneer in the rebirth of downtown Buffalo, but stories from the personal side of the hospitality and development entrepreneur also have emerged following the helicopter crash that killed him and a passenger Thursday.
Those who worked with him over the years as he started to make a name for himself say he was a mentor willing to give young people a chance and an employer who would quietly help those in need.
His younger brother Scott A. , a chiropractor, remembered Mr. Croce on Saturday as a business genius and family man.
"My brother had a lot of passions, but being a father to his two boys was his biggest passion," he said. "It is so tragic. I can’t even tell you. He was 10 years older than me and my mentor."
Scott Croce and those who worked with Mr. Croce all agreed he was larger than life.
Mr. Croce sometimes arrived to work by helicopter, landing his aircraft on a helipad atop the one-story Buckin' Buffalo Saloon, a Franklin Street nightspot he operated steps from Buffalo Chophouse, his signature fine-dining restaurant.
“When he’d land, motorists would stop and look and the police would show up and say, ‘You can’t do that.’ He’d say, ‘I can. I cleared it with the tower,’ ” said Dan Welch, who worked as the Chophouse maitre’d for years.
In more recent years, Mr. Croce would land his helicopter atop Statler City at Niagara Square. He would also fly to different locations around the country to check out the latest restaurant and hotel trends so he could enhance the experience for his guests back home in Buffalo, Welch and others said.
Mr. Croce would have turned 59 on Jan. 24. He was killed with his friend, Michael Capriotto, when the helicopter Mr. Croce was piloting from Baltimore back to Buffalo crashed in Silver Spring Township, Pa.
Both men were Orchard Park residents. They made the trip because Mr. Croce was interested in buying a gyroplane and wanted to check out some that were for sale.
There will be a private funeral for Mr. Croce in the coming days followed by a public memorial service at a later date, Scott Croce said.
Mr. Croce is survived by his wife of about 11 years, Jessica; their two young sons, Dominic and Dante; and other relatives.
"I introduced Mark and Jessica," Scott Croce said of how the couple first met. "There was a fondness between them. They had a beautiful relationship."
“Mark had so much life in him," said Thomas Cowan, who worked at Mr. Croce’s restaurants and bars before putting the lessons he learned from his mentor into opening his own businesses, including Doc Sullivan’s in South Buffalo and Forty Thieves in Elmwood Village. He described Mr. Croce as driven and detail-oriented.
"He was very, very hands-on, whether it was a restaurant, a bar or nightclub," Cowan said. "He’d talk to the front door guy, the bartenders, the kitchen staff. If you’re in this business, you have to be there and have your hands on it. That was the number one thing I learned from Mark.”
Mr. Croce started in the business world as a youngster working at his father Louis' restaurant, Otto’s in Cheektowaga. When it was sold, Mr. Croce launched his own career, starting from humble beginnings that included a sandwich shop in Amherst.
In 2011, in what was perhaps his boldest move, he purchased the 19-story Statler Towers, which was in foreclosure, and transformed one of downtown's biggest landmarks at Niagara Square into Statler City, a catering and banquet facility. Six years later, he renovated and reopened the long-vacant Harlow C. Curtiss Building at Franklin and West Huron streets into the boutique Curtiss Hotel.
D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub and Skybar, a multi-story restaurant and bar on Franklin Street, were among earlier projects that kindled the downtown Chippewa entertainment district when others were hesitant to make similar moves.
“I refused to do work for him when he was first opening a nightspot in the Chippewa District,” said Joseph DeMarco Sr., a mason who came to realize Mr. Croce was a visionary. “I worked on every other project of his and we became like brothers.”
DeMarco, 59, also a cousin of Mr. Capriotto, said both his friend and relative loved flying.
Others who knew Mr. Croce personally and professionally praised him.
“He was a smart businessman and very innovative," said Warren T. Colville, publisher and president of The Buffalo News.
Delaware District Council Member Joel P. Feroleto, who worked as a waiter at the Chophouse when he was a Canisius College student, recalled Mr. Croce's relentless attention to detail.
“If he came into the restaurant and saw dessert was being served and the salt and pepper shakers were still on the table, he would be sure to remind you to remove them," Feroleto said. "Why clutter the table?”
Feroleto said that years later, when he was looking for a venue to book a party, he called Statler City. “Mark answered the phone.”
Such attention to detail rubbed off on those who loved Mr. Croce most. A statement posted on Statler City's Facebook page this weekend offers "deepest sympathy" for Mr. Capriotto's family, requests privacy for the Croce family and assures Mr. Croce's hundreds of employees and the public that his businesses "will continue without interruption."
Mr. Croce was always ready to listen to his workers “and help you out anyway he could," Welch said. '"I know because he did numerous personal favors for me over the years and he didn’t have to. He was always quiet about helping others.”
Tributes have poured in since word of the fatal crash reached Buffalo. More than a dozen elected officials and members of the business community, including his competitors, issued public statements of condolences and praise for Mr. Croce's role in downtown revitalization.
In Mr. Croce's role as a civic leader, he was a part of the effort to create a second Emerson School of Hospitality at 75 W. Huron St., where students will soon learn skills that will give them a chance to be a part of downtown’s continuing resurgence. Buffalo Public Schools leaders, in a statement, described Mr. Croce as a “champion” of district students.
The Erie County Sheriff’s Office described Mr. Croce as a “valuable member” of the reserve scientific staff, noting he first served with the office’s reserve aviation unit. Years ago, Mr. Croce also participated in the FBI’s citizen academy.
In all, it made Mr. Croce a larger-than-life Buffalo booster.
“I was one of the bartenders at his and Jessica’s wedding," Feroleto said. "It was at the Chophouse and I think it was the biggest wedding I’d ever seen. There were hundreds of people and everyone was thrilled for Mark and Jessica.”
Cowan is among those who will never forget Mr. Croce’s support.
“Every business I’ve ever opened, he’d visit the place in the first few weeks and congratulate me,” Cowan said. “He always showed respect. He’d say, ‘Good job kid.’ ”