Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, there was a popular television show based in a Boston bar called Cheers. Thanks to its catchy theme song, it became known as the place “Where everybody knows your name.”
Over in Buffalo’s historic Hamlin Park neighborhood — a stone’s throw from the Kensington Expressway — there’s a corner establishment where nearly every customer who walks through the front door is greeted by name, and usually a follow-up question or two about their family, their health, or in this case, the recent holiday season. But unlike Cheers, this community fixture on a corner lot isn’t a neighborhood tavern.
In today’s reality, EM Tea Coffee Cup Café, located at 80 Oakgrove Ave., is a quaint and quiet coffee and sandwich shop with essence of newsstand and candy shop thrown in for good measure. Kat Tyler is the friendly face and voice behind the front counter, a spot she has occupied since opening EM Tea Cup 18 years ago after graduating from Buffalo State College, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“This is where I grew up,” said Kat during this Boxing Day interview. “When I was a little kid, this was a delicatessen owned by Mr. Scott, who was my inspiration. It was a dark, dreary place that sold shrimp boats, sausage, and fries. He later came to the café and cried like a baby when he saw how we had transformed his old building. And I also have to thank Ruth Kennedy, who gave me a chance by selling the building to me instead of Canisius College!
“When I opened EM Tea Cup, I had recently graduated from Buffalo State College, and I began to take notice of the coffee shops starting to pop up. In college, we couldn’t go into the library with food and just talk to our friends, and we couldn’t go into the restaurants and take up their tables for too long. Hence, I opened the café. I just thought I would sell baked goods and people would come in and sit and talk, but we (she and her fire inspector husband, Wil) breached an interior wall and expanded the café by opening a second room just six or seven months after opening the business.”
As the business grew, so did the café’s clientele and events. It quickly became a gathering place, not just for people and students from the neighborhood, but for aspiring poets and artists, as well. In fact, EM Tea Cup is celebrating its 18th anniversary today (Jan. 5) with a huge event featuring poets from across the country.
“It’s a melting pot,” said Kat. “Everyone comes here.”
Like most other small-business owners, Kat has had her share of challenges, and fortunately, more successes than failures. While her second café opened in downtown Buffalo in 2008 and closed in 2013, her recently opened reception hall, known as The Landmark on Pearl, at 318 Pearl St. in Buffalo, is doing “fabulous.” The hall is equipped to host events of all kinds, from birthday parties and fundraisers to lavish wedding receptions.
And this year, she and some business partners plan to open a complex at Broadway and Michigan Avenue, along Buffalo’s African-American corridor and across the street from the historic Colored Musicians Club that will be home to a restaurant, apartments, and perhaps a small banquet facility.
To date, every project she has taken on has had her blood, sweat, and tears — and finances — all over it. Before the large project at Broadway and Michigan, every project has been entirely of her own making and financing.
“Looking back, finances were always the biggest issue. You’re always wondering, are the people going to come? It wasn’t too big of a concern when the café was just one small room before the expansion. But fortunately, they came in droves. And it was all word of mouth. I rarely advertise.
“Today, a lot of people are drawn here because we have kind of cornered the market on healthier options and turkey products. I think we were the first restaurant on the northern east side of Buffalo to offer salads.”
After 18 years of business, the daily challenges are still there, but they have changed. When asked what her biggest challenge is today, her response came without hesitation: “Employees!”
“Kids today are not like us,” Kat said, repeating a phrase often spoken by today’s entrepreneurs and business owners. “We were hungry and we wanted to work, maybe even two jobs while we went to school. Many children today expect everything for nothing, and lots of these kids come from broken families. We’ve had every color work here and it’s a common thread — they can’t take constructive criticism. I try to be a good role model for our young employees, and we have had our successes. We’ve had a couple of doctors come out of here, and a politician.”
It’s not hard to see where Kat was introduced to a strong work ethic. Her father, Jerry, has been a barber for 60 years and owns the Carl-Jeff Barbershop at 856 Jefferson Ave. in the city.
“He still shows up to work every day,” Kat proudly said of her dad. “I enjoy working, too. This is not work to me, and it’s not about the money to me. I’ve had several young ladies and men who were on welfare when they came to work for me, and it’s about being able to change their lives. I tell them that this is not the end all. They have to figure out where they’re going to go to school and what’s the next move. I push them. When I hire these kids, I let them know that this is the best job they’ll ever have, but don’t get spoiled by it. I’m not the typical boss. I allow them to make their own schedules so they can go to school, but I insist they go and get some other training.
“My very first job was at the Millard Fillmore Coffee Shop,” Kat added. “The rules — be courteous, smile, make eye contact — were not written in any book.”
Does she have any advice she’d like to share with Buffalo’s future business owners and leaders? Of course!
“Before opening a business, come and see me,” said the experienced businesswoman. “Some people want to open a business, but they really have no clue. There’s always going to be conflict. And for those people opening new businesses — especially minorities — there are not a lot of mentors out there. So come in here and ask me questions. If I don’t know the answer, I will know someone who knows the answer.”