Christian Willmott and Michael Dimmer, co-owners of Marble + Rye, had just passed the crucial five-year mark with their hip downtown Buffalo eatery and watering hole. The partners have years of experience starting and running food businesses together—they launched Marble + Rye after their successful food truck, Black Market, became overwhelmingly popular.
And, they were about to open a huge and ambitious new venture, Flint, in collaboration with the owners of Butter Block and Remedy House, two other entrepreneurial, locally minded purveyors. They had a “help wanted” ad to staff the new venture, ready to post on social media March 14.
Then came the coronavirus. “When the pandemic hit, like everyone else, we didn’t know what was happening. But Mike and I are both workaholics; we wanted to do something,” says Willmott. “We also had a lot of food, and that first week, we came up with the idea of making well-priced, larger family meals for takeout, geared toward providing some relief with comfort foods, for two or four people. We got a good response with that, and continued it. We stuck with that format until we were told we could reopen.” At first, business was down 80% from “before.” With the family meal takeout plan and then phasing to more takeout over the months, sales were back up to around 70%.
In order to not completely shut down, the partners at Marble + Rye did access the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as a disaster loan through the SBA. With those payments not due until mid-2021, the funds helped “slow the bleeding” and bring back the majority of their 23 employees.
“All things considered, business is pretty good,” said Willmott in October. They are now at 15 employees, and holding steady at about 50% of where business used to be. “People are eating out, though we have some hesitant diners calling ahead to ask how we are handling things. A lot still want to sit outside, but we can’t offer that option now. Overall, things were good through the summer and fall; it had a lot to do with how we handled things and remained compliant—and our customer base is great. There is not enough business to sustain for long term. For the time being, though, it’s keeping us afloat and we can keep our staff employed. So it’s tough to complain.”
Marble + Rye has a devoted and diverse group of regulars. Among them is Patrick Kaler, an inveterate restaurant-goer—who also happens to be president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara, the region’s tourism bureau.
“Marble + Rye is a good example of a response; they adapted by doing things like putting out non-typical menu items, and didn’t lose their true selves as a restaurant,” says Kaler. “I really appreciate them and all of the restaurants that pivoted to make themselves relevant. At VBN, we recognized the situation pretty quickly, and set up a few programs on our website, like Dining at a Distance. This third-party platform puts local restaurants on their site, and lists what their takeout, pickup, and delivery options are.”
As of late October, Willmott, Dimmer and Co., opened the new space, Flint, but with a vastly different model, focusing on takeout. The earlier concept, a much more expansive model, was predicated on the thousands of people who used to work (and eat breakfast and lunch and enjoy after-work cocktails) downtown five days a week.The bar at Flint, the new restaurant from a group including the partners in Marble + Rye, Butter Block, and Remedy House.
“The landlord has been great; we’re lucky in that,” says Willmott of the new spot at Fountain Plaza. “It’s a huge space, and there aren’t many people working downtown now. We were planning to do events, parties, etc., and people aren’t wanting to do that while having to wear masks, so we’re waiting on that till things turn around. Evans Bank has also been great in deferring payments, but it’s hard to be in a position where you owe a lot on a loan and have nothing coming in.”
Like most dining establishments, the biggest revenue driver (and hence losses) is the bar. “By law now, people can’t just come in for drinks,” says Willmott. “Marble + Rye’s profit breakdown was about 52% food, 48% alcohol. But, from day one in March, it’s just so drastically different. That’s the biggest hurdle and there’s nothing you can do about it—just try to keep pushing.”
Other hurdles, adds Willmott, were negligible. Farms, one of their main suppliers, held steady. Items like cleaning supplies and rubber gloves (“stuff the entire world was looking to acquire”) were more challenging. With the banks’ physical outposts closed, it was even difficult to find change for their cash drawers.
Their landlord, who is also part owner of entrepreneurial local distiller Tommyrotter, was understanding about rent payments, and worked with them. “At first, he took the rent situation week by week, month by month; he didn’t ask for anything until our PPP funds came through,” attests Willmott. “When it did, we paid what we owed and kept paying.”
Two years earlier, the M+R partners had reupped on their five-year lease on Genesee Street, which is in place through 2025. “To help us out, the landlord offered to accept 50% of the rent for a six month period,” continues Willmott. “For every six months that we took advantage of the offer, he’d add a year to the lease, so we could continue to pay it off over a longer time. We haven’t taken advantage of that yet.”
While the combined coronavirus and economic recovery continues to be in flux, Willmott is able to sum up the attitude of many passionate chef-owners: “If we have to, we will pivot again to a model that makes sense; there are ways we could operate that would allow us to keep going. We also are realistic. We hope to return to some sense of normalcy, but will make sure that whatever place(s) we’re running meet our goals, and our vision.”
“Cautious optimism is our theme,” agrees VBN's Kaler. “Our top priority is the health and safety of visitors, frontline workers, and residents. We don’t want to come out with too strong of a message; we’re now talking about planning. And people are in that mode; when the time is right they will start to travel and dine out again. They are looking at travel websites, requesting guides. We’re getting more social media followers. If there is some good news, people are collecting info, thinking about a trip to Buffalo in the future.”
Willmott notes that for him, and as bad as this has been for smaller independent restaurant owners, “it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to how much more they could spend on our own lives outside of work; we’d all been working every single day, and our personal lives got neglected.”
“When things do normalize, we’ll see a lot of restaurant people not working as much, maybe opening fewer days—that’s positive,” he says. “Also we’re stubborn, and not willing to roll over and die. We’re seeing support from our customer base, whether it’s takeout or dine-in. It could be way worse. Buffalo is so supportive.”