Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Buffalo was a hub of economic activity. Thanks in large part to its proximity to the Erie Canal, the Queen City blossomed into one of the world’s premiere exporters of grain, creating livelihoods for immigrants and long-entrenched Western New Yorkers alike.
As time passed, so did Buffalo’s usefulness in the global economy, leaving many people without jobs and factories left dormant.
Buffalo’s Inner Harbor and Waterfront area, featuring many of the grain silos and factories of days gone by, has been seeing a renaissance in recent years.
Thanks in large part to aspiring local entrepreneurs, buildings that have long been dormant are once again becoming thriving businesses for the city.
One entrepreneur who had an interest in such buildings was Steve Bystran, managing member of the Barrel Factory, a popular venue featuring a distillery and craft brewery opened in 2014.
Bystran, along with his wife (Andrea) and business partners (Bruce and Heidi Mack), made the decision to purchase the property with the idea that much work would have to be done.
“When we purchased it, the Barrel Factory was pretty much vacant,” said Bystran. “It was really run down and falling apart. All of the windows had been bricked over and the roof was in really rough shape. It probably would be collapsing by now if we had not started when we did. The rotting was that bad.”
Built in 1903, with its official name being the Quaker City Cooperage Co., the “Barrel Factory” unsurprisingly gained its moniker from its decades of manufacturing wooden barrels used for grain, malt, flour, fruit, and other products. According to the company’s website, the factory would produce 4,000-6,000 barrels a day at the height of its powers.
Although the facility has been sparingly used over the last several decades, much of its original structure had been salvaged, leaving the team with something to work off of.
“I have been very proud of our ability to reuse materials,” said Bruce Mack. “The brick, the metals, the wood, have all been repurposed. It’s a lot of scraps that most people would throw away, but we take it to a mill where they clean it and cut it to turn it into our flooring.”
In all, the 43,000-square-foot factory has six separate businesses in operation: Lakeward Spirits, Elevator Alley Kayak, Snowy Owl Kombucha, Pressure Drop Brewing, Buffalo’s Best Cucina, and Bar Cultivar, while also featuring seven lofts for tenants on the top floor.
The Bystran family focuses much of its time on the distillery they run (Lakeward Spirits), which was the original inspiration for the project.
“The reason we bought the building was because we wanted to create a distillery here in Buffalo,” Bystran noted. “Opening a distillery and doing it in somebody else’s building is complicated, it’s a different and somewhat new industry that requires a lot of specific building and fire code compliance that the average developer may not be equipped to deal with. That’s why we ended up buying this building.”
Bystran noted that there were several organizations that helped guide them during the initial setup of the distillery, and thanks one organization in particular.
“We worked with the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. They were very helpful, provided us with the sales tax abatement for our materials, which in the beginning really got us moving. They also helped us out a great deal with the financing.”
Although they had this help from an outside party, there were still several challenges in meeting their goals for the building.
“Some of the challenges we had, with alcohol being a somewhat dangerous substance, were the particular fire codes that we had to abide by with this type of historical building,” Bystran stated. “When we started this project, there were really no distilleries of this size in the area. We were the first to have to figure everything out, along with the building department. The building department was great. We were worried they would be sort of obstinate, but they really worked with us to figure out what we needed, and I was very impressed by that.”
Now being open for nearly five years, the team looks back on what it has accomplished and is proud that they were on the ground floor of the resurgence that has transpired in the area.
“When we bought this, what’s happening in the Buffalo Inner Harbor was not particularly obvious,” Bystran noted. “Ohio Street hadn’t been started, Riverworks hadn’t been started, and things at Canalside were in their earliest infancy.
“We had a sense that something was going to go on down there, but it wasn’t overly obvious at that point.”
They are also glad to be a part of the famous Old First Ward and the comeback that it is seeing.
“The people of the Old First Ward carry a lot of tradition and pride in their community,” said Mack. “I am very proud to be a part of that.”
Bystran added, “The Old First Ward is an interesting community, very tight knit. It has remained unchanged for a very long time, but it moves forward along with the resurgence that has been happening all over Buffalo.
“Ten years ago, I’m not sure people had a frame of mind where it was located, but now it definitely has a known identity. The neighborhood is really safe, really energetic, and very civic minded. There are a lot of activities going on, from the Shamrock Run, to kayaking in the summer. It’s cool to drive by in the morning and see 50 cars with kayaks on the roof, enjoying the river. A number of years ago, that just wasn’t happening.”
For aspiring entrepreneurs looking to make their mark on the waterfront, Bystran has a few simple words of advice.
“Don’t be afraid of working and building in the city. A lot of development in the Western New York area was happening outside of the city for a long time, but we are seeing that change.
“We have more and more young people deciding to live in the city that are looking for things to do,” he continued. “I’ll admit I was a little bit leery to move to the city at first, but the building department has been great, the city has really been a partner for us, and the energy that’s happening here is very real. There’s no better time to jump right in.”