She might not have known all the fancy terms yet—affogato, laminated dough, patisserie—but when she enjoyed “playing restaurant” at family meal times as a young girl, Colleen Stillwell had a sense that food of some sort might be in her future.
“Instead of sitting down to eat,” she said, “I took food orders from my brother and sister.” The middle child of Irish-Catholic parents who raised her and her siblings in South Buffalo, Stillwell said she thinks “I was grooming myself for my future.”
Food—specifically French pastries and other delicious “treats and sweets”—is what motivates her every day. To say she is elbow-deep in butter, flour, and water is not putting needless icing on the cake, so to speak. Four years ago, she opened Butter Block, a pop-up shop of treats that make your mouth water. And apparently many of the mouths in Buffalo.
Unlike many entrepreneurs, Stillwell did not follow the prescribed methods or steps to starting a business. Essentially, she says, Butter Block chose her.
After high school, Stillwell ventured away from family and friends and earned a degree in baking and pastry arts from the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif. From there, she worked under well-respected chefs in California and New York City. Love of family and the Western New York food scene brought her home, where she taught at the Culinary Institute in Niagara Falls and facilitated student-run patisseries, a.k.a. pastry shops.
“I realized this was not my cup of tea,” she said. So she made herself an affogato—her favorite Italian hybrid of espresso and gelato—and decided she wanted to practice her skills instead of teach them. She started selling a few croissants in and around Buffalo on Saturdays, and before she knew it, Butter Block was bursting out of the oven, all over the city, in pop-up shops.
“I came to realize that Buffalo had a way bigger interest in French specialty pastries than I imagined,” she said. As her Saturdays multiplied into months, and months into a year, customers sought out Butter Block products and indicated that they would love to be able to buy her products at a central location.
“I am blown away every day by the success we are enjoying,” she said, “and the repeat customers we are fortunate to have. When people ask me what I do and I mention Butter Block, I am still amazed that so many recognize the name.”
Perhaps it’s this wide-eyed, expectant, almost naive blend of cool gelato and steamy espresso that has helped Stillwell to jump in fearlessly where others might fear to tread. She admits she did not follow a plan—and has had to backtrack somewhat as she has sought funding for her business and developed a plan—but it’s also just part of who she is. She rolls up her sleeves and dives into the flour. And she’s not apologetic, simply herself, doing what she loves.
These days—in the midst of whipping up airy croissants and a whole host of other treats—she is working tirelessly to ready the building she has leased at Five Points—where Rhode Island, West Utica, and Brayton streets converge on the West Side—to open this year. With two full-time chefs and two part-time assistants who help run pop-ups, she is confident that she will achieve her goal before the New Year rolls around.
“It will be nice to be in one place,” she said, and she knows her customers will be thrilled to be able to shop during regular hours. She’s taking it—the process of opening a brick-and-mortar shop—one day at a time, but true to herself, she can’t help but imagine that someday, way into the future, she might want to develop a “sister brand” like a specialty ice cream shop.
She’s thrilled to be in the city. “Buffalo deserves good food,” she said, “and with the revitalization of the food and restaurant industry, this is an exciting time to add to the energy that is the Buffalo food system.”
She’s thankful for her customers and for the supportive network she (eventually) found as she grew her business. “In Buffalo, it’s more about the rising tide and not so much about competition,” she said, in referring to other business owners.
Stillwell is grateful that Westminster Economic Development Initiative found her when it did.
“WEDI partnered with Excelsior Growth Fund to assist Butter Block in their expansion plans,” said Yanash Sanmugaraja, economic development director at WEDI. “The amount of capital that Butter Block needed to expand exceeded the maximum amount that WEDI could provide through a loan, and this business had never received a loan in the past and needed assistance through the application process.
“WEDI was able to assist the business through the application process and [helped] identify an alternative source to provide the gap financing that WEDI was unable to provide….We're really excited to see a small business like this grow into its next phase, slowly stepping out of the pop-up world and sustaining operations.”
Stillwell still doesn’t like to sit down to eat, and her parents and siblings think she needs to slow down a bit and take more breaks, but she knows she must bake on. She looks forward to working from her new store. Like making laminated dough, the process can be complicated and intricate, but she is confident that when she opens her doors, the atmosphere inside will be light and airy and delicious, just like the croissants she bakes.