Food entrepreneurs find success in Buffalo

A desire for healthier meal options and a new nutritional lifestyle prompted these entrepreneurs to launch their food-related businesses.

The Vegan Grocery Store

Despite its modern mandate—making vegan grocery products easily available to consumers—the Vegan Grocery Store in North Tonawanda has an old-fashioned sensibility: it’s a locally owned, family-run business operating out of a storefront on historic Oliver Street. Gabrielle and Jason Richards, and Gabrielle’s mother, Judith Mittiga, share ownership and operate the business together.

Gabrielle Richards became a vegan at age 14, and her mother followed suit. “I’m vegan, my mom’s vegan, my sister’s vegan, my sister’s husband is vegan, so in my family you’re the odd one out if you’re not a vegan,” Richards laughed.

A problem the family often encountered was the lack of a single place where they could shop for all of their dietary needs, rather than making a patchwork of grocery runs and constantly scrutinizing labels. “I don’t think entrepreneurship has ever been on the mind of any of us, and then it just hit us one day: ‘We should open a vegan grocery store!’” Richards said.

She and her husband were riding their bikes when they spotted the For Sale sign at 321 Oliver Street.

“Oliver Street 50 years ago was a booming business district,” lined with storefronts that have since sat empty, Richards explained. Although the previous owner of the building at 321 Oliver had maintained the apartments well, the storefront hadn’t been used for 55 years, and it lacked electricity and heat. Before the family could set up shop, the building had to be gutted. They did most of this renovation work themselves, working 12 hours a day.

Despite the challenges it posed, the location felt meaningful. Richards’ family has lived in North Tonawanda since her great-grandfather’s day, and she and her husband were both born and raised there.

Mittiga, an accountant who has worked for various banks in the area, oversees finances for the store and serves as the opening manager. Richards, who has a separate full-time job, deals with ordering and takes relief shifts whenever she can. Her husband is the closing manager, handles shipments, and acts as a liaison for people who are new to veganism: Having converted just two years ago himself, he understands how to demystify the diet. He often says he found the transition easy because his wife was there to answer his questions; now he can do the same for others.

Figuring out what customers want, and keeping the store appropriately stocked, has occasionally been a challenge, as when a case of vegan jerky—a product Richards had never heard of before seeing it among her distributor’s offerings—was the first product to sell out. In the immediate future, they plan to offer produce; eventually, they hope to offer prepared foods, as well. The family is starting to get a handle on what sells, and they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished.

“It’s still surreal sometimes, when I’m standing in there,” Richards said.

To anyone considering opening a business, she said that, though it isn’t easy, “don’t let the stress make you think it can’t happen, because it can happen if you keep going at it day by day.”

Eat Rite Foods

Fifteen minutes south of The Vegan Grocery in the Village of Kenmore, Eat Rite Foods offers grab-and-go meals out of its Delaware Road storefront. Luke Bright, who grew up in Niagara Falls, and Mike Del Zoppo, from Grand Island, had been friends for a decade at the point that they went into business opening the prepared-foods retailer. They had previously been interested in nutrition and had thrown around the idea for a business that could offer quick lunch options as alternatives to fast food. But their jobs at DuPont paid well and had great benefits.

“If you’re comfortable and you have a very steady set income with a great job, you’re less likely to want to just swing for the fences,” Bright pointed out. “Complacency is definitely not the ideal mindset for creating a new business.”

But in late 2015, the two learned of the plant’s imminent closure and realized that they had no reason not to pursue their idea.

By January of 2016, the pair had located a “small, kind of hole-in-the-wall” bar in Cheektowaga with low rent and a kitchen that suited their needs. While still working full time at DuPont, they set up their business, relying on word-of-mouth to advertise. For three months, they worked 90-100 hours per week, preparing about 200 meals every week. Their shifts at DuPont rotated, making their schedules erratic. Bright’s wife helped out at times, as did friends. Bright says they had a lucky streak: No unexpected challenges arose, and their choices paid off. Three and half months in, they were able to leave their jobs at DuPont and, by the end of the year, with order volume increasing past the point that the Cheektowaga location could handle, they prepared to expand.

Ellicott Development was then redeveloping the former George Washington School in Kenmore and creating space for three new businesses on the ground floor. Eat Rite Foods worked with them to customize the space they needed, and in March of 2017, they were able to move to the brand-new space on Delaware Avenue. Bright said their walk-in traffic increased by about 200 percent.

The partners share all aspects of running the business. They both work six days per week and have a very hands-on style. Bright is of a level mind about what they’ve learned along the way. “Hindsight’s always 20/20, so I’m not going to knock any of the decisions we made,” he said.

Were they to start over today, they might design the new location to better suit how they operate as they’ve scaled up. But the key thing they’ve learned, he said, is to “never let things be set in stone. You always want to keep evolving, and when new ideas and new opportunities present themselves,” it’s important to stay flexible.

His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs reflects his analytical approach: “If you can offer a product that people feel is worth more than what they have to pay for it, you’ll have a home run every time.”

With such a successful track record, some business owners might become cavalier, but Bright and Del Zoppo maintain a judicious attitude. They’ve entertained the idea of opening a second location in the Southtowns, and they’ve also envisioned developing a franchise system that would bring the business to people outside of Western New York, but they’re not planning to jump the gun.

“We’re very, very happy in our current situation, and the last thing we want to do is overextend ourselves,” Bright said.

Green Eats Kitchen & Juice Bar

Bright and Del Zoppo weren’t the only locals who had gotten accustomed to spending their lunch breaks wishing for healthier meal options. Joanne Woolsey-Lasky and Janine Sherk were no strangers to running a business when they came up with the idea for Green Eats Kitchen & Juice Bar in Orchard Park. A practicing occupational therapist, Woolsey-Lasky had also opened Foundations Preschool with Sherk. Both women grew up in Buffalo, and they share memories of shopping at the Broadway Market, bringing home fresh groceries for Sunday dinners. Woolsey-Lasky lived in other places as an adult—Las Vegas, Rhode Island—and though she spoke of her return to Buffalo as a foregone conclusion (“it’s just so family-oriented, a feel-good town”), she missed the healthy, convenient restaurants she had encountered elsewhere. “We did not have as many choices here, especially in the Southtowns,” she said.

Then Woolsey-Lasky’s sister was diagnosed with cancer, and the issue of eating well felt even more pressing. “Healthy eating—it’s hard,” Woolsey-Lasky said. “It takes longer to cook. It’s more expensive than grabbing something quick from a fast food restaurant, which a lot of busy families have to do right now.”

So, when the space next to Foundations became available, the partners were faced with a choice: expand Foundations, or start something entirely different. “I was very torn [between] expanding my preschool … or taking on this new passion for healthy eating,” Woolsey-Lasky said. Meagan O’Shei, one of the teachers at the preschool, had struggled with a lifelong autoimmune disorder that she managed through her diet as well as medical treatment. Having talked about their desire to share this approach with the community, the three of them decided to take the plunge. (O’Shei has since moved on.)

With their experience and resources, they were confident about their venture. However, they discovered that opening a food-based business came with a learning curve. “We thought we had it all set,” Woolsey-Lasky laughed. “We had owned our other businesses for 15 years—they’re kind of well-oiled machines right now; we love going to work; it almost seems like a hobby, it doesn’t seem like work. So we had anticipated … that it would have the same kind of feel, and we were in for a big surprise.”

As it happened, help came from a local connection: Kyle Haak, the father of one of Woolsey-Lasky’s daughter’s friends, also happened to be an instructor at Erie Community College’s culinary arts program. He often chatted with Woolsey-Lasky at school events and offered tips on how to keep the kitchen activity flowing efficiently.

They expected a slow start, but the community welcomed them with a busy summer. “I just felt so extremely grateful, not only that the business was going to be successful, but that everyone was embracing that there was a place where they could get healthy food fast,” Woolsey-Lasky said. The biggest challenge she foresees is meeting the demand. Green Eats closed this past spring to renovate and expand its offerings to include a wider variety of prepared foods. Currently, it offers takeaway meals, raw desserts, vegan and gluten-free breakfasts and snack options, and weekly gourmet breakfast toasts. More food options, as well as expanded meal plans and juice cleanses, are planned for the future.

“I firmly believe—this may sound silly in business, but—I believe in good karma, and if you’re trying to spread good through your business, it will come back to you,” Woolsey-Lasky said. This isn’t an empty affirmation: Green Eats offers a “Wellness Warrior Discount” for anyone fighting cancer or significant illness through food.

However, the nutritional pedigree of the food shouldn’t be mistaken as its only asset. “We want it to be a little bit of an experience,” Woolsey-Lasky said. “We do want you to be doing good for your body, but the first thing I want to come out of your mouth is ‘Oh my God, this is so delicious.’”

Read more articles by Jen Wellington.

Jen Wellington is a native of New Orleans and a recent transplant to Buffalo. She holds a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University. In her free time, she enjoys foraging wild mushrooms, picking banjo, and playing with her dog, Gumbo.
Signup for Email Alerts