One of Buffalo’s tiniest restaurants has one of the culinary world’s biggest accolades as a goal: a Michelin star. That’s Fred Daniel’s dream. Daniel, the co-proprietor of Freddy J’s BBQ on Grant Street, says, “We’re adamant about bringing a Michelin star to Buffalo.” The famed Michelin Guide tends to award its prized stars in larger metropolitan areas, like New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco but Daniel has big ideas about his Southern-influenced fare. “We’re going to do this.”
Simple food done right is the specialty at Freddy J’s. Dishes like BBQ ribs with mac and cheese and greens, and chicken and waffles may be on plenty of other menus, but Daniel and his partner Rey Ramos serve them up counterside, prepping, whisking, flipping and frying right there, all while bantering with patrons. For two outgoing and likeable guys like Daniel and Ramos, that’s the easy part. “We know our customers. We know what they like. That’s why they come back,” says Daniel.
Daniel has been in the Grant Street location for almost seven years; his original spot was not far, on Massachusetts Avenue. When he moved, loyal customers followed; the Grant Street walk-up window and counter that doubles as a bar also attracted new customers right away.
Daniel isn’t short on plans for the little restaurant. A recent loan from the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI) will help Daniel and Ramos with their planned expansion. They’re building a year-round patio adjacent to the restaurant, with help from their landlord (who happens to be an architect). Table seating will increase, giving diners a whole new experience. They also plan to feature live music as an additional draw.
Creating a new dining experience and adding to the fabric of the neighborhood are indicative of a business that is ready to flourish. “Rey and Freddy are committed to improving the Grant Street corridor. An example of this is the time and effort they put into applying for the Buffalo Main Streets Initiative grant, bringing state and federal dollars to Grant Street,” says Yanush Sanmugaraja, economic development director for WEDI. “They’ve built Freddy J’s from the ground up, using investments of their own, as well as from family and friends. Traditional financial institutions, such as banks, aren't an option for Freddy J’s right now; so it’s a great example of the type of business WEDI exists to serve.”
The Bureau of Labor statistics says that 17% of independently launched restaurants fail in the first year and most indie restaurants only have a four-and-a-half-year lifespan. While Freddy J’s has already shot past those benchmarks, this is the first loan Daniel has received for business development.
And restaurants are often considered a high risk for investment; restaurant management, i.e., people, are key to the enterprise’s success. Sanmugaraja adds, “When WEDI is deciding whether to invest, the most important thing we look at is the people behind the business. Our investment goes beyond the money we've lent to Freddy J’s; it also includes business and technical assistance and advisory services. Given our investment, and also our evaluation of Fred and Rey, WEDI felt as though this was not risky.”
Daniel himself isn’t afraid of risks. He immigrated to the United States as a teen from his native West Africa. His uncle, who was in the restaurant business in the New York City area, greeted him with a handshake, saying “welcome to America.” He then handed Daniel an apron and pointed him to the kitchen — to wash dishes. And learn.
He was just 16, and he worked in the kitchens of some of the city’s toniest restaurants, like the Russian Tea Room and Tavern on the Green. Eventually he worked his way to Western New York, and was hired by Samuel’s Grande Manor, and later by Charlie The Butcher. By then he was serious about learning the art and craft of creating delicious food: He absorbed solid lessons about food preparation, people management, and how to keep customers coming back for more.
Along the way he met his future business partner; Daniel became a mentor to Ramos when they learned that they both like structure and order in their kitchen. Ramos serves in the military reserves, and attended culinary school.
Daniel appreciates the value of having a strong and like-minded business partner. He says Ramos is “more than a brother and less than a wife” as they banter and cook. Ramos and Daniel understand the beauty in their operation is that they strive to keep it simple and give back to the customers. “It’s that personal connection that is important,” says Ramos. “And our chicken and waffles keeps them coming back!”
Their operation and space are so small (for now), that they only have one additional employee: a dishwasher. “I’m training him to be the next Freddy J,” Daniel says with a smile.