Minority-Owned Restaurants Hoping For Place In New Bills Stadium Find Home At ECC

When officials leading the Erie County Level Up program sought to find a place where minority-owned restaurant owners could prepare to compete for concessionary opportunities at a new Buffalo Bills stadium, they didn’t have to look far.

Chef Gregory Crenshaw, owner of Crenshaw’s Chicken and Waffles, takes an order during the Taste of Diversity at ECC South Campus, which brings five black-owned restaurants into the cafeteria each Monday as part of the Erie County Level Up program, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. 

Next door to the construction of a $1.7 billion stadium in Orchard Park was a kitchen and cafeteria on the south campus of Erie Community College that had been sitting dormant and going unused since at least 2020.

It made for an ideal partnership.

For the first time in several years, that cafeteria saw traffic on Monday from patrons looking to purchase hot foods and beverages. The draw was five Black-owned Buffalo restaurants that have been brought to the campus through January as part of the Erie County- and Buffalo Bills-led initiative Taste of Diversity.

The six-week pilot program that will go through January is to serve as a training ground for Taste of Diversity participants to learn to work in a fast-paced shared kitchen in a stadium-like concession setting. It also helps them build a portfolio and healthy relationship with the Bills early on.

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“If it wasn’t for this college opening up this campus cafeteria, which has been essentially non-existent since pre-Covid days, we would not be here today,” said Erie County Legislator Chair April Baskin. “The Taste of Diversity series is allowing these business owners to get the necessary experience to bid on the forthcoming contracts for the stadium and other large-scale projects in our region. They’re gaining practical experience that will help them level up their business and create generational wealth for their families that has been missing in communities of color.”

But it wasn’t easy. Baskin said there were many late nights as the space was being readied again for service.

Richard Rojek, custodian of buildings and grounds at ECC, said it took about three weeks to get the kitchen and cafeteria operational. It started with simply turning the gas back on and gaining insurance for the restaurants to operate there, and then it took bringing back much of the equipment needed to run a kitchen and serve food.

“It was a serious undertaking to do this, but I feel like it was worth it,” he said. “This kitchen was basically mothballed for a couple of years. We got everything back from the ECC North campus and we opened pieces and parts to get everything ready.”

Larry Stitts, who founded Golden Coffee Cup with his wife, Jackie Stover-Stitts, about 10 years ago, said it took a great deal of preparation and practice runs to be ready for service Monday, but he “learned so much” in the process.

Larry Stitts, president of Golden Cup Coffee, pours a cup during the Taste of Diversity at ECC South Campus, which brings five black-owned restaurants into the cafeteria each Monday as part of the Erie County Level Up program, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The other participating businesses include Crenshaw’s Chicken & Waffles, Manna @ Northland, Radah Baked Goods and Em Tea Coffeecup Café. While the restaurants will primarily serve ECC students and faculty, nearby Bills staff and stadium construction workers are also invited to campus to enjoy the offerings.

“Our experience with being in this initiative has brought a lot of light to learning about the language of running your business, the capability statements, how to network and show up properly and how to meet the standards,” said Lee Thomas, co-owner of Radah Baked Goods, as he stood next to his wife and business partner Lavenia Thomas. “This program has done a lot for my family, and we have gained new family as well through it.”

Level Up was born out of the community benefits agreement with the Bills as part of the new stadium 30-year lease, which requires 30% of concessionaires and suppliers to be a local minority- or women-owned business enterprise.

The program has been running for six months, in collaboration with corporate partners like Highmark, and is helping to prepare an array of Black-owned businesses – not just restaurants – to be involved in the new stadium project. That also covers construction work and other retail and service providers.

Lee Thomas, co-owner of Radah Baked Goods, carries trays of samples during the Taste of Diversity at ECC South Campus, which brings five black-owned restaurants into the cafeteria each Monday as part of the Erie County Level Up program, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

It’s providing a pipeline to help disadvantaged business owners navigate the MWBE certification process, countywide small business resources and securing corporate and public contracts.

Penny Semaia, who came from Pittsburgh earlier this year to serve as the Bills vice president of new stadium relations, said the team jumped at the opportunity to help in this effort.

“We are a foundation of truly caring people,” Semaia said. “We have colleagues and friends who have been part of this community for years. … This community means a lot to us.”

Restaurants participating in the Taste of Diversity will also get a $2,500 business grant.

“The people who need these opportunities the most have to get prepared to seize the opportunities that are forthcoming,” Baskin said. “Many have said to me in the past that if they could just get a chance to show … what they can do, they know they could do a good job. Well, now, we get to see them get that chance.”

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