Sometimes it takes a completely fresh look to figure out a new vision for a stagnant operation. In the case of the Washington Market, the person that’s bringing the fresh look to the table is Michael Khoury (lead image – left). Michael recently moved back from Brooklyn to take over his family’s market, and right off the bat we are seeing significant changes. The most monumental change is the addition of a renowned butcher to the market’s roster. The whole thing got started when Michael was introduced to Frank Dispenza of Dispenza’s Meat Market and Slaughter House. Within moments, the two had hatched a plan that would help to drive the new direction of the market. The plan would see Frank setting up an old world butcher shop within the market, as a sort of anchor. Michael and Frank figured that if they could show that they were serious about making such a significant commitment to customers, that the approach would spill over to other facets of the market.
When he lived in Brooklyn, Michael’s favorite places to frequent were along the lines of Foragers Market, where he could find fresh produce, incredible cuts of meat, distinctive cheeses, etc. When he got the calling back to Buffalo, he immediately knew the direction that he wanted to go. When cheese purveyor Michelle Stevens (Buffalo Cheese Traders) suggested that Michael and Frank meet, the rest was history. Now Michael and Frank are in the process of trying to capture old world market design and food elements, in order to bring them to Downtown Buffalo. Michael describes it as a sort of permanent farmer’s market, but better. “Even at a farmer’s market or at The Co-op, a customer is going to get frozen meats. Or vacuum packed meats from distant places at some super markets,” said Michael. “Not here. At The Washington Market, Frank Dispenza has the freshest cuts that he will prepare for you, always fresh, never frozen and almost entirely local. This is the new direction that we are taking, and our customers are noticing the effort.”
As I talked to Michael and Frank, every customer that walked into the market headed straight to the Dispenzo’s meat counter, and every one of them made a purchase. When it comes to the art of butchery, Frank is considered a sort of miracle worker. It’s his life’s work. Each morning, Frank wakes up at 4am and tends to his farm in Ransomville. He milks the cows, feeds the animals, and then gets down to the business of selecting his prime cuts, making sausages, meatloaf, pork Florentine, seasoning and marinating the meats, etc. Typically, he would then help to run the farm’s store, along with his family who helps out with every aspect of the farm. But now some things have changed. Instead of sticking around the farm, Frank heads into Downtown Buffalo and sets up for business (Thursday through Saturday). “This is very exciting for me,” Frank said. “I wasn’t very familiar with the city, but now I love it. I love the people, I love the market, and I am happy to be moving in this new direction. I have a funny sense of humor, and I love talking to people. Everyone that I have met understands where I’m coming from – we talk and laugh, and I tell them all about the farm and the animals and the best meats to choose. I even tell them how to prepare the meat, if they are not familiar. The last thing I want is for a customer to ruin my meat by cooking it wrong. I want people to know that the animals are treated very humanely, and I do my best to ensure that they are raised properly. My slaughterhouse burned down a few years ago, but someday I will build a new one. Until that day, I make sure that the one that I use is up to my personal standards. Everything that I do I am passionate about, and it shows in my meats.”
Taking a look around The Washington Market, it’s easy to see that changes are already underway. Currently, Michael is busy listening to his customers, and sourcing new vendors. “I’m working on a new Buffalo gift basket,” he said, as he assembled locally sourced products to show me.
“There are so many great food purveyors in Buffalo these days, and I want to represent them at the market. Earlier today I was cooking with some of Frank’s meats and handing samples out to customers. Customers love it. I want to have a mix of vendor pop-ups, a handful of permanent sellers, and locally sourced products that I will sell. When we have immediate access to all of these foods, we can then incorporate them into our menu. This is not all going to happen overnight, but it’s coming.”
Before I headed out the door, Michael informed me of something that blew my mind. He pointed to the freshly painted tin ceiling and said, “Do you see those hooks up there? We believe that this building was the original slaughterhouse for the historic Washington Market. The market was demolished and is now a parking lot, but this building still stands – it was adjacent to the original market. Frank and I were inspecting the ceiling, and he agrees that there is a real story to be told here. I’m going to get a photographic mural of the original market, so that customers can see the significance of what we’re doing. This city deserves something great, just like it once had.”
Whether it’s meat CSAs or locally made goat milk soap, Michael and Frank are committed to making this work by expanding the market’s offerings. You can hear the excitement in their voices and you can see the gleam in their eyes. As Michael said, it’s not going to be an overnight success story, but sometimes patience can be rewarding.
For now, we should all be contributing to the success of the market. Stop on in and meet Michael and Frank. Take a look around, and offer ups some suggestions. Pick up some locally sourced items. More importantly, keep coming back to see what’s new. It’s up to all of us to support this duo. Michael and Frank are looking out for Buffalo’s best interest by doing what feels right and what comes naturally. Let’s make sure that their investment into downtown Buffalo pays off. Because in the end, we will all reap the rewards.