Every once in a while I stumble upon a story that has more twists and turns than an old country road. This was the case upon a recent visit to the former Buffalo China/Buffalo Pottery Complex, located at 75 Hayes Place in South Buffalo, just off Seneca Street. It turns out that the plant was purchased by a guy by the name of Kevin Callahan, who now runs i under the name of Hayes Place Management Group. Upon Initially speaking with Kevin, he was clear with his intentions for the site. First, he wanted to redevelop the sprawling complex. Second, he wanted to return good paying jobs to the closed, historically significant industrial complex. Obviously, this was going to be an enormous, and admirable undertaking.
I always knew that Buffalo China was a significant operation, but I never knew that the plant was 275,000 square feet. If that number doesn’t get you, then maybe this will. Buffalo China once produced between 2 and 3 million dozen units (ceramic ware) per year. That’s a staggering amount. And it was clear to see how they did it, as Kevin and I walked through the plant. Not only was the place still partially filled with equipment, including some of the most coveted machinery in the world, it was also a ceramics graveyard, with room after room filled with the stuff.
In one room, Kevin pointed out that there was an example of every place that the company ever produced. Not only did they electronically record the plate, they also kept an example in the plant. Some of the rooms looked like that room from Indiana Jones, when workers were storing the Arc at the end of the film.
“I’ve already taken around 300,000 pieces out of here,” Kevin told me. “I keep 60,000 pieces at my shop in Hamburg at any given time – 716 China. It took us four months to match them all up. At the same time, we’re still emptying out the place.”
As for the equipment, Kevin has already sold a number of desirable pieces. At the same time, he has kept one part of the plant intact. It’s a section where $16 million in capital improvements were made before the operation closed permanently.
Since purchasing the plant a little under a year ago, Kevin has already made his money back by selling off machinery and the ceramics. That is where one of the largest spray dryers in the country is found. Apparently it was even too large for one of the largest manufacturers in the world. The funny thing is this. Since that giant piece of machinery stayed at the plant, Kevin sectioned off the entire area around it in order to attract a large ceramics business down the road.
Or event a ceramics center! Kevin has already been in touch with a few ceramics operations that expressed an interest in moving to Buffalo if they were part of an even larger vision. You see, ceramicists feel that there is power in numbers, and when everyone is working under one roof, a variety of resources can be shared.
Kevin also hinted that a hedge fund with an interest in investing in American made ceramics has been prowling around. “We have the largest ceramic mixers ever made,” Kevin pointed out. “The infrastructure is all here to go into ceramics production fairly quickly.”
So far we have been doing well with under 10 percent of the complex leased out but we are at 15 percent of our employment goal. We are doing this with no government subsidies and have self-funded the project mostly with sale of the finished dinnerware that was in the factory when Niagara Ceramics shut down after 112 years.
Besides attempting to rekindle the ceramics end of the operation, Kevin has also been attracting the interest of a number of other types of businesses. Buffalo Computer Recycling is one of those businesses – they set up shop three months ago. The company scraps computers and then sells the valuable innards to out of town companies. “I like that,” Kevin told me. “That means that new money is coming in to Buffalo – we’re not just spinning money around here. That’s important. Where I’m removing all of the machinery, I’m putting in skylights. The buildings are all in pretty good shape, and the roofs are even in decent shape. The reason that this complex is attractive to businesses is that I offer an industrial space at a warehouse cost.
The reason that this complex is attractive to businesses is that I offer an industrial space at a warehouse cost.
As we walked around the plant, I heard a loud buzzer go off. “That’s the break buzzer,” said Kevin. “I keep it turned on for sentimental reasons. As we walked, he told me all about Buffalo China. “Buffalo China is still around. It’s made in China and it’s junk. I recently sold 6000 pieces of the original stuff, made right here in this factory, to Chef’s Restaurant. When they bought it, they told me that just that day 16 pieces new plates had broken. They were fed up – they knew that if they could get their hands on some old Buffalo China, it would last for years. So they called me up and I took care of it for them. The plates were made so well, that they didn’t even scratch. People are still eating off their grandparents’ plates, to this day.”
We walked out through a door, around the corner of one of the buildings, and into a sort of courtyard. That is where Kevin pointed out a modern “sealand” container. He opened the door for a second I thought that he had opened the door to another dimension. We stepped inside and he said, “This is GrowTech Industries. It’s an urban farm that is growing microgreens. They are using LED lighting with only the blue and the violet light, so it looks pretty weird. The owner has three 40-foot trailers on the way – this is just the prototype that we’re standing in. Now wait until we step back outside…”
Once my eyes readjusted to the full UV spectrum of natural sunlight, we walked back inside the building. That’s where we ran into Rich Stapleton, the CEO of GrowTech. Rich told us that the reason that he liked the plant was the access to grounds, office space, electricity (he’s tied into the electric), water, etc. He also said that he is hoping to sign deals with Tops and Wegmans to carry his products. “I’m setting up a stand at the Broadway Market, and selling to local restaurants,” he told me. “Along with microgreens, we will be growing lettuce, spinach, kale, etc., and then the vine varieties.” Rich started the business 18 months ago. We will be following up on his operation when the new trailers arrive.
We decided that our focus was going to be on employment, and returning the 150 jobs lost when Niagara Ceramics shut down to the 275,000 square feet complex.
After venturing upstairs, and down long hallways, winding around the building, we ended up in a bunker. Yup, a bunker. It was like walking into a military zone – part western and part Baghdad.
“This is a new business (Run N Gun Airsoft) that is just getting off the ground,” Kevin told me. “It’s like paintball, but the guns use soft BBs. But you know when you get hit, that’s for sure. The guy behind it is a veteran. He believes that this will be therapeutic for other veterans, although it will also be open to the public. There’s a jail over there… and a saloon. The game is self policed with old west justice. Each tactical team is made up of 15 people – so 30 people play at once. He’s already talking about expanding upstairs and downstairs. He and his buddies are really fired up about it. They are still building in preparation to open soon.” BRO will keep you posted as the date gets closer.
After spending a couple of hours with Kevin, it is clear that he is a wheeler and dealer. He and his partner are going to make this plant work come hell or high water. It’s going to be an organic process, but if that’s what it’s going to take, then so be it. Kevin made a point to say that there are very few buildings of this nature… of this magnitude… remaining in Buffalo. That’s why he jumped on the opportunity. I can’t wait to see the different directions that this project goes. Where Kevin believes that it is the plant that is the driver of the vision, I would have to say that it is Kevin himself who will ultimately be the key to pulling off this giant undertaking. So far, I’m super impressed with his ethics and his actions. So what’s next Kevin?
Get connected: www.716china.com
*A limited edition run of Roaming Buffalo Plates (not made at Buffalo China but made in the US) has been released and is available at 716China.com. All of the proceeds from the sales will go towards funding the re-industrialization and re-establishment of manufacturing within the former Buffalo China Complex. The buffaloes on the plates are 100% randomly places, signifying the roaming Buffalonians all over the world.