A fifth generation Buffalonian, Kevin Gardner has made a lifestyle and a business out of making use of his resources and not wasting materials. A process that has proven to be a success in beauty and in trade.
Spending a few years hitchhiking around the country, Kevin juggled his way to all four corners of America meeting people and paying his way though street performing. When he returned home he kept up his trade by juggling outside the arena downtown while squatting in abandoned houses for a few years. It wasn’t until he met his wife Melissa that he began to cultivate one of his true passions… building. Kevin loved the art of building and the use of different materials for different purpose. Unfortunately for Kevin, maybe fortunate for us, he suffered an arm injury and could no longer sustain his job in construction. Melissa had a lot of baking experience from her teens, so the couple was able to get a job managing a bakery on Elmwood.
This put them on the path to Five Points. However, what they discovered was that there was an enormous amount of waste being produced and that all of the product came from one truck. “You know, all the eggs were liquified and I was like, this is New York, plenty of people raise chickens here, there’s gotta be a better way to do this.” They tried to work with the owners to make some changes but they weren’t interested.
So it was around this time that there was a local challenge going on. The challenge stated that you had to go a month only eating food that was sourced within 50 miles of your home. Melissa and Kevin had no problem doing this but noticed one thing. There was no locally sourced bread. This triggered them to want to start something of their own. The problem was, all of the wheat produced in the area was going to cattle feed. Then they found Zittel’s Family Farm out in Hamburg. “These people are just amazing, you know typically they deliver their wheat in huge tractor trailers but they were willing to make the exception for our small bakery and really put us in position to start our vision.”
Ten years later, Five Points Bakery sits as a locally sourced café in a beautiful sanctuary in the heart of the West Side, known as the Five Points Neighborhood.
What kind of vision did you have for this beautiful ambiance here?
Well, to start, this is a clay wall, we dug the the foundation by hand and used the clay from that and mixed it with the straw from our wheat that we bake the bread with. The boards that we used on the outside were from the joists of the building that we took down. We just took them to a mill and did a little bit of work with them. The idea is to use what you have. For example if you look at the floor it’s kind of rough and not perfectly flat, that’s because we reworked and patched up what was here already. When we were moving in, the guy who was working on the floor suggested that we pour a new floor so it’s nice and flat and smooth. And you know, in our culture that’s what people tend to want, something new and flat and smooth, but it’s not necessary. I’d rather put in a little work and keep what is usable. I don’t want to waste all that concrete and have it all end up in a dumpster.
I took a lot of ideas and inspiration from the book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. There are things that you can do with a space that make it more effective to those who are using the area, down to the smallest elements. So, we spend a lot of time on how every single element can affect the people that come in here. For example the kids’ area, notice how it’s under the stairs A lot of times that space goes unused, but we were able to utilize it and create an area just for kids and you know, parents can’t fit under there, so it’s kind of a special place just for the kids. Low lights, so when you and I are sitting at this table it creates a light space for just you and me. It creates intimacy. You know, little things like the window sills are wide so that you can fit a lot of plants on it. Things like that. I like to picture how people come in, and how they sit. That’s what I wanted to do – create a place that is magical and really makes an impression on people and their lives. And when I see it happening here, it warms my heart.
Would you consider yourself and activist?
You know, I used to stand with the Women in Black on Bidwell. I used to do a lot of protesting when the war in Iraq started. But I found that there had to be a better way of making a difference. I remember one time I was standing with my sign and some guys drove by and they were yelling at me, and I was like “What am I doing? Am I really making a difference?” And so part of the reason I wanted to do things here is I wanted to live well. I wanted to set an example of how to be kind to the world and environment and do it in a public way where people can come in and meet me and maybe there can be a dialogue on the other issues but in a peaceful way where people don’t feel threatened. Then maybe we can reach better solutions. I stopped with the aggressive activism and just refocused on doing it more indirectly and it’s been wonderful. I think I’ve affected a lot more change and a lot more people’s lives this way.
Also, we are more about building a community directly. We work with a lot of local artists, and our building was built by the people in our neighborhood. That’s my kind of activism. When I pay the guy down the street to do my parking lot, that money gets spread through this neighborhood. That is how you build a community. You keep the money as close as you can and everyone chips in and helps each other. So we try to do a lot of that.
What are some challenges that you see in the city and would like to change?
You know, I hear a lot about this, about the obstacles of the city, but you know I was squatting in Buffalo juggling batons making 30 bucks a day. And people in this community gave me a little bit each day and eventually I was able to save up and with the support of those around me, start a business. I just think that if you have a good idea that you are passionate about and willing to work for, the people around you will be supportive. This city is tremendous in that way.
Honestly I applaud the city. I went down to City Hall with all of these new ideas, clay walls, straw bail addition, grass parking lot, things that they had never had to work with before and you know, they really worked with me. And it was hard for them because they had to put in a lot of extra hours on these new concepts. The grass parking lot, it’s the first one ever approved in the city, and they were skeptical to see if it was even going to work, but I asked them to let me try, and you know they were willing to give me a shot.
It is important that you know how to approach things. A lot of people go into the situation hot and heavy and expect them to be difficult to work with but they aren’t there to make your life miserable, they are there to work with you and I think it’s important to understand that if you are flexible and respectful in your mannerisms the people of the city will respond positively.
What are your visions for the future?
Well, we own all the way to the corner with a huge backyard. So, what I want to do is build the whole thing up. The gate in the front, thats the gate to my future building (he smiles)… It’s not built yet, but it will be. These streets historically have had businesses all along the corner, so we want to bring that back to the neighborhood. I try to create according to the “structure follows social space” pattern. So, whatever the community is calling for at that time, we are going to build a space to accommodate that. This spring we have Blue Table Chocolates and Petrichor Flora moving in up front. We’ve opened the upstairs to host small events, but we want to open the backyard to bigger events, small weddings and things. We want it to be a celebration in here. Once all the buildings are in, we want to enhance what my wife calls the jewel box, which means really instead of expanding, you make what you have prettier and nicer. So, you know, I’m a ‘gardener’ – it’s my last name – so I have a lot of landscaping and gardening ideas. We want the whole property overgrown with life, you know, fresh figs, ponds, bats, birds, butterflies… just a little paradise. That’s the vision.
If you could snap your fingers and change one thing in Buffalo what would it be?
I would like to see Buffalo restore Olmsted park. Here we have this legend, Olmsted, it’s like having the Mona Lisa or a Pablo Picasso in our own city… that we dug up to put cars in. It’s like someone went in and spray-painted the Mona Lisa. But we can fix it! We have the ability. We don’t need such a car-centric mentality. I think that we are all going to realize that it’s not really sustainable and efficient as we continue to grow and evolve. I think that people don’t understand how fast car culture is dying. I’d like to see our city get on the front end and build the paths and really recognize when making a stretch of road, that it’s not just for cars, there needs to be an awareness of other forms of transportation. People will be moving more towards bikes and scooters and walking. We have such a beautiful and accommodating city for that. So let’s shift our focus away from the automobile.
What advice do you have for someone who has a vision and wants to make a change?
You got to go all in. You gotta believe in yourself and don’t half step. I put everything on the line. People will support you, but if they don’t see that… if they don’t see that you have skin in the game then they will be hesitant. I’ve had a lot of people come to me that have these great ideas and they are afraid that it wont work. Of course there is always going to be that fear but you’ve got to be willing to get over it and believe in your vision and jump in 100 %. If you do that, people will support you.
What is your favorite “Buffalo Moment?”
Well, I’m a traveler. I love to travel and I’ve been all over. But when I’m driving back in and I see that skyline on the lake, I’m like “This is my home.” It gets me every single time. Buffalo is strange like that, a lot of people try to leave but Buffalo, it just puuuullllllllls you back! It’s so true, It’s so Buffalo.
Go out there and have your fun, but when you’re ready to come home, Buffalo will be here.
Your idol comes to town, where are you going?
Matthew Coates, an architect off an island in Seattle. He does living buildings, so these buildings produce all of the resources that they need, they manage their own waste, they are a living thing. Totally amazing. He was such an inspiration when I got started. I wasn’t able to meet those standards, but it has always been my dream to create something like that. So I’d love to show him what I have been able to do. I usually like to go to Amy’s Place, but I think for him I’d just like to walk him through and hang out here. I’d cook some dinner and we could discuss some ideas and I could really benefit from that experience.
Who would you recommend as another “Building Block” of Buffalo?
About Building Blocks:
A renaissance is not built solely on the shoulders of the big and powerful, it is the workings of the commoners of society coming together and pushing small blocks up against the big ones to set a solid foundation for change. In the midst of the new, vibrant and ever expanding Buffalo, we find ourselves needing to know more about it! Who are we missing? Who is behind it? Who are the unsung heroes responsible for the rebirth of our great city. Who do you know that has made a difference? We are calling on you to send us candidates for our upcoming series of interviews titled “Building Blocks.”
What we are looking for:
- Individuals or organizations that have withstood the test of time. The ones who have stayed true to their values in the slow times and have now pushed forth and flourished in the new.
- People who have initiated successful start ups in the areas of business, energy, arts or education.
- People who have given their free time to the betterment of our community.
- People who have created better situations for their fellow Buffalonians.
- Basically, anyone that you think deserves a mention in the progress of our great city.
Please email us at email@example.com subject line “Building Blocks” with any recommendations along with any contact information you might have.
It’s time that the foundation of our rebirth, big or little, be recognized and appreciated for their efforts.
Building Blocks: Rahwa Ghirmatzion