When it comes to West Side real estate investment opportunities, a lot of the low hanging fruit has already been picked. But for the visionary investors, there is still plenty of room to play. Take, for example, Frits Abell. In recent years Frits has successfully accomplished a number of rehab feats in the Five Points neighborhood that few would dare to tackle. But with each success, he gains invaluable insight and knowledge pertaining to the delicate landscape – the properties, the residents, and the economic ecosystem that is taking hold.
Now Frits is onto his newest project – his sixth project, following success stories that include the sensational Remedy House addition. This latest project is not for the faint of heart. Along with his business partner Matt Schaab (an expat currently living in NYC), Frits picked up 549 West Utica in 2019. He describes the structure as “a nondescript building across from the gas station that you never would have taken notice of.”
But Frits did notice it, which is a great thing for the Five Points neighborhood, and the West Side in general. He has also identified a commercial tenant for the first floor – a pizza slice shop and wine bar called Extra Extra. What is most unusual about this business is that the husband and wife team of Bridget Murphy and Joey Pucciarelli have decided to establish a worker-owned cooperative model that will allow employees to have a stake in the operation.
“We want the business to work and function like a NY-style slice shop,” said Bridget. “We want to change the model of how a restaurant runs. It will be ‘tipless’ – every full time worker will make the same wage, with benefits. We’ve seen crazy pay inequities in the industry, with harassment between customers and the staff in the front of the house. From a customer standpoint, they won’t notice a difference, except that there will be no tip line on the receipt. We’re also hiring at least 75% from the neighborhood, and we’re hoping for 100%. It’s a business for the neighborhood, by the neighborhood. We both live right around the corner.”
Back in 2019 I wrote about PUSH Buffalo’s new Cooperative Academy, a 12-week course that instructs people on how to “build wealth and power for workers and communities typically excluded from the mainstream economy.” It turns out that the owners of Extra Extra took this course, which has prepared them for establishing this unique restaurant concept in the Five Points neighborhood.
Along with gaining invaluable knowledge of the cooperative economy, Bridget and Joey also have plenty of real world experience in the culinary industry. It turns out that Frits first met Bridget when she was working at Remedy House, while Joey cut his teeth at Jay’s Artisan Pizzeria in Kenmore. Aside from wanting to pursue a different business model, the two felt that there was a real need in the Five Points area for more food, since it was already saturated with coffee.
“Pizza-wise, it’s going to be different,” said Joey. “It’s going to be NY pies – big 20″ slices to-go, while we will serve smaller round pies inside the restaurant. We’re also going to have ‘Gramma Brooklyn-style pies,’ which are more substantial and thick. There will be hoagies too – I currently bake the rolls over at Remedy House. We will have shared plates and salads, and soft serve ice cream. It’s going to be lowbrow, approachable and welcoming… nothing too stuffy.”
“The beverage program will be similar to the food, with unfussy wines,” added Bridget. “I work at Winkler & Samuels. There will be natural wines from smaller producers – I like to highlight female producers. The ‘pizza wines’ will be young and fruity reds that you drink with a little bit of a chill. They will always be changing because of the small producers. We will also have a small program of cocktails and beer.”
With the business model established, Frits set out to address the building, which “… was interesting and presented a challenging process,” he explained.
It turns out that the circa 1880 building was a Rubik’s Cube that needed to be solved. In fact, the previous owner ended up getting to a certain point during the rehab process and finally gave up and sold it.
Why was this building such a dilemma? At some point, around the turn of the century, the City came up with a plan to widen West Utica, which meant that 549 West Utica was partially “in the way.” But the plan never came to fruition, and the building sat idly by, with a sort of “planning hex” on it. The funny thing is, once these types of bizarre scenarios come to pass, they are very hard to straighten out with the City, hence the last owner giving up.
Thankfully Frits was not deterred, and rose to the challenge. “The building was converted to residential in 1960,” he explained. “In order to build it out and transition it back to commercial (the first floor), we would have to either move the building, or shave off five feet, neither of which we were willing to do. My architect (Seth Amman – Arch&Type) found some work permits that had been pulled in 1915, which showed that work had been conducted after the ‘deemed street widening,’ which allowed us to get the designation back to commercial. And with the Green Code, there is a clause that if a building has been used as commercial, it can go back to commercial. And the Common Council has agreed to it, with the blessing of neighbors who were included in the process every step along the way. We’ve essentially got the green light – we’re just waiting for the final permits to begin work.”
As for the state of the building, it was stripped down to the studs by the previous owner. “That means, as far as work goes, it’s going to be the least onerous of my projects,” said Frits [laughing]. “It will probably take a 8-9 month buildout. It needs everything, including a facade makeover, which will be in keeping with the historic storefront, with a contemporary look and feel.”
Speaking to Frits, it was clear that he had some boxes to check off with this one. He wanted the owners to live in the neighborhood, which they do. He sees the couple hiring from the neighborhood, which they are. He was excited about the worker-owner aspect of the business. And he is inspired to add more life and vitality to Five Points, while being sensitive to the residents concerns at the same time.
Sounds like a win for everyone involved.
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