Mark Croce On Reinventing Buffalo
Did you know that Mark Croce started off his business career as a deli owner in Amherst? I didn't. That's why I thought that it would be a good idea to sit down with Mark. I wanted to hear from him, what his future plans were for downtown, and whether he thought the city was on the right path or not. Most anyone in the area will tell you that Mark is larger than life. He's the guy buzzing around town in his helicopter, or being shuttled from restaurant to restaurant in an electric car that looks more like a golf cart.
When most people think about Mark, they think about his bars and restaurants. That is because he has not only raised the bar when it comes to the science of operating a nightclub/restaurant, he brought the bar out of a dusty closet where it sat for a long, long time. When Mark Croce opens a new business, the fanfare alone can generate enough operating capital to fuel the fire for his fleet of establishments. There is no denying that he has brought an exciting appeal to the Chippewa District, so why is it that when I called Mark up on the phone, one of the first things that he said was, "There will be some people who will leave unkind remarks on your site,AeP I know that". So why would Mark agree to an interview with me if he though that some of our viewers would come down on him?
The entrepreneur is proud of his accomplishments,AeP and deservedly so. Mark has done a lot of good for downtown, but what many people don't know is that he has even bigger plans in store for us that will continue to change the landscape of where we live (and where we visit).
Mark began the interview by talking about the success of The Chophouse. He told me that many of his regulars come from Rochester and Toronto, and he has even tapped into a small market of travelers who pay a visit whenever visiting the area. Without a doubt, at this point in time, The Chophouse is the feather in Mark's cap, but there were many feathers along the way, and it all started with The Coliseum. Mark sold his deli in Amherst in order to open the first floor nightclub. "I saw what Jim Kelly was doing with Network," Mark began. "There was this huge club, but he left the doors open for me because I saw that it was too exclusive. I opened The Coliseum in '96 and purchased the entire building '99. Network was untouchable for the masses. It was flashy,AeP that was about the same time that Concrete and Atomic opened up, so I was not alone in looking into the Chippewa District. I went to a few other cities to see what was cool,AeP I wanted to open a club that would attract people back into the city."
It did not take long for The Coliseum to take off. It was such a big success that Mark turned the second floor of the building into The Rhino Room (a cigar bar) and Flash (a disco). Then he converted the rooftop into patio. "The city told me I couldn't, and I fought to open it. I told them that I would build 8' high fences around the roof. The Sky Bar opened in '98. I wanted to utilize every square inch of the building,AeP and I still do that with all of my operations. It was at that point that I decided to buy the building instead of paying increased rent on a space that was becoming very expensive. Sky Bar was wall to wall people as soon as it opened."
Even though Mark was running a very lucrative series of clubs, he still thought that there was room for more. He went ahead and opened a martini bar on the third floor called Lulu's, which he followed up with a 80s-style dance club called Amnesia. It was about that time when Mark purchased the Brownstone Restaurant building at auction for $25,000 (including back taxes). "It was a boarded up rooming house at the time. It took a miracle to get that place functioning. Remember, the building that housed my other clubs had been in bad shape too. I found that I was learning the construction business very fast. The Brownstone was the fine dining precursor to The Chophouse, and even though it closed in May of 2006, it taught me a number of things about running that sort of place. Now I am concentrating on spaces that can hold at least 200 people. I'm in the process right now of leasing The Brownstone building if you know of anyone looking to open a restaurant."
It was at this point in the interview that Mark started to open up a bit more. He let on that he had another fine dining restaurant in the works that would give The Chophouse a run for its money. He also told me that he was formulating plans to redevelop the old 85,000 sq.' Hertz Garage on West Huron ,Aei an absolutely amazing structure that is reminiscent of Rocco Termini's Webb Building. "There's parking for 250 cars, and enough room to build an addition," he said. "I am also planning on building two hotels,AeP one will be a boutique,AeP the other,AeP I'll just say that one will be built from the ground up, and the other will be a renovation. I own both properties already and am just waiting to finish up another project before I start those. One of those hotels will house my new restaurant concept."
If there is one thing that I can say about Mark, it has to be that I don't know how he manages to run all of his ventures. He is a partner in Laughlin's Restaurant with his brother Scott ,Aei another building that the two restored beautifully (formerly The Sanctuary). He also started the Warehaus (a nightclub on Franklin), that is now The Buckin' Buffalo. "That's my MO," he told me. "If something isn't working I change it up. This is Buffalo,AeP the customers aren't changing, so I have to switch up the concepts. I am constantly reinventing my business in order to attract new customers."
Mark realized that there was an opportunity to be made with mainstream 'New County' fans. He launched the Buckin' Buffalo with a mechanical buffalo, hot live music acts, and a new head of marketing ,Aei a guy by the name of Jim Breidenstein who owns Web Art Designs. Mark knows a good thing when he sees one, but he also knows when it's time to jump ship and look for a passing yacht. Take The Coliseum for example. That club became Kaos Club, which then turned into D'Arcy McGee's (5 year run), and eventually evolved into its latest incarnation ,Aei Buffalo Smokehouse (inspired by the infamous Dinosaur in Syracuse). He's in the process of remodeling the second floor into banquet facilities, and has converted the third floor into corporate offices. He also re-opened The Sky Bar after a two-year hiatus. "D'Arcy McGee's and different uses on the second and third floor made it hard to get people up to the roof. "We had to install a $200,000 exterior glass elevator, and now things are back where we need them to be."
I asked Mark about his ownership of parking lots in the city, and what he told me may surprise you. "I've never knocked down a building to build a parking lot. Look at my record and you will see that I like to restore beautiful buildings. A friend of mine told me to look at my first lot back in '98 ,Aei a small one (24 spaces) on Franklin I picked up at a city auction. It's a necessary evil here. I look for lots situated around my enterprises, and all of the lots are managed by Standard Parking. Everyone thinks I own Standard, but I don't. I run my operations first, and my lots second. I look at my lots as current and future investment opportunities. As the city grows I will look at those lots as prime development sites. Restaurants are the frontrunner to retail. Density will be the signal that those lots are ready for buildings. Critical mass will bring building infill."
Mark is also very interested in residential development and is looking into condo development at this moment. He sees an opportunity for people to own their properties in the city rather than renting. He's starting with the Saturn Building on Pearl; a 24-unit building will be his first step toward adding residential to his portfolio. Whether that is his first condo or not is yet to be determined, but it's not far off regardless. He wants to see commercial on the ground level of the Saturn Building. This all sounded like some pretty exciting steps, so I asked mark what he envisioned for Buffalo's future. "I want to see larger companies making investments here. New Era is a great start and should be used as a model for others. Companies like Geico should be looking at our downtown area to strengthen the core of the city. Hey, I'm glad that Geico is here, don't get me wrong,AeP"
Before wrapping up the interview I asked Mark one last question. "Do you like playing Monopoly?" He answered with a big smile, "It's my favorite game." Mark sees Buffalo's renaissance taking place before his eyes, and has only one worry. "The problem is that there is not enough time in a day."