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Gigi's closes for good, search begins for new operator

Mike Desmond/WBFO News
Gigi's Restaurant opened at the Northland Workforce Training Center at the end of February to much fanfare. Just weeks later, after struggling to maintain the business, owner-operator Darryl Harvin has closed it.

After just two weeks, the new Gigi’s restaurant at the Northland Workforce Training Center on Buffalo’s East Side is officially closed. Following struggles to keep up with demand, owner-operator Darryl Harvin has decided to give up the business.

Buffalo Urban Development Corporation President Peter Cammarata opened the gates of the new Gigi’s restaurant one last time on Thursday morning before announcing the restaurant’s official closure.

The new Gigi’s opened at the end of February with much fanfare, and even more demand by customers. Cammarata said Harvin estimated more than 1,000 people visited on the first day. That effectively wiped out his food supplies. Despite re-stocking, hundreds of additional customers in the following two days exhausted the restaurant’s supply again, and it had to close for the rest of the week to regroup.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
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WBFO News
Inside the new Gigi's

Harvin cut back operation from 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but still struggled to keep up. When he was unable to open again this past Monday, Cammarata called for a conversation about the future.

“We reviewed the situation and reviewed whether [Harvin] felt in his heart that he could continue to move forward,” said Cammarata. “He made the decision that he didn’t feel that he could.”

Harvin’s mother, Blondine, purchased what was the original Gigi’s on Jefferson Avenue in 1960. In 1976, she moved it to East Ferry Street and operated the establishment until a catastrophic fire in 2015. For all those years, it was a go-to for soul food and a gathering place for the East Side community.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
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WBFO News
Blondine Harvin's Gigi's on East Ferry Street before

An initial RFP process to fill the restaurant space at Northland garnered what Cammarata said were three strong proposals – Darryl Harvin’s among them. With a solid business plan and support from other restauranteurs in the community, the BUDC felt a new Gigi's would be solid enough to move forward, while returning a community icon to the East Side.

But because Harvin was not a regular in the operation of his mother’s original business, the new Gigi’s was looked on as a start-up operation. Blondine wasn’t officially part of the business plan, but she would likely have been present as a matriarchal figurehead, able to share her institutional knowledge. She died in January at age 80 before the new Gigi's opened. A management team selected by Harvin to help run the operation fell through, as well.

“This is a very emotional period for Darryl,” Cammarata said. It was the reason he made the announcement Thursday morning instead of Harvin, who took a leave of absence from his regular job to get the new restaurant up and running.

“It’s been an emotional roller-coaster,” said Cammarata. “He is frustrated it did not come about the way he had envisioned it. There’s definitely a let-down as far as what he had talked about with his mom before her passing.”

After helping clear out what remains of the new Gigi’s operation, the BUDC will post a request for proposals as quickly as possible – likely early next week. When the original RFP went out, Harvin and others who applied had to envision their restaurants in what was an empty space. Now, because the business is already built out with a fully-equipped kitchen, Cammarata expects to have even greater interest.

“Because this was an amenity for the workforce training center, all the equipment is owned by [BUDC] as the developer – all the heavy equipment,” Cammarata explained. “Darryl did have to purchase plates and small goods for his purposes, but we have a very solid operation here that we can feature in the RFP.”

Cammarata is hoping the response will, once again, come from within the community.

“We would like it to be a local business,” he said. “We don’t want to entertain anything from a chain. That’s not what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

The BUDC will look for someone with more experience running a restaurant and structuring a management team, and hopes for someone used to dealing in the kind of high-customer volume that came to the new Gigi’s. Cammarata said he’ll also encourage the next vendor to “take it a little bit slower” with more scaled-back hours than Harvin tried to accomplish – perhaps even limiting offerings to two meals a day until ability to meet demand is proven.

So what of the name Gigi’s and its meaning for the East Side community? Cammarata said Harvin and his family members have no intention of leading another revival of the restaurant.

“He felt, and he should still feel, that the name has an awful lot of good will in the community related to it,” said Cammarata. “We will definitely put him in contact with whomever becomes shortlisted for the next purveyor, because there could be an opportunity there for the name and portions of the menu and so forth to carry on.”

Cammarata hopes to reopen the space within the next six months.

peter_cammarata_interview_for_web.mp3
Listen to the full conversation between WBFO's Avery Schneider and BUDC President Peter Cammarata.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
Dave Debo's journalism career runs the gamut from public radio to commercial radio, from digital projects to newspapers. With over 30 years of experience, he's produced national television news programs and has worked as both a daily and weekly print journalist and web editor.
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