It wasn’t that long ago that food trucks were a new thing in Buffalo – fighting for recognition and the clarification of laws regarding mobile dining from the city. Meanwhile, some brick and mortar restauranteurs wrung their hats in worry about these rolling kitchens that had suddenly become competition, but also a catalyst for innovation in the city. We’ve seen trucks come and go – like the sorely missed Betty Crockski (I’ve still got an emergency stash of their sausage and pierogi in my freezer that I’m saving for the apocalypse.) We’ve seen the aforementioned brick and mortar restaurants start to get in on the fun with roving versions of their own concepts (like the great Amy’s Place truck and the lamentable Chef’s To Go) and we’ve seen some of the earliest trucks on the scene start to found new sit-down outposts like Lloyd Taco Factory. But the first to make that transition, and the best of the batch of the new restaurants grown from Buffalo’s food truck scene, came when Mike Dimmer and Christian Willmott of The Black Market Food Truck opened Marble + Rye last year.
Friends since High School, Dimmer and Willmott briefly parted ways when higher learning restaurant work drew them back together after graduation – and inspired the duo to attend a two-year culinary program in Niagara Falls to get a better grasp of the fundamentals of cooking and restaurant management prior to debuting as The Nines Catering. “Our first events were for family and friends, mostly they went well, but there were the occasional random disasters that come up in business that you never think to prepare for, like having a friend who was helping us out at an event have a massive allergic reaction to a client’s pet…” Willmott related to me.
After four years of catering at night and on weekends, the pair set their sights on the possibility of opening a brick and mortar restaurant, but they realized that the road would be a long one as they continually learned and refined their skills. Dimmer recounted “Many come into the industry with no prior experience, only a mindset of ‘I like cooking, and food, and I love drinking… I’ll open a restaurant’ and if we had that mentality from day one, boy, would we have screwed ourselves. We knew there was a lot more involved and that there would be mistakes and failures that we would have to learn from as we grew this business. In many ways the truck became a natural progression between catering and Marble + Rye. We had been catering weddings and doing these events out of clients’ garages and home kitchens, and it just became so stressful and hard to handle that we realized we needed some sort of mobile kitchen. Food trucks were just starting to blow up in Buffalo, but we never intended to open a truck to put on the road, rather it was intended as a vessel to cater out of.”
On their approach to food, Dimmer told me “Whether it was catering, the truck, or the restaurant, we knew that we wanted to make everything from scratch, that was going to be our goal. If we did sandwiches, we baked the bread and scratch made all of our sauces, dressings, and braised meats. We didn’t want to go the easy route of buying frozen stuff just reselling it. When we started, food trucks were so new in the city that people didn’t really know what to expect in terms of quality and preparation. It was important to us to let people know that even if we were doing fast food that it was going to be fresh, it was going to be quality, and it was going to be house made. It’s a philosophy that we’ve carried through all of our ventures.”
When discussing the evolution from truck to brick and mortar, the guys were candid that they had several opportunities to do it earlier but were glad they waited. “We’ve always been looking, always. A couple opportunities came up during the early days of the truck, and fortunately we said no to them. It’s always hard to say no to something like that, when it’s something that you’ve dreamt of for years, but we weren’t one hundred percent behind those ideas, so I’m glad we walked away from them.”
“I think we got to a point where we had hit a ceiling with the truck in terms of how much we could do. There wasn’t as much time for the truck to be out on the street making money, and with the boom in food trucks in Western New York, it was getting tougher to find viable spots to set up. We looked at several places that weren’t great, and it was always that constant internal dialogue you have when you’re not desperate, but you’re really ambitious of ‘can I can make this work?’. But ultimately it was our attorney who made us aware of the former Ellicott Paint storefront that had been sitting vacant for nearly ten years. We loved the neighborhood, but had no idea that so many bars and restaurants would be opening on this block around the same time we did – turning the Genesee gateway neighborhood into a growing dining destination.”
The menu at Marble + Rye changes regularly, reflecting not just the seasonal availability of ingredients, but also the creative drives of Dimmer. Standouts during my last few visits included pickled onion rings with green garlic aioli (as addictive a drinking snack as there ever was – pair with a beer or one of Willmott’s signature cocktails and you’ll be at the bar all night ordering plate after plate of them as me and my friends were), a salad of heirloom tomatoes and flowers with marigold vinaigrette, whole wood-fire roasted fish, an ever changing assortment of house-made pastas, beef tartare with local potato chips, and the M+R burger, a signature take on their standard house ground burger that changes regularly – on my first visit (just a few days after my wedding – that’s how excited me and my wife were to eat here!) it was accompanied by an incredibly deep and rich seaweed mayonnaise that was such a perfect complement to the rest of the burger that it almost seems common sense to throw some sea vegetables on my next batch of sliders. Dimmer is vocal about his desire to design a well-curated menu – one that goes through seasonal and timely changes but always offers something that is both familiar and new for diners. It’s an approach that lets them be reactive to their guests’ experiences and refine their bar and kitchen offerings on the fly.
Willmott concluded “I think places like Vera Pizzeria and the Blue Monk really started a movement here in Buffalo, establishing an eating and drinking scene that had already become the norm in other cities, but was new here. It started to give people an alternative to the factory bars and old white table cloth places and became about offering thoughtful plates with better ingredients, better drinks, and little pretension. It’s somewhere fun and reasonably priced where you can both get dinner and hang out for drinks after. We want to stay true to that approach and we’ve seen a huge shift in the clientele to one that is more adventurous and receptive to this new approach, and as those positive changes come it’s reflected well on the city as a whole.”