If you thought you were the only one to think that the First Ward is Buffalo’s forgotten neighborhood, you are not alone. Sara Heidinger grew up in this old industrial neighborhood, and even when she was very small she noticed that there was one restaurant, one drugstore, and not much of a business district to speak of. Yes, there were a couple of bars, and yes, now you can rent a kayak nearby, but there was still a lack of walkable businesses for locals to enjoy in their own neighborhood, without having to venture to Larkinville, South Buffalo, or other areas nearby. This emptiness, combined with a little bit of pluck and the right opportunity, is what turned an old funeral home into Undergrounds Coffee House and Roastery.
Sara swam laps every day with a friend named Bill — owner of Gene McCarthy’s, beloved First Ward tavern down the block — at the local community center, where she was on the board. Driving around with Bill, a daily complaint was that there was nowhere to get coffee. The closest place was the Tim Horton’s inside the 716 complex — which, let’s be honest, to a coffee enthusiast, a chain simply will not cut it. She found herself going all the way to Public Espresso in the Hotel Lafayette. Not that their coffee wasn’t amazing (it is — it’s absolutely divine) but this was the opposite of convenient. Especially when coffee is usually something you go to first thing in the morning to wake up. This was a far cry from NYC, where Sara had lived for several years after college to start her photography business (did I mention she still does that as well? She must run on batteries). When she moved back to Buffalo at the end of 2011, this was a huge issue for her. “When I came back, I was so used to living in this walkable community, it really irked me.”
A little while later, Bill explained to Sara that their bar manager quit, and asked if she’d be interested. “I was like no, but I’d manage the shit out of a coffee shop! And then two days later he called me and was like, ‘There’s a funeral home that would make a good coffee shop.’” She half-jokingly said sure — not realizing how serious that sure would be taken. “We talked about it at length and I still kind of thought it was a joke, and then two weeks later he called me and said the funeral home had been sold, but the guy who bought it flips properties and said he’d sell it to us. So that night I was out with Bridget and was like, ‘Hey guess what? I might be opening a coffee shop!’”
Enter Bridget Morris, a friend who ran in the same circle as Sara for quite some time, and while they had known of each other, they hadn’t cross paths and become besties. When Sara came back from New York, everything just clicked between them. Bridget had been in the corporate coffee game for 13 years (I won’t name names, but think big green cups) and had an encyclopedic knowledge of running a coffee shop. She had been in management for the monolith for over a decade, and with that came all the knowledge that you can only learn on the frontlines. After consulting for Sara’s new venture, she offered to become a partner, and they gladly accepted. Bridget left behind the cushy world of 401Ks and benefits to follow a dream. She knew in her heart it was what she needed to do. “[I thought] if I don’t do this, I know that one day I am going to wake up and regret it,” Bridget said.
The business took off with what seemed like lightning speed. They had an idea, and turned it into reality in just a year and a half; a staggering feat when you think about what had to be involved.
Turning an old funeral parlor into a fully functioning cafe is a lot of work — and not just the basic part of installing a kitchen and taking down a few walls. This was coffee beans to wall murals — the concept, decor, sourcing, menu creating, you name it — all had to be created. How they were able to pull this off in such a short amount of time is a testament to their commitment and dedication, and also to the sense of community. There is also a strong sense of female empowerment, with many women working together to make Undergrounds the special place it is. There have been so many women who have added their talents to the creation and operation of the coffee shop: from assistant manager Veronica Rongo, who’s a big piece of running things smoothly, Sara said; to logo designer Justine Miller; to muralist Nicole Cherry, whose work is all over the shop; to Kupkates and Batter Up Buttercup, who make all the baked goods; to the handmade ceramic mugs by ceramics artist Jody Selin.
Let’s take a moment and talk mugs.
Sara had many years of restaurant experience, Bill had many years of experience running a bar, and Bridget had years of coffee shop management experience. Together, they combined their forces and thought about what makes all of those separate places great and how that could translate to this particular coffee shop. One of the fun ideas proposed was the “mug club,” seen at some local bars. They decided to tweak this idea to come up with their version of a mug club, and, as a result, have a stunning and engaging focal point where every customer stops and stares.
Turning an old funeral parlor into a fully functioning cafe is a lot of work.
The mug club is a program where you can purchase a mug that is customized for you with a portrait of a deceased person, selected for their awesomeness. Each one is beautifully and lovingly made by hand by Jody, and has a nice thick base and a unique shape — not just a plain round cylinder and handle. The mug sits on the shelf and awaits your visit, and you get discounts on your coffee, discounts on whole beans, access to specials, and other deals. It was a great way to allow people who wanted to contribute to the business but couldn’t afford to make a large investment. The mugs are $100 each, and are a great way to support the business and also get a great deal on the products — a win-win. They started off with one tiny shelf, and quickly had to expand — they now have over 100 mugs. Bridget and Sara each have two mugs (I know, I’m jealous). Sara has Simone de Beauvoir and Diane Arbus (a nod to photography and feminism), while Bridget has Audrey Hepburn and Kurt Cobain (two icons of their day, equally classic in their own way). “I love when people come in for the first time and customers gravitate towards them, just to have that kind of engagement. Everyone that works here gets excited about it,” Bridget said.
Perhaps the most mind-blowing thing about the shop, at least to me, is that these ladies roast their own beans. That’s right — that was not a typo. They purchase green beans, and head roaster Erin Morris roasts the beans each week in small batches on the East Side of Buffalo. The beans are roasted every Thursday, so if you come to the shop over the weekend, you are getting some of the freshest coffee you can possibly obtain. All the coffee is brewed with beans that were roasted within a week, and were ground within 24 hours. It is incredible. “It makes a big difference in the taste of the coffee,” Sara said. It’s no wonder that both Sara and Bridget like to drink their coffee black — when it’s that fresh it doesn’t need anything else. They are both partial to the Columbian roast they serve, but when Sara wants a special drink, she has a cappuccino — Bridget heads right for the Americano.
Dedicated to creating a sense of community, the shop carries other brands of coffee in addition to their own. They truly believe in the philosophy of a rising tide raising all ships. They are currently carrying Lockport’s own Steamworks coffee, who return the favor and carry Undergrounds coffee. “We thought it would be a cool way to create a sense of community, not just from the neighborhood perspective, but also in this new small batch roasting community. Sometimes all it takes is someone highlighting your product to give you that jump start. [It] gives us the opportunity to reach a higher amount of people than we would on our own merit,” Bridget said.
Both Sara and Bridget should be extremely proud of their shop. Giving new life to an old building that had not been using its full potential in some time is no mean feat. Their dedication, including 60-hour workweeks on the floor, plus countless hours doing promotions, marketing, and all the behind-the-scenes at the shop would make anyone balk, but they do it with elan and a smile. They have managed to do what some people think of as the impossible — remaining friends during the stressful time of starting and running a small business. “[We were very] confident in the fact that we could be business partners and continue to cultivate and grow our friendship, and we’ve been able to keep the two separate this whole time. The first year of opening up a small business is super stressful, and I think we’ve gotten much better at reading each other — when to back off, when to push forward. If there’s a hard day at work, we’re likely to be down at Gene McCarthy’s after. I’m really proud of that; we went into it with that intent, that no matter what — our friendship needs to be preserved,” Bridget said. A trick from Sara is that, “Sometimes we call friend time. Like, ‘I just need you to be my friend right now.’” And it works! Seeing the two of them behind the counter, it is clear they will not let the stresses of the day-to-day get between them and their great vibe. It’s quite a thing to behold.
One thing I haven’t really touched upon yet is the fact that this was a funeral home. Aside from the punny name, this former life is what gives Undergrounds its whole aura. Part funeral home, part Dia De Los Muertos celebration of death, this place has a definite feel. For their one-year anniversary they had a New Orleans-style jazz band march from Gene McCarthy’s to the shop, celebrating their first year in business, in addition to daylong live music and local beer, wine, and baked goods vendors.
The idea of rebirth and coming full circle is best illustrated in the following aside. One day while they worked on refurbishing the old building, a friend who was helping to remove layers upon layers of old flooring paused in his work and mused, “I haven’t been here since my mom’s wake.” That’s when it really hit home that this was a place of significance in people’s memory, and, perhaps through the revitalization, the people who entered the threshold during sadder times in the past can enter it now in present day and reframe it in a different light. “We came full circle,” says Bridget. “The first event we had was a funeral brunch. If that’s not full circle, I don’t know what is.”
“We used to joke that we could open a store and put a Keurig in the back of it and it would be better than what we had,” Sara said about the days when the shop was a dream, and there was nowhere to get a cup of joe. The girls are now busy catering all over the city, from Orchard Park to downtown — it doesn’t matter, wherever you need them, they will deliver. They fill orders for Skip the Dishes, and have their doors open at 6 a.m. on the weekdays, 7 a.m. on the weekends, to serve the freshest coffee you can get in this city. Not only are they doing a fantastic job in the cafe, they are also hosting a flurry of events for the community. There is a Trunk or Treat scheduled for October 28, where kids can get candy, color, and do crafts; there’s a donation based candle-lit yoga starting on the second Monday in October (every Monday through the month) led by Kylie Eaton, one of their own talented baristas; a Small Business Saturday vendor fair full of surprises on November 25, and a tree lighting ceremony in December. It has been a little over a year and things are falling into place. It’s just what the First Ward needed. Hopefully this trend will continue, and buildings on the brink of death will be brought back to new life.