Food lies at the heart of our bodies and our culture; it is there for celebrations and sustenance. NOMaste features a local fierce foodie each month, in four weekly segments. First, an interview, then a top 10 list, followed by a recipe to share, and finally a food review. This food corner will not just feature local chefs but also restaurateurs, buyers, suppliers — any woman involved in any aspect of the food chain, from farm to food truck. Join us each week as we get to know another Foodie in the city.
The unassuming owner of the expanse of old Victorian brick that stretches from the corner of Sweet_ness 7 Café, all the way to G&L Flooring is a petite, bubbly blonde woman who never had any intention of owning such an establishment – now icon – on the West Side.
Growing up the middle child with five sisters and an older brother, Prish Moran was no stranger to rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty. Even in a large family, Prish proved to be a handful and it worried her mother to no end. Little did her mother know that the little girl with greasy hands under the hood of the car would end up marrying an Italian man she had known for a week in the Bahamas on a whim, which would lead her to live for several years in Europe. But that is the recurring theme of how Prish lives her life — on a whim, with faith that everything will fall into place, if you are positive, hard-working, and just a bit crazy.
Such women are not born in a vacuum, and she owes much of her nature and success to a father who encouraged her to do whatever her creative mind jumped to. “I just never thought I couldn’t do anything. I had a forward-thinking Dad. [He was] just like, ‘You can do it.’ When it starts little it’s a HUGE benefit to a child.” Lessons Prish took to heart.
As a result, she has instilled art, creativity, and courageousness in her children through positive encouragement and a true belief in their talents. This extends not just to her biological children but the many children she has taken under her maternal wings over the years. She can’t help but encourage and mother all those around her.
After moving back to Buffalo from New York City in 1996 with three small children, Prish became a stay-at-home mom. Like many goal-oriented women, she didn’t so much want to work as needed to work. She ended up doing something that many women wish they had the courage to do — build a life so that she could do just that. She wove together one creative job after another, and each creative outlet tied into another, until a large web of skills emerged which has lead her ultimately to Sweet_ness 7 and her current projects.
Her early career in NYC starting out designing children’s clothes which then led to men’s suits, then specialty slipcovers; this in turn led to costume design for Shakespeare in the Park. “It was fun for my kids. They learned a lot watching their mother do crazy things; watching actors come in the house and I’d measure them. I chat about it out loud because I feel some people find it hard to realize that you can create a life for yourself outside of the box that our society has created for us.”
Her self-made career was not just tied to fabric and costumes. She also has a long history of faux finishing and decorative painting, which opened up opportunities to work on some fun projects in some of the mansions along Delaware Ave. and many local restaurants. Faux finishing is trompe l’oeil writ large. It involves painting a surface (typically wood or plaster) to look like some other material, such as marble, stone, or wood. “I love old stuff [and] faux finishing. That was a lost art; it’s been around for centuries but it hasn’t revived.” Thanks to Prish, she has led a one-woman revival of it in the Queen City.
A frequent flyer of the city’s demo list, Prish would nab houses then pour her talents into them, returning them to not just habitable conditions, but to their old glory as part of the city. “I always got houses out of the city’s old demo list. In those days it was a handful of people at those auctions. We’d buy buildings for a dollar. It was amazing.”
After reading this incredible resume, you can clearly see how she was the perfect fit to revive an old building and whip it into one of the coolest cafés in the city. It seemed she was destined for this, with her old building rehab skills, restaurant interior designing past, and painting and faux finishing career. How could she not end up where she is now?
She didn’t honestly think so. While it would make for a fairytale story, real life is much messier and infinitely harder on its characters.
One Sunday afternoon in 2007, Prish found herself walking around the West Side with her dogs, completely oblivious to the fate that was about to come knocking. On Grant St., she happened upon a man planting a tree in front of the now Sweet_ness 7 Café, whom she remembered from her Elmwood Village Association days (previously called Forever Elmwood). He was doing a small beautification project and they reconnected.
She took one look at this old Victorian monolith, and uttered the fateful words, “Tell me about this building.” It turned out the property, which had previously been owned by someone overseas as a tax shelter, sitting vacant and boarded up, was just out of city housing court. The scuttlebutt was that Rite Aid was going to purchase it the following day (Monday) and tear it down to put in another store and parking lot. But thanks to Prish, we still have this brick beauty standing in Buffalo. She said she wanted it, right then and there. And in classic Prish fashion, she didn’t even look inside — she made an offer without so much as looking in a single window. A phone call later to a real estate lawyer and an offer accepted, the place was to be hers.
“The attorney was an old West Side Italian [who] still goes to Guercio’s every Saturday and still to this day, every Saturday, comes to the café for breakfast then goes over there. And I didn’t know I was opening a coffee shop back then! It’s amazing.”
When the building became hers, people had known it as Russ’s Pastry Shop. It had been in the neighborhood for many years before it had closed. Afterwards, the next owner, with ill-conceived plans to turn it into a liquor store, ripped out all the cabinets and threw in a drop ceiling. Had they done their research, they would have realized their proximity to a school and a church would make opening a liquor store in that location impossible. So they boarded up before ever really getting the business rolling. And there it sat. And sat, and sat, and sat, for 8 long years, until the day Prish saw an old friend planting a tree out front.
All those years of designing restaurant interiors and gutting homes on the brink of death made this second nature. She quickly set to the task of building the café. Part of what sets Prish apart, and is true to her sensibilities, is her thriftiness. “Because of Buffalo ReUse — it was new and had tons of stuff — my place got fitted out real cheap.”
‘No, I need to make it like my own kitchen at home.’
She asked her large network of friends from the restaurant world for advice, and the community was there and had her back. While some voices were helpful, at some point, too many voices altogether can sound a lot like noise. She eventually decided to stop listening to advice, and to just go with her gut. One friend suggested, “Don’t do your thing to it Prish — all white, clean.” And Prish thought, “’No, I need to make it like my own kitchen at home.’ If I listened to everyone around me I would never have this — I would have never had this building!”
Even the city seemed to have her back, with all the different dizzying departments involved with opening and running a café ready to help. The various persons in the various buildings offered up advice, showed her which forms to fill out and what to do.
Ironically, the one thing she WAS nervous about was making coffee. She doesn’t even drink the stuff! That’s right — you heard it — Prish Moran, owner and creator and the big boss of Sweet_ness 7 Café is a tea drinker. “I took a week-long intensive course on that fancy coffee machine. I was sick from drinking all my drinks! [I’d make something and ask] is this good? I was dizzy from too much caffeine.” If you stop by and have a cup, you’ll see that it worked out pretty well.
However, not everything is as easy as it appears at first blush, and as with any major life-changing project, this turned out to be a bit much on Prish’s marriage. The café was something in contention, and Prish was set on keeping it and seeing her dream through. While she was in the throes of a divorce, the café’s future was tenuous.
In comes another character in the play of this part of Buffalo’s community. Another old friend, Fred, active with preservation grants, appeared out of the blue after hearing about Prish’s adventure. As it turned out, Grant Street “was THE place to be pre-1960s. It had the movie theaters and the stores and the Italians and the open markets. This was the Bleeker Street of Buffalo.” He had remembered her from their children’s soccer games years ago, when she had loaned him some sunglasses during a particularly bright and hot game. He had not forgotten her or her kindness. Thanks to Fred, who had handled all the paperwork and applications, Prish was able to hold onto the property and the project through a preservation grant. “We are still incredibly close friends. I wouldn’t have the building without him. I’m thankful to him to this day.”
After much hard work and dedication, opening day was finally upon her.
“The day I opened, there was a line down the street. I opened it by myself. It was like the best day of my life. Everyone who I had ever met, they all came — that’s community. You never plan forward and think ‘I might need them one day.’ The kid that owns the skateboard shop was like, ‘I’ll do dishes.’ We laughed, the music was on, it just went from there. That day I hired three people — kids I knew from my kid’s high school — it was awesome. I can’t say enough about the spontaneous nature of this project. It’s what you wanted it to be.”
One visit to Sweet_ness 7 and you can tell it’s all about community. The main table that sits in the center is large enough to fit eight people comfortably, but you can probably squeeze in a dozen intimately. That center community table was the old dough table from the Italian pastry shop in Sweet_ness’s previous life. The legs had to be chopped down a touch to make it a comfortable sitting place; after that small adjustment, it fit in perfectly. All the other small tables seem to radiate outward from this, but nothing is too far away from each other. “At the time it was all community creating community. We all overthink what people want in a restaurant. We can all eat at home — we all just want a place. I learned that on my own.”
The café, now open for 9 years, is a testament to the concept of community. Serving breakfast all day alongside delicious coffee and other treats, this is a place of gathering. Prish used to host a ladies night where women would come together and support each other and help one another out. It is a place where Prish is able to be a mother to all those around her. Motherhood, it turned out, is a cornerstone of Prish. “I love motherhood; I’ll never change from mothering strangers unintentionally. It’s such an amazing part of being able to have this building, this whole spiritual journey. Being able to give so many jobs to so many people. I can’t even explain. It’s so important for everyone to open up a bit and talk. People are shy about talking about their dreams, they feel silly.” Prish is someone you can truly open up to and she will listen, not judge, and give you some maternal advice along the way.
Now after the success of Sweet_ness 7, Prish has been turning her efforts to the old church that lies behind the café. This space has been changed over the past few months into the night-time half of the café — the yin to the coffee’s yang. The café will be the morning/afternoon spot, and this new endeavor will be the evening space. Restoring the old building to all its glory, but also incorporating full murals on the walls and ceilings, this spacious night spot is sure to be an instant hit. The murals, which I was able to take a sneak peek at, were done by one of her employees from Sweet_ness who didn’t even realize he could paint. In fact, he had never painted before. With the help of Prish’s maternal nurturing and ‘just do it’ attitude, she let him loose on her ceilings — and what he has created is breathtaking. There are no words for it, so you will need to come see it for yourself. There is a second story bar area, and a DJ booth sits high above the door, with windows opening onto the street. Huge windows on one wall let light and the night air in. There is a stage for performances of all kinds, and church pews create the seating area. Grant Street has been waiting for a spot like this — all of Buffalo has.
Once that space is done, Prish can finally go to Massachusetts for the summer, as she had been wanting to do for the past few years. “I have two houses in Massachusetts — my son lives there. It was a family house for 80 years. It was my grandmother’s house. It’s a tiny little gothic cottage. I fixed that up.” Eventually she acquired the cottage next door and fixed that up as well. She charmingly calls it the guest cottage, since her cottage has only two bedrooms. “I probably spend six months there at this point. It became a huge part of my life.” After all that she has accomplished — and is slated to accomplish this fall — she deserves a much needed rest on the ocean, with a warm cup of tea.
While we wait with bated breath for the new night spot to open, stop by the cafe and have some coffee and a nosh. If you see Prish, she will be there with an open heart, a listening ear, and a big, bright smile.
AlanAdetolArts, L.L.C. – Birdcage Studios – Buffalo, N.Y. 14213 –[email protected]
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