While listening to Sandra Wilkins’s amazing life story, I can see a huge neon hashtag above her head that reads simply: #lifegoals. She is quite the accomplished woman, who started out as a stay-at-home mom, and ended up becoming a jet-setting restaurateur. She’s a verified chameleon who can change in the blink of an eye. Along the way she got herself an education, a software consulting business, and turned her whole life upside down by moving to the city. She is nothing if not an inspiration to anyone who thinks they may be too old to change the course of their life. Despite the rollercoaster, Sandra is where she wants to be and smiling.
To even begin to understand Sandra, one must allow themselves to be enveloped in her energetic, optimistic, mile-a-minute mind. During our interview, she never stopped smiling, even when talking about the hurdles she has had to overcome along the way. Listening to our interview, I had trouble just keeping up with the transcript because she has so much to say, and says it so fast. Listening to her, you get excited with her. You become as exhilarated as she does, just talking about construction and bread.
But as I said, Sandra wasn’t always downtown. It was a long journey to get there. Originally from Niagara Falls, she went to school and got married and started a family. After getting a divorce from her then husband, she decided she needed to continue her education in order to succeed, and went back to school. After focusing on her education, she remarried. Her husband started a computer consulting company which Sandra joined and eventually took over. The business was flourishing and was a great success. With this, they were able to design and build their dream retirement home on Grand Island; complete with an outdoor kitchen, large swimming pool, and tons of great walk-in closet space. It was a perfect place for her and her whole family to enjoy. But what happened next could never have been anticipated.
Her sister, who was living in Charlotte at the time and had worked in the restaurant world her entire life, wanted to come back home. “She wanted to open a restaurant but couldn’t just open a restaurant by herself. So I talked to my husband, and said, ‘I’ve been doing computer stuff for 20-25 years. Can I like, just open a restaurant with my sister?’” And just like that, Sandra decided to become a restaurateur.
At the same time all these plans were being thought up, they found themselves at the finishing stages of their dream home in Grand Island. The last part of the house that was being worked on was a bathroom for her grandchildren to use once they got out of the pool, before they ran through the house. While this was being worked on, Sandra hit the pavement. first thing they would need was a location.
“At that time I started looking at places to lease, mostly [in] Elmwood Village because I was thinking that’s where I wanted to be. But then I wandered around here. In the early 2000s we wanted to buy a building […] to have [our] computer company downstairs and live upstairs, but it all fell through. So I came down here and this building was for sale. It was an Arby’s in the ‘80s! I walked by this and was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I called this realtor I’ve used, and said, ‘I just want to look at it.’ I came in and looked at it, and was like ‘Oh my God.’ I went home and my husband was literally putting the last tile on the wall of that new bathroom, and I said, ‘We’re moving to Buffalo!’ He said, ‘Yeah right, not that again.’ I said, ‘Just go look at this building, we can do the restaurant downstairs!’”
“We had been in Grand Island for 8 years, everything was made for us to live there for the rest of our lives. But he looked at the building and said ‘Oh no…’. He completely fell in love with it.” And with that, one day in 2011, they turned their backs on their dream home, and bought themselves a large brick building on Main Street in downtown Buffalo, with no gas, electric, water, and with all of its windows boarded up. They had something absolutely crucial in such a situation: vision. They saw not the old, yellow stucco Arby’s of decades long gone by, but the restaurant and apartment of their dreams.
Before the restaurant could come to fruition, they decided to work on their future home. “We decided we had to do the upstairs first because we needed a place to live. My sister probably wanted to kill me, but she still loves me!” The amount of work required to make their future apartment lovely and the building up to code and workable cannot be understated. It was a multi-year and monumental effort.
The work, expense, time, and love that went into their two-floor loft was intense. Benjamin Siegel of BMS Design Studio was the interior designer who helped make their dream a reality. It took 3 years to get the living space ready to move in. During that time they moved out of their Grand Island home into an apartment nearby, to be able to oversee a lot of the work and put in a lot of sweat and elbow grease themselves, on the daily. During all of this, the city started to rip up Main Street for their Cars on Main Street project, leaving their building inaccessible to trucks for 6 months. Other things that could not be planned for were things like the windows. Each window is a different size, and had been boarded up for over 10 years. After measuring three times, on installation day, when the boards were removed, bricks started to fall out. “It’s a 200-year-old building that was boarded up for a decade. So there were so many challenges that were not foreseeable,” she said.
In order to appreciate the incredible design and renovation of their loft, you can get a tour yourself by checking out the wonderful article and photoshoot of their space, from the March 23, 2018 edition of The Gusto here.
Now with the upstairs done, it was time to work on the restaurant. “My sister and I were talking about the restaurant, and she wanted to start an Italian restaurant. We’re like, we have to do something different, because If you stand here and you walk two blocks that way, two blocks that way, two blocks that way, you can find a really good Italian restaurant. So why do that again? My husband and I travel all the time, and we always go to Paris and then go somewhere we’ve never been.” While raising their family, often for lunch and sometimes dinner, if nothing was on the menu, she would bust out the raclette grill. Always having fresh cheese, veggies, and cold cuts in the fridge, it was a no-brainer meal. For those who do not know the joys of raclette, it is a simple and joyful meal. You heat up cheeses to go on top of anything your heart desires, but the easiest things to throw them on is veggies, meats, and breads. Think of fondue, but instead of dipping your food items into melted cheese, you are pouring the melted cheese on top of it. Delicious, nutritious, quick, and always on hand in Sandra’s house. “So we came up with the idea for Raclettes.” With that in their heads, and Paris in their hearts, they decided a French-style bistro — with some raclette in the mix — would be their restaurant.
They put their sweat and hearts into the renovations downstairs, as well. “If you look around, everything wooden Paul built. All of the tables, the bar, the shelves — he built everything. This is what we did while we were waiting.” And even though they had to wait for work to be done, since nothing can be done overnight, they were shocked and amazed at how much the city was there to help them. “The city was amazing, the city was so good. The inspectors, the planners, they were all so good, they really worked with us, and were so good to work with. I was in City Hall constantly, and Mayor Brown, and Darius G. Pridgen, were very helpful to us.”
After the years it took to get everything ready from top to bottom, Raclettes was ready to open on March 21, 2016. They had their fingers on the pulse back then, whether they knew it or not, because one by one, other buildings were being renovated into living and commercial space, and they were getting new neighbors constantly. “We were like, ‘We did the right thing!’”
Sandra’s best qualities, and what makes her perfect to be at the helm of a business like this, are her open mind and dedication to her customers’ happiness. She relies on her staff to tell her when she has an idea that won’t work, and together they have developed the well-greased machine that is their bistro.
“Our staff makes us great. People say, ‘Oh my God, your restaurant is so good!’ and I say thank you, but thank the staff. I had been running our [computer consulting] business for 20 years, so I know how to run a business, but I know that running a restaurant is a completely different animal. You have to know the restaurant business. Our chef and our staff have really helped us grow.”
With the help of her staff, they have figured out the ins and outs of the restaurant world, working out the kinks that can only be sorted out as you go. Figuring out what sells, what doesn’t, what will be the favorite menu items and what doesn’t seem to work. Sandra is also mindful to have several vegetarian options at all times, and to always have a vegan dish available. Their menu has grown with them.
“Over time, our chef changed up our couque au vin, we added a lamb shank, we change our ratatouille in the winter to be more hearty, more of a bean stew. We know what sells now. We won’t change our beef bourguignon, we won’t change our French onion soup, the cassoulet will come and go seasonally — no one wants to eat a hearty stew in the summer.”
She has also learned from her mistakes, being the first person to own up to them and work to make things better. “We’ve had bad nights. We did Restaurant Week last year. [We have a table that] is a 12 top or can be separated into smaller tables. We’ve never had issues, but during Restaurant Week, we had it booked as a 12 top AND individually. I was calling people, trying to change the reservations, but it didn’t work out. It was our fault and it was a mess.”
This was a great learning experience in how to deal with double bookings and things of that nature, which can happen whether you’re fresh on the scene or a veteran. They have also decided to sacrifice large parties for the sake of better service. They know how long it takes to prepare the food, and to have plates come out on time. If that 12 top long table was full, it would be nearly impossible for all of the appetizers and main courses to be served at the same time, leaving guests with a not-so-perfect evening. “We don’t take any parties over eight, because we want to make sure you have great service. I want to make sure when people walk in here, they get the best food and the best service.”
“I want to make sure when people walk in here, they get the best food and the best service.”
It seems that Sandra will stop at nothing to make sure the customer comes first, and nothing portrays this quite like the following story. The very first Easter the restaurant was in business, the restaurant was listed on OpenTable as open. “There were two reservations for Easter Sunday, and we didn’t realize until that morning! So my husband and I, and my sister and her daughter came in and we made brunch for these people, because you couldn’t tell them on Easter morning, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not open.’” I have never heard of a restaurant owner going to such lengths.
Some people may find her decision to open a restaurant and move downtown out of nowhere crazy. When asked if she had any reservations about her journey, she said, “I did not miss my house for one second because I was so excited about living downtown.” One look at her beautiful loft, and one meal at her incredible restaurant, and you can understand why she did what she did — and merci for that!
Photos by AlanAdetolArts, L.L.C. – Birdcage Studios – Buffalo, N.Y. 14213 –[email protected]
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