Tuesday, November 1, 2011

An interview with Corey and Cheryl Kley, the new owners of the Rue Franklin

Corey and Cheryl Kley were kind enough to sit down with ol' Dining Rumor for interview, to set the record straight on their recent purchase of the Rue Franklin, the paragon of Buffalo's fine dining establishments.

What follows is my transcription of a recorded interview with the couple. Spelling errors and tempermental capitalizations galore. Enjoy.

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DR: How did you get started in the service industry, and how did you come to the Rue?

Co: We're both from Buffalo, North Tonawanda/City of Tonawanda. Me personally, I started dishwashing when I was 15 I think, at an old place that my neighbor owned. Within a couple of months moved from dishwasher to making salads or plating food. And that was pretty much it for me, after that. A friend of mine that i worked with had an in at Warren's with Mark Warren, got me an interview there, and I ended up getting a job when I was 16 or 17, and after that, that was pretty much all i was going to do for the rest of my life. Mark showed me what it was to be fine dining and a restaurateur. I went to Paul Smith's College after high school, and had the joy of going to France through school, and getting school credit which pretty much can't be beat. I fell in love with France then, and came back home, spent a couple months down in Florida, came back to Buffalo, and worked for Mark again at Zuzon's, where I met my wife, where she was serving. After that I worked at a couple places I'd rather not mention (laughs)...and then i found my home at the Rue, and I've been here for 8 years now. And this is exactly the place I wanted to be. And it was a no-brainer to purchase this.

Ch: I think i started in restaurants when i was about 16, started out as a hostess. And then throughout the years I've worked at, i don't know how many different restaurants in Buffalo, serving, hosting, foodrunning, bussing tables, cocktailing, and then, like my husband had mentioned, we met along the way. It was about ten years ago, and i guess the rest is history. we're here now, ten years later, working together, owning, so it's been nice.

DR: Did you fall into the Rue separately, did one of you bring the other along? was it a 'package deal'?

Co: Of course it was a package deal! this place has to be a husband and wife team, i think. it seems to work out. it's worked out for the past 40 years, I'm sure it'll work out for the next 40.

Ch: for some reason i always kind of figured we would end up here, I'm not really sure how that happened. It was just, like (Corey always says), a natural progression, taking over.

DR: How important do you think it was for former owners Joel and DeeDee Lippes to pass this place on to another husband and wife team? was it a priority for them, do you think?

Co: I don't want to say it was a priority, for a husband and wife team, i just think, I've never had a partner in business, and I've heard nothing but bad things about partners in business. i think it's a little bit easier when the partners are under one roof. was it overly important that they sell to a husband and wife? in the long run, i don't really think so, but i think it was a very natural fit.

DR: Having seen it done firsthand, and being a husband and wife team, how do you think that relationship contributes to the success of the Rue?

Co: i think it just opens up communication. neither of us hold back, because we have the husband and wife bond, when there's something wrong, or something's not right -- or something IS right -- it's an immediate reaction.

DR: I've worked for some people that have been husband and wife teams in the past that haven't worked out -- what play does the quality of the relationship have in running the business?

Ch: i think you have to know when to put the relationship first, and when to put the business first. there's times when it's important, and you might be stressed out, but you have things you need to do and you just do them.

Co: i was just thinking that every restaurant I've worked in that has been worthwhile has been a husband and wife team. and of course everyone has their moment when the relationship carries over to the business, i guess, but you try to keep those few and far between. i think in the long run it just works out.

Ch: you have to have a strong relationship to start out with though

Co: exactly

DR: how does your relationship frame the way you approach coming to work, as far staff and even clientele is considered?


Co: At least from my approach, i love coming to work. one common complaint in the kitchen is that you don't get to see your wife or your kids or your family; i don't have that problem, now. and how does that relate to the rest of the staff? i actually think its slightly more positive, its relationships, right? its slightly easier to trust, or for the staff to trust you, knowing what you have invested. Not just a partnership where you have money invested, this is in all honesty our life. we've moved in upstairs. this is just what we're doing. i think that it reflects on the quality that we're putting out and the staff is reassured that we're not here to drain the business and move on in ten years. The next 40 years is what we're looking at. i hope in 40 years we're sitting down with the next couple, or the next owner, asking the same questions.

DR: It's no secret Cheryl has a bun in the oven...

Ch: it's out there

Co: there's not much hiding it

Ch: yeah, he's here.

Co: it is going to be a boy, at least that's what the doctors tell us, he is due in late December.

DR: well, that's comin up!

Co: exactly, but we're excited! of course everything had to happen at once. we had to get a restaurant, move, and have a baby all at the same time! But i think, what we've been talking about, in ten years, we'll look back and say 'How the hell did we do it?'

DR: do you have a plan for how you are going to handle it? is it a day at a time?

Co: no, we have a tentative plan. Cheryl will be stepping off the floor during the month of December. she'll still be here during the day, answering phones and doing bookwork and things like that. Setting the staff up, for the evening. And then we have a very very strong support staff of servers and bussers out in the front that have been here forever, and can easily fill the void and Dee Dee will be coming back for a little bit, during the early part of December. And then there's be a new face around for the second part of December, and then after that the baby will be down here. in the corner someplace? (laughs) I don't know. We haven't worked out the logistics of that, but he will be down here. And then we will have a nanny in the evening when Cheryl's back on the floor.

DR: You're pretty much destined to have an industry involved kid, then, huh?

Co: (laughs) exactly. Well. he could embrace it, or he could rebel against it.

DR: At what point did you know that the Rue was some place you wanted to be involved with on the level that you are now?

Co: I'm not sure when that happened. I can tell you that it took me about three days to know that I was not going to be working any place else and be living in Buffalo.

DR: Why is that?

Co: Why? Because on day three, Joel was teaching me for the second time how to cook mushrooms properly. You know what I mean? He just had that level of quality that he refused to budge on, and I knew I was not going to be working any place else. I'm sure that does exist at other places, but this was the place for me. I knew that almost instantly. When did I come home and say I wanted to own it? I'm sure that happened at some point.

Ch: I think it's always been a running joke, even with Joel and Dee Dee.

Co: In all honesty, when Cheryl and myself would sit down and talk about what our next move is, we had ideas to open up other things, that would then transition into the Rue, someplace else. So we just cut first five years of opening something that wasn't going to be overly financially viable, for the long haul.

Ch: yeah, it was either move away, or buy the Rue. Those were our options, in the end.

Co: yeah, i guess at some point we came to that conclusion.

DR: The Rue enjoys an almost unchallenged reputation in Buffalo, for quality and fine dining. What is it about Joel and Dee Dee's vision that you want to maintain?

Co: I think that reputation is just strictly a testament to Joel and Dee Dee, their unflinching commitment to quality and service, over the past, it's been the fine dining Rue for 31 years now? And the coffeehouse before that, they just refused to accept anything but the best, and it clearly shows, and clearly that's why they have their reputation, and that's what we're trying to continue. the question has come up 'What's changing here?' Nothing's changing here. Cheryl's going to be out front instead of Dee Dee and that's the only change anyone's going to notice. If we wanted to change the Rue, we would not have purchased the Rue. We would've purchased something else, or opened something else. They hired the right people to designer, the right decorator, the right landscaper, the right suppliers. It's the whole bundle, there's no one thing.

Ch: It's consistent food in a comfortable, beautiful, elegant atmosphere.

Co: Actually, we've had a couple of guests come in for the first time over the past couple of weeks and question why they didn't really know about this place. Because we don't really advertise, but the phrase "hidden gem" has come out of their mouth. I think that's somewhat true, you walk through a front door that's fairly nondescript, you kind of pause and say "wow, how have I not been here in the past 20 years?"

DR: I do agree that there is a certain low profile that the restaurant keeps, it's not flashy or in your face...

Co: exactly, it's understated. We don't let our waitstaff wear flashy jewelry, they're very subdued. We prefer to let the guest shine, whether they're celebrating their anniversary, or it's just a random Wednesday night that they're coming out. We want them to feel slightly spoiled, and that they're special.

DR: You yourself seem to keep a low profile, for being somebody that chefs at what a lot of people consider to be THE fine dining restaurant. There are some loud chefs in Buffalo, some "rock star" personalities.

Co: That's personally just not me. Could I easily do a Nickel City Chef, and raise my profile, sure. Would I win? I don't know, I doubt it. It's not the food that I do. I would like to think I'm a fairly humble guy. I put my hours in in the kitchen and I don't have that ego, I don't think. I would much rather have quality food on a plate being served by quality people, than have my name on the building. I would much prefer to build a team around me that is not afraid to tell me that I'm wrong -- or at least bring it to my attention (laughs) -- and not be afraid of me. Anything you can add to that? I don't know I just don't think it's me, the loud...

Ch: No, you let your food speak for itself

Co: Exactly. I mean, it works for some people, and I'm not putting anyone down. But I don't think it's this place.

DR: Buffalo is a small city, and there tends to be a lot of rivalry, have you ever been targeted for that sort of thing?

Co: Absolutely not, quite the opposite.

DR: Because of the oversaturation of food related media, and celebrity chefs, etc., do you think those informed, or maybe misinformed, viewers make your job easier or more difficult?

Co: Food network is on with fifty different personalities, and so yeah I think there's probably too much out there. But, in the long run it actually is probably beneficial, because I really enjoy when someone questions my food, because that's the thing about the restaurant business, you get instant feedback. And when someone's looking for something kind of bizarre or that sounds crazy, I mean, we had someone call not too long ago, looking to source kidneys. Because his mom made veal kidneys when he was little, and he was trying to recreate that memory. those are always fun little moments out of the day, to deal with. But, in the long run, I think it is actually a good thing.

DR: You do a do a kind of a classic, traditional type of cuisine here, I think people would say.

Co: Joel would say, and I think maybe this is a quote I stole from him, the cuisine here is French in style, but we do veer into different areas. I mean our menu now has a little touch of Morocco in it, we have a sweet potato gnocchi that is a nod to Italy. And we go throughout France, North, South, East, and West. And there's some Asian flavors, at times. So, yeah, the technique's mostly French, but we're not "classic French." What my personal take on food is, what I strive for is, I guess, taking a classic French recipe and lightening it up. Doing some sort of emulsion, that's not foamy, instead of a cream sauce. An olive oil and stock emulsion, that you can get the same consistency, but it's not a bunch of cream on the plate, or a bunch of butter.

DR: How do you feel about how the idea of "hyphenated" cuisine has affected classic styles of cooking, or French styles? Do you feel that it has removed the relevance or importance of the "classic" style? How does that influence your philosophy of cooking?

Co: In all honesty I think everything is cyclical, so in the late 90's was sort of the pinnacle of the "fusion" disaster. And i think people started going back to more traditional ways of cooking. And Spain came out with their gastronomy, whatever they're calling it now, and so I think that cycle started again where people started to get more bizarre. Alinea in Chicago is maybe the forerunner, in the states, between them and WD50. I don't know if i would go there and spend $1500 on dinner, on 24 courses, and leave there feeling satisfied. I'd probably leave there saying "Oh that was kind of interesting but REALLY expensive." I don't know. It seems like its more combining dinner and a show at the table than dinner and going to see a live performance someplace else. Is that negative against traditional cuisine? No, because I think traditional cuisine will always come back. There's always someone still making Pot au Fou at home. It's always going to survive. And i think that the French government has taken steps to ensure that is the case, they've opened up a section of government strictly to preserve classic regional foodstuffs. So I think in France that will not necessarily go away. I think that people like myself, and there's a million of me out there, that will strive to continue keeping that stuff around. Not completely traditional, but in the sense of tradition. There may be American ingredients, but we do it in that style.

DR: When I spoke with Joel, he mentioned you've done a bit of travelling, and that maybe you hope to do some more, as far as research. What are your plans?

Co: Well we'll certainly be doing more travelling now. I did have the opportunity to go to France, like I said. We didn't go anywhere this past vacation, we had some stuff working out here. But last year we spent a week in San Francisco, and that will continue. We close the Rue down for three weeks at the end of every summer. So as it looks right now, that tradition will be kept. But, yeah, Cheryl's sister actually lives in Belgium, we spend our first Christmas together in Belgium. We have family that we need to go visit in Europe, and we do need to travel through Europe.

DR: That's always a good excuse to go to Europe! What sorts of places do you find inspiration at in your travels? Is there something you look for particularly? Do you seek out particular regions or restaurants, or chefs?

Co: No, I think Europe is completely different than the States maybe. In San Francisco we searched out different restaurants and ate way too much, and didnt' sight see enough. But that was inspirational. The quality of ingredients in California I think rivals Europe, and their dedication to keeping things simple and honest. And so that's just inspirational. Tasting a leek that actually tastes like a leek, that's not hidden, is really refreshing. Places like Chez Panis, where we ate, they've been doing it just as long as Joel and Dee Dee and they're very very honest to their food. And I think that holds true in Europe, and I think that's inspirational. I think visiting markets is inspirational. I mean we are blessed with four months out of the year to have pretty good farmer's markets around here and so we try to do that as much as possible. That is very inspirational. You talk to a farmer that's actually passionate about what he's doing, and you can't help but buy potatoes from him. And to keep those potatoes honest, not mash 'em up. I mean properly roasted potatoes are a great thing.

DR: There does seem to be trend getting attention lately, of local sourcing, "locavore" restaurants, how much of that do you guys do here?

Co: Well, we've been doing that for forty years, we just don't write it on our menu and announce it. That's why we change our menu four times a year, because we work with the seasons, and we buy as much local produce as possible. At the same time you can't buy everything local, always. I suppose you could, but your menu would be changing weekly I guess. But we do [buy locally]. Our menu's simple and understated. And when we have a veal rib chop, and in late summer, when we have local peppers, those peppers were local. We just didn't say what farm they were from, and how they were raised or whatever. Because at the end of the day people still want a veal rib chop. They don't overly care what farm it comes from. But its actually a very positive thing for people to be concerned with where their food's coming from. It's a balancing act of eating local but eating within a budget.

DR: You seem to be extremely invested in this venture, and have been since before you became the new owners. Do you get an opportunity to eat at other local restaurants at all?

Co: We do. The great thing about this restaurant is that it's always closed on Sundays and Mondays, so we actually have a weekend. So yeah, we do go out.

DR: What sorts of places do you frequent?

Co: We like SeaBar, Mike does a fantastic job, and I'm sure his Mexican place will do well, and his venture over at the Lafayette in a few months. I'm sure they're going to be fantastic additional places to go. We like Oliver's. There's some good places around, plus some...not great places around. Those are probably our two mainstays we eat at on a fairly normal basis.

DR: Do you get an opportunity to try out the cuisine that is considered to be your competitor's?

Co: Absolutely, I think Oliver's is our competitor. I think they're on par with us, and do a great job, and Henry's been doing it 25+, maybe thirty years now. I think Tempo is on par with our quality...they're prices are much higher than ours, but to each his own. I think Buffalo food scene is actually fairly competitive and no one is doing a terrible job. Everyone's doing a good job, and in all honesty i think it's a matter of refinement, rather than quality for other places. I think we refine things more than for what other restaurants would be normal. I think other restaurants aren't of any less quality, but they're maybe not as refined as us. If that doesn't come across as too pompous. (laughs)

DR: I don't think it does, you seem like a humble guy and that you know what you're doing.

Co: I'm fairly comfortable with what I'm doing, and I feel like I know what I want to be doing and I'm doing it. So I don't have any...I mean there is still a little bit of me wanting every guest to feel content. That doesn't always happen, but it's what I strive for.

DR: How does operating in city like Buffalo influence what you do here. You mentioned that if it wasn't the Rue, you might not have stuck around in town.

Co: It would have given us reason to venture out. But with that being said, Buffalo is a little town, it's not expensive, and it really frees you up to do other things here that you might not be able to do in Chicago or New York, or Boston, or San Francisco, when you're just worrying about rent being three times what it is here.

DR: Is there any way you feel limited that you're not operating in a city like Chicago or New York or Boston?

Co: No, I don't. Because I think our free time compensates for that, because we can actually travel to those cities, and enjoy them. I suppose if the Rue were open in Chicago or New York, we'd have to be open for lunch, we'd have to be open seven days, our staff would have to be double what it is. It would be a monster that I almost wouldn't want to deal with. And that's one of the joys of this restaurant is that it's the same staff, every day. Our head server Richard, who's almost been here 20 years now, he's here every day. He doesn't take vacations, he may sneak out for a week after Easter when it's not very busy. And the kitchen staff is the kitchen staff. We don't have extra guys when someone wants to go to a concert. I'm sorry, but you don't get to go to a concert, it's just what it is. You go see shows on Sunday or Monday. I think that helps our consistency, I think that's why you bond, I think that's why our kitchen staff is maybe a little tighter that in other places because of that. It's a testament to Joel and Dee Dee, the consistency of our staff. Richard's been here 20 years, Gregory our bartender has been here 14 or 15 years, longest guy in the kitchen's been here 20 years, I've been here 8 years. The next guy behind me has been here 8 years. So I think people who demand quality will find this place, and will want to work here, and maintain that quality. And someone who wants an easy job puttin' food on a plate will find that someplace else, just not here.

DR: I hear you talk about quality and consistency and things like that. I wonder, do you think because Buffalo is the little guy of cities, will it at any point garner any more attention? Do you think we'll ever get to the point where Michelin is rating Buffalo?

Co: I doubt it. Michelin is rating New York, San Francisco, and Chicago right now. Three U.S. cities. Do I think Buffalo will ever be starred before Miami? No, I don't think so. But I'm fine with that. I think the chasing stars, or chasing ratings, is a dangerous game, when all you're doing is looking out for the next examiner to walk through the door, and you don't really know what your self worth is. I think that's a dangerous game, and I'm completely happy with Michelin not being here.

DR: obviously it sounds like you don't need or want it, but how important do you feel professional accolades are here, as far as what you'd want to get across in a message to potential guests?

Co: It does hold some weight. Getting four stars from Janice does hold a little bit of weight. When someone from out of town is looking on Trip Advisor, or Googles your restaurant's name, and a list of four star, three star reviews come up, and yeah I think that holds some weight for a person who's going to make a reservation. Are there better places to eat in New York City than Per Se or La Bernadin, I would say there's probably a better way to spend your dollar. But would those places be great to eat at? Absolutely. So, there's some merit to handing out stars and handing out awards, but I personally am comfortable enough not receiveing them. If you stay honest and you stay on top of your game, and you do what you do every day, then those will just come, they're an added little snippet in the newspaper for you, a good way to put your restaurant's name out. But I sleep better when I feel that someone's had a good service and I step out to the bar at the end of the day and say goodnight to some guests and they are smiles and are very very happy, that's more what I'm concerned about, than one person's editorial comment about me in a newspaper.

DR: How do you think that Joel and Dee Dee staying on in a consulting role will play out here at the Rue?

Co: As far as I'm concerned, I need Joel and Dee Dee for advice, and I've been using that these past three weeks that we've been open. Joel either stops in or I give him a call, and he has a perspective that I don't. He's been doing it for forty years, and so has Dee Dee, and I think that's fairly invaluable to have that perspective. If I have a question about bookkeeping or my wife has a question about bookkeeping, Joel's been good about that, so essentially those two things. I just want Joel and Dee Dee to feel comfortable with their choice, and I think they do. And that's pretty much what I see their consulting role as. Will it evolve into something else? Things always have a tendency of evolving, but that's pretty much the way I see it, they're valued opinion on business decisions that we get to run by them, on their end.

DR: Joel mentioned that he felt like he's set you and Cheryl up for success. What do you think that success will look like under your ownership? What is measure of success, and do you have plans of expanding it?

Co: My vision of success is the same guests coming in. The same guests coming in and not noticing anything, except that Dee Dee's not here. My wife is Cheryl, and she's not Dee Dee, and that's it. The guests that have been coming in maintain coming in and that that is a very good measure of success. Do we have plans to expand? I don't know probably not. It's only been three weeks, we don't have massive plans yet. I don't have any plans yet. At some point we do have, not to remodel, but we do have to replace things that become outdated and old. The last remodel here was 1981.

DR: It's held up pretty well since then.

Co: Exactly. There's always fresh coat of paint out here, but in the main dining room, I don't know. It will maintain it's integrity. It will remain the Rue. Someone will say it's Corey and Cheryl's Rue, but it's just going to be small minor change. Like I said, there's no reason to buy the Rue if you're going to change the Rue. We're looking for continuity.

DR: Assuming any of your longstanding clientele happen to read this interview, is there a particular message that you want them to take away?

Co: No, in all honesty, the Rue's the Rue. We're not changing anything. The food is most certainly not changing. Cheryl is not Dee Dee, but she's a very very gracious host who is here to accommodate you.

DR: How about for the readership that has not experienced the Rue, is there a message you'd like to give them?

Co: Please, come in! Tuesday through Thursday we offer a three course prixe fix menu, it changes every week. Three courses will run you $33, depending on the week. Give us a try, I would argue there's not a better deal in town. Come in, try it out. Make your own judgement. Don't let someone judge the place for you.

DR: Is there anything you'd like to touch on that we haven't already covered?

Co: No, I don't think so. Cheryl and myself feel very confident. Joel set us up for success, continued success. We have a great staff, front and back of the house, everyone is here for the same goal, and that is to pursue excellence, commitment to quality, and to give every guest that comes through the door a great experience. And it's not flashy it's true and it's honest, and I think that's about it.

I made a comment last week about how I actually thoroughly enjoy my seventy hour work week. And I do.

Ch: I thought he was being sarcastic.

Co: Food kind of runs my life. It's working, It's reading, It's our days off. I thoroughly enjoy what I do. I am thoroughly happy and enjoy my life.

Ch: There's been a few guests, who've been guests from 40 years ago when it was the coffee shop, and there's been a little bit of a shock for people who've been coming here for that many years, and it's completely understandable. But just give me the opportunity, and I'm sure we'll be ok.

Co: And they've been very pleased when they've left. And you're a very gracious host.

Ch: So far things have been really well received, and a lot of the guests who have been here many many years will say "Great job, we'll see you again soon" and will make a reservation on the way out. So, it's a very good sign.

DR: Now, it was your suggestion to do the interview when I called to confirm a few rumors about the sale. For a guy that keeps a low profile, what is about doing an interview that was attractive to you?

Co: We do have to actually make the announcement.

Ch: It's a subtle way of letting people know things aren't the same.

Co: Yeah we've been running the Rue for three weeks now, and we didn't really make a big announcement. We just opened the door one day. Joel and Dee Dee left on Saturday, and we opened up the door on Tuesday, like they would, and not a lot of guests realized that, which is kind of what we wanted. We didn't want big banners with "New Ownership"

Ch: We didn't want to rock the boat.

Co: Yeah, exactly. The Rue's the Rue. And a lot of guests went "Oh, where's Dee Dee?" Well, she's actually not here anymore, and this is Cheryl. We have to do interviews, we have to be out there. But that doesn't mean I'll be marching down Main Street with a banner for the Rue Franklin. Guests will come in and the Rue will speak for itself.

DR: Well, I can tell that what you guys do here is born out of a passion, that it's not just a business, and I wish you the best of luck.

Co: I guess that's a quote that I wouldn't mind. We are striving to be a restaurant first and a business second, and that is something that Joel has instilled in me. When you believe that and you actually implement it, the business takes care of itself. And you just have to worry about polishing silverware and serving guests.

DR: Last but not least, what are you making for dinner tonight?

Co: It's Saturday! That's a good question. Tonight's addition will be a seafood stew, actually. Mahi Mahi, shrimp, scallops, squid. Israeli cous cous, and olives. Tomato broth. It's not too bad, it's a little tasty.

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