Sara Heidinger, Buffalo Gentrification & COVID Restaurant Operations

Sara Heidinger is an owner of Undergrounds Coffeehouse & Roastery in Buffalo’s Old First Ward. She is also the Director of Special Projects for New York State Assemblyman Patrick Burke’s office, a freelance photographer, and a board member for the Old First Ward Community Center. As you can see, in a word, Sara is a doer. She doesn’t let fear or uncertainty get in the way of positive action, and she is often fueled by love of her community. Hear her take on Buffalo’s revitalization, restaurant operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and gathering the confidence to start your own business in this episode of The Fling. Enjoy!

Sara and CJ Discuss Buffalo Gentrification and What it's Like Operating a Restaurant During the Pandemic

 

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Episode Overview

  • Sara has a unique perspective on Buffalo’s revitalization, being born and raised in Buffalo’s Old First Ward. She loves her slice of Buffalo, so much so that when she started to see her family’s neighborhood on the verge of taking a turn for the worse, she chose to be part of the solution. Along with a few business partners and the help of many family members and friends, Sara opened Undergrounds, a funeral home turned coffee shop in the Old First Ward.
  • Is Sara driving the gentrification bus or getting run over by it? She asks this of herself often. Undergrounds is part of an effort to make the Old First Ward more walkable and friendly. How does this mesh with developers’ desires to knock down housing and build expensive condos in their place? 
  • Positive gentrification to Sara looks like building new apartment buildings that current residents could afford, rather than pushing out existing inhabitants. “Developed with us and for us rather than around or through us,” as she puts it. 
  • Undergrounds has been rewarding on a number of levels: as a woman empowering other women to achieve their dreams through shared business insights, as a local taking a small step to creating a better neighborhood environment, as a child at heart relishing new memories being made by patrons and their children.
  • How has Sara navigated the pandemic as an owner and operator of a restaurant? The first step was survival mode: shifting to online orders and take out and minimizing staff. The second step was what Sara referred to as “supporting the family” of employees she and her team created by sending them resources, supplying them with daily meals and hosting Zoom happy hours. 
  • The take-out model has proved to be sustainable for now! Undergrounds is somewhat expanding to boot; they’re operating out of another local restaurant’s kitchen during breakfast and lunch hours to accommodate a construction site downtown. 
  • Undergrounds during this pandemic is “a shattered version of what it was,” Sara says. It’s missing the community aspect of it, which was a large part of the appeal of the project for Sara and her partners. 
  • For aspiring entrepreneurs, Sara reminds us that there is no guarantee in life. Leaving a steady paycheck can be the tallest hurdle to overcome, but even steady jobs may not be as steady as you think. This rings true for Sara who grew up hearing that “if Bethlehem Steel never shut down, Buffalo would still be booming.” Don’t let the risk of leaving a job keep you from trying out your dreams. “Just having the confidence to take the first step, you’re way ahead of everyone else who hasn’t tried yet, right?”

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