Popular Restaurant Went From Hot Water to Grant Bonanza

James Heaney, Buffalo News, December 7, 2009

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Gigi’s, a restaurant that doubles as a sort of communal kitchen table for much of the city’s black community, failed to turn over its sales tax receipts to the state or pay its unemployment insurance. The state then took legal action and eventually got the money.

It’s happened 10 times, involving $56,220 in delinquent payments.

But Gigi’s repeated failure to pay its bills to government didn’t stop City Hall from giving the restaurant $143,988 in state and federal grants in 2008 to renovate the restaurant.

In fact, city grant makers working for the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. apparently weren’t aware of the restaurant’s history of difficulties with the state.

Nor were they apparently aware that the owner’s son used the restaurant as a staging ground in 2006-07 to sell handicapped parking permits he had stolen from the city, even though he had been arrested by city police and prosecuted in City Court.

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The BERC official who oversaw the grant was Michelle Barron, then a vice president. She was fired in July over her role in the funding and management of One Sunset, a failed restaurant owned by former basketball player Leonard Stokes. One Sunset’s bad debt includes $160,000 in city and county loans and grants.

Gigi’s has been a community institution since Blondine Harvin opened it in 1962. The restaurant, at 257 E. Ferry St. near Jefferson Avenue, is a frequent haunt for many African-American politicians and a destination for well-known visitors, ranging from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to Hillary Rodham Clinton, to the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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The restaurant’s first grant application dates to 2005, in the midst of a turbulent period. The state departments of Labor, and Taxation and Finance took legal action against the restaurant in April 2006, seeking relatively modest payments of about $500 each. But in July, the tax department filed a lien for $7,944.

It was the latest in a long line of actions taken by the state against the restaurant since 1998 for failure to pay as much as $15,965 in sales tax receipts and lesser amounts for unpaid unemployment insurance.

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BERC granted final approval of the last of the grants in 2008, with the restaurant committed to investing $35,998, and work began that fall.

The restaurant was closed for more than two months late last year while crews went to work. The restaurant was painted inside and out. The roof and windows were replaced. A new electric service was installed. New floors, walls and ceilings were constructed. The facade was spiffed up, including a striking awning. New tables, chairs and a countertop were bought.

The restaurant reopened with a spate of publicity, including a ribbon-cutting last December in which Mayor Byron W. Brown, a frequent customer, declared: “I’m very pleased to contribute to this very worthy effort.”

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