A Place to call home

South Campus staple Amy’s Place holds deeper story than cheap breakfast

By LISA DE LA TORRE
On December 6, 2012

  • Amanda Amico, left, and Jenny Wilson work together at local diner Amy's Place, where they consider the staff to be their second family. Lisa de la Torre /// The Spectrum

The murmur of conversing patrons is almost inaudible under the music blaring from the Amy's Place speaker system.

Waitresses rush from table to table, their hustle making the small diner pulse with energy generally uncharacteristic of a weekend morning. As customers wait in line to be seated - a line leading from the restaurant's bar all the way to the door - the cooks sing happily along with the radio, the food they're making sizzling in time with the beat.

Manager and cook Jenny Wilson maneuvers effortlessly around her fellow chef despite the tight space they have to share. Without taking their eyes off the food, the two women sing the song's chorus in unison while customers look on, amused and smiling.

In this moment, the Amy's Place employees are their own culinary-inclined rock band - both because of their musical prowess and because of the undeniable chemistry they share with each other.

Annmarie Naples, a longtime customer of Amy's Place, identifies the employees' chemistry and obvious concern for each other as part of the restaurant's allure.

"For me ... it's all about the energy, it's about the wholeness. Look at the waitress; she's not a waitress, she's a friend," Naples said. "I feel [from this place] a sense of family and friendship and [a sense] for the overall good. They go the distance."

Wilson, 26, has been working here for about five years and claims most of the people hired at Amy's Place are hired from within, which makes working together more intimate than working with a randomly selected staff.

According to Wilson, the staff's intimate knowledge of one another is not only what makes the job so enjoyable but is also what keeps them so motivated to work hard if they slack off - they have their own friends to answer to.

"We all depend on each other so much ... and [depending on] the way you work, it's only your friends [who] are going to be upset or happy with the outcome," Wilson said. "We are definitely our own little commune, our own little tribe."

This communal atmosphere has existed within the Amy's Place walls since founder Amy Betros first opened the South Campus staple over 30 years ago.

Betros, a woman considered by some employees a Mother Theresa-type figure, has dedicated her life to helping people. When she opened the restaurant, it became a safe haven for people in need of food, shelter or just the comfort of a familiar face.

"Amy's just a caretaker ... She just really loves humankind," Wilson said. "A lot of people who have been here [when she was owner] want the treatment that Amy gave them. We'll still give you a cup of coffee; we do help people out but not to the extent that she did. We still have $1.99 breakfast and I think we don't get rid of that just because of her."

In the early '90s, Amy sold the restaurant and focused her efforts on St. Luke's Mission, an establishment with the main priority of helping people achieve a "fullness of life." The mission is funded by donations, and though Betros no longer has legal ties to Amy's Place, the diner hosts a donation jar for the mission as a way to pay homage to the restaurant's altruistic roots - and also to support the woman who made it all possible.

But Betros' legacy remains present in other, less tangible forms as well. According to Wilson, it's part of why the Amy's Place employees are such a close-knit group of individuals.

"[Part of her influence] is our general sense of family and sense of community ... and us helping each other in every way that we can," Wilson said. "All of that ... is definitely a trickle-down of the Amy's Place way."

The familial aspect of the "Amy's Place way" has manifested itself in other aspects of employees' lives, however.

About six years ago, Amy's staff members of the past and present came together to form a band called the Stamplickers. Originally, they were a Postal Service cover band, hence the mail-associated name choice.

Ex-manager and current driver/manager of the Amy's food truck Amanda Amico, 32, has played keys and currently sings for the Stamplickers.

"A couple of us decided we should try to do [their music] instrumentally, so we started doing it," Amico said. "I was doing this thing called 'Rock and Roll Mondays' at Broadway Joe's at the time, so that was like a practice space ... every Monday, we'd play this Postal Service album a million times."

Since their days practicing at Broadway Joe's, the Stamplickers have played numerous gigs around Buffalo, including well-known Buffalo hotspots like Nietzsche's. One of the band's earliest Nietzsche's gigs was a Halloween show. The night not only gave the band a perfect opportunity to showcase its talent but inspired the members to expand their repertoire as well.

Though the Stamplickers have a lot of fun jamming together, they don't see themselves pursuing music professionally any time soon.

"Everybody's so busy. People have families and jobs or whatever ...  like we have a show coming up in December, and all of a sudden there's just not enough time," Amico said. "We enjoy doing it, it's a lot of fun, but we're not strict about it. We don't seek out as many gigs as we can play, but if we have an offer and everybody can do it, we're like, 'let's do it!' We just have a lot of fun together."

According to Wilson, who also occasionally sings for the Stamplickers, the band started in the back room of Amy's Place.

Employees have dubbed this room "The Clubhouse" and it is more than a typical break room. The walls are covered in pictures of employees from throughout the years and a drum kit sits in the corner surrounded by amps and other musical tools. It is in this room that the Stamplickers practice and even perform during various staff parties and events throughout the year.

At these occasions, other employees are invited to perform with their own musical groups.

"My idea was to showcase [the employees' music] because there's so many other people that are in bands here, too," said restaurant co-owner and Stamplickers member Greg Kempf, 42. "[When we play here,] it's like, 'Oh, let's close down for the day and have a party.' We have all the Amy's Place people play and their bands play. [The Stamplickers' members] are not in it for the money."

Of course, true to Amy's Place fashion, the Stamplickers put the wellbeing of others - strangers, friends and family - at the top of their list of priorities. The band has played numerous benefits and even held their own benefits of sorts.

When one of the employees' friends was involved in an accident rendering her paralyzed from the waist down, the Stamplickers held a benefit at Neitzsche's to raise money and show support for their beloved friend.

At the celebration for the restaurant's 30-year anniversary, the employees collected money and donated the proceeds to St. Luke's Mission.

No matter the circumstance, the employees at Amy's Place are dedicated to one another. Yet, while many regular customers adore the restaurant for this reason, some customers feel less of the warmth than others.

"The service is decent. I feel like some of the waitresses could be friendlier to the customers, because sometimes they kind of seem like they would rather be doing something else," said Larry Valdivisio, a senior communication major.

Wilson understands the complaint, but she swears the behavior in question is unintentional. She attributes the employees' misunderstood behavior to their hectic workload and genuine desire to simply hang out with one another.

"We're really just really busy; all of us have like 10 jobs to do all at one time ... and while we're running past each other, we want to know how each other is doing," Wilson said. "We never intentionally [exclude customers]. And people probably do get that vibe, but it's just because we are so in love with each other and are doing so many things that we just want to catch up with each other."

The restaurant may be small, but the impact that Amy's Place has left on customers and employees alike is undeniably large.

Because of its vegan- and vegetarian-friendly menu, the restaurant is often praised by patrons for being one of the only diners of its kind in the Buffalo area. Students who live in the Heights frequent the diner because of its convenient location and its respectable execution of hangover-proof meals.

According to Wilson, the "ScramAmBacSam," or scrambled eggs with American cheese and bacon on a bagel, is a huge hit with college students.

Amico, however, claims that Amy's Place has impacted her life on a deeper scale than simply providing a fun place to work and socialize.

"[Amy's Place is] my second home," Amico said, the playful expression on her face suddenly replaced by one much more somber.

"Personally, I started working here at a really bad time of life. And I have to say in ways this place has saved me. It's been my sanctuary. I couldn't live without these guys and the family that is here ... This place means the world to me."

By placing an emphasis on support, love and community, the Amy's Place employees prove their portions don't need to be large to be served family style.

 

Email: arts@ubspectrum.com


By LISA DE

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