Over the past decade, Buffalo has experienced a dire shortage of social venues catering to the middle-class African-American community. Every weekend, Allentown and Chippewa are overcrowded with young college students, but neither entertainment strip offers what many in the community consider a comfortable and safe setting. Venues such as Blush Night Club, One Sunset, and the Good Life Bar at one point filled this void, but not a single one, due to reasons both banal and notorious, is still in business.
Some believe that unless a night spot is located on the East Side it has very little chance of success due to police and neighboring businesses rejecting the presence of African-Americans crowding the streets of downtown. Whatever the reasons, there’s only one such social venue currently on the scene these past three years.
The Oakk Room is centrally located on Main Street near Utica. Their menu offers a variety of bar foods, specializing in different flavors of chicken wings, a house crab-cake, and a long list of spirits and wines. The co-owner, Dennis Wilson, moonlights at the bar when he is not teaching Social Studies at Burgard High School. He recently sat down with The Public to discuss the success of his restaurant, and why he feels African-American bars can’t sustain longevity in Buffalo, NY.
PJ: What motivated you to open your restaurant/bar/lounge?
Dennis: I started off in the club/events promotion industry. Every year my events continued to grow, and every year I strive to progress to the next level. I’m still active in the party/club promotions business, but for me, the next level was to obtain ownership.
PJ: The Oakk Room bar/lounge is in the same location as the former Burchfield’s restaurant. By the time Burchfield’s closed, it had acquired a reputation for violence. What was your strategy to reinvent the space and make your patrons feel safe?
Dennis: A lot of the restructuring stemmed from the personalities of the people that are involved in this restaurant. The location hasn’t changed, but the crowd of people that come here has. Most of my customers are middle-class professionals, and I try to attract a crowd of people similar to myself. I was never known as a “street” guy, so my social circles do not reflect that. The environment here is based on the type of people that I attract.
PJ: How do you balance being a Buffalo Public School teacher and running a successful restaurant?
Dennis: It’s a gift and a curse. The curse is sometimes you can’t be great at one particular thing, [and both jobs require a lot of work and focus]. The gift is that I get to interact and influence a lot of students, and those students eventually become customers as well as their parents and peers. In my 15-year career in education, I have come across a wide variety of people, which helps me bring customers through the doors. Sometimes in the restaurant business, getting people to come through the doors can be your biggest obstacle.
PJ: Why do you think other African-American bars/lounges in Buffalo haven’t had much longevity?
Dennis: This is a tough business. Especially for us, because the African-American community is so divided. I’ve learned that you can’t wait on a specific crowd, and you have to cater to everyone. There is huge divide in our community that sometimes stems from our black churches. The African American community is heavily involved in the church, and churches today are so competitive that they pick and choose which businesses they support. A lot of religious groups will not support my business because we serve alcohol, but so does Applebee’s and plenty of other restaurants [that they’ll support]. So to me, it’s still a form of segregation and it’s keeping our people divided.
PJ: What is the future of the Oak Room?
Dennis: Hopefully we can continue to grow our business and tear down some of those stigmas that keep our people divided. Each year my business partner and I are learning a lot, and we would like to capitalize off of any mistakes we have made in the past and move forward. My goal in life is to get better each year and I use that same principle as my business motto. Everyone is welcome here. The Oakk Room is a place where you can be yourself, enjoy great food, great company, and be in a great atmosphere.
The Oakk Room is open 7 days a week
Fri, Sat -4pm-1am
Sun-1pm-4pm (Buffalo Bills season only)