#40. James Roberts & Jessica Railey
We have interviewed a lot of Buffalo natives on this site, but we also really enjoy when people’s lives lead them to Buffalo, and those people choose to stay and start something. James Roberts is the Owner/Chef of Toutant, and Jessica Railer is the Dining Manager. Each of them took very different paths to get here, but they have set their roots, and are making an impact in the Buffalo restaurant scene. We hope you enjoy their stories, and that you give Toutant a try, if you haven’t already. We certainly have!
About Jessica, Dining Manager
“I am from Long Island originally and I came to Buffalo to study journalism at Buffalo State College. After I graduated, I ended up staying here. You could see something was happening, something was changing, things were growing. It was a good time to stay and start something. I worked several different 9-5’s, including with an architect and developer in the downtown area, which was really exciting to be involved in everything happening downtown. I also worked a few years for a company who designs mini-bar products, which is located in the Tri-Main building. They’re a big company that nobody really knows about. I was the co-owner of Vera Pizzeria for the first two years of it’s life. That was actually my first full-time restaurant gig. I learned a lot there. I left Vera and went to Trattoria Aroma Group and started from the ground up there. After a year of that, I decided that I wanted more responsibility and I knew that James was opening Toutant. I contacted him and asked him if he needed a manager.”
James added: “We had begun our search for a management team and preliminarily had a group of people in mind. Because the project took a long time, some people were no longer available. Jess came out of nowhere, we saw eye to eye on the levels of service, the comfortability of hospitality and what it really means to people, and the ability to branch out and make that mark with people to where you’re known as a component of the community, and a place of respite. That was our core philosophy of welcoming people in. It ties in perfectly with southern hospitality.”
“If we can portray our vision of southern hospitality to people from the minute they walk in the door, then the real service hospitality of the restaurant industry will really take care of itself. Jess’ ideas were right in line with that. We got along great, and we still do. We work great together. I demand that. I have to have that of myself – that I understand our people. I know who they are. We are not just workers and supervisors. We are friends to a point where we are mutually respectful. But also, you know them, you know their needs. You take care of people. I think that’s the one thing that is lost in the restaurant industry nowadays. People don’t know their team, or their family really. You see these people more than you see your family, and you don’t know them that well. It’s a big deal for me. Jess did an incredible job of personally hiring all of our service personnel – that face of our restaurant, and it emulates through them, her idea of professionalism and service. If you surround yourself with incredible people, you can’t help but be successful.”
Jess: “Being a new place, with so many expectations and so much media attention before it even opened, that opening staff was extremely important to nail from the beginning.”
About James, Owner/Chef
“I was born in New Orleans and raised in St. Bernard Parish, a small, rural fishing community south of the city. I thought everybody lived like that. When I was a young man, my parents moved me north of the city. At 14 or 15, my dad threw me in the back of a restaurant and said “this boy needs to work”. He was a construction worker his whole life. I did a lot of casual labor with a broom and a shovel in my hand. It was fun. It taught me a lot about work. When the restaurant industry showed itself to me as a young man, it was great. The cooks were all rockstars and I was a lowly dishwasher. And then one day the bus-boy quit, and then another day the prep guy quit. They kept asking me “can you do that?”. Finally, I got to start cooking and realized that that was the king part of the kitchen. I cooked my way through high school and college. I studied pre-med and 7/8ths of the way through I realized that plan B was going to be plan A. I loved science. I have a real affinity for chemistry. I realized that those principles transferred really well into cooking. So, I took the opportunity to tour the south, following job to job. I went to places that were really incredible and were southern culinary destinations. I didn’t realize it at the time, I was just bouncing around.”
“A friend of mine was moving to Upstate New York to take a restaurant job. He came up to Rochester in September and came back, talking about the leaves, the weather, and how it was beautiful there. I said, “ok, let’s go!”. I sold my car, packed my clothes and we jumped in a truck, I called my boss and him I needed my check, called my mom and told her I was moving to New York. She said, “Are you crazy? Do you know how cold it is there?”. It was now late September, and that wasn’t too bad. Then it got to be October and I was like “holy sh*t!”. The 40 degree winds was the coldest I had ever been in my life. I spent a little time in Rochester, and met some incredible cooks, including the chef at Oak Hill Country Club. He was leaving to take a huge job in Texas. He needed some help and some guys he could trust. We moved to Houston, and that’s really when I started to take cooking seriously. This place was a monster! Over 250 cooks! We came in as the new guys. People didn’t like us from the beginning. You had to prove yourself culinarily skill to these guys. Not only that, but personally. There was a lot of learning curve to personal relations, and how to really work through difficult situations with your peers. I think that is where I developed my team and managerial style. I also realized that there was another level to cooking. I went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Providence, RI. I graduated top of my class and then coincidentally took the job at Oak Hill as Executive Sous Chef, and then my first Executive Chef job at Park Country Club. That was in 2007. I was there for the last 9 years until we opened Toutant.”
“It was a long get-around to this story, but necessary for me. I got to see a lot of the south before I got tied down to anything serious. Once I realized that there was a path before me, I took the path of most intense training at one of the top culinary schools in the world and then immediately started honing myself into management roles. After building a great program at Park Country Club, a great team, it just was not enough for me. Chefs always dream of having their twilight be what they want to do.”
The Toutant Team
James: “I take our employer experience very seriously. Unfortunately, that’s not how a lot of business owners think. I don’t have a lot of material needs, or huge things that I want for my wealth. For me, it’s about this sense of team and community. Perfectly executing something every day. It’s something we work on every day, which is a real treat for me personally.”
Tell us about the building/space
James: “This building came about, really by accident. Mike Andrzejewski, who owns Seabar is a good friend of mine. One day, he asked me if I wanted to go to lunch. I walk in and there’s Rocco Termini sitting at the table. He said, “James, I have this property that we are going to rebuild and we need a tenant who will be integral in the process.” I wasn’t ready for that. I had no money. I didn’t have much as far as a business plan. But, a couple months later he asked if I wanted to go see the building. It was a complete wreck. I believe it was set to be condemned. Rocco was responsible for the structural rehabilitation. Thank God I had been through the small business association program at UB., I got my act together with a real business place and put together some forecasts and budgets and went over to M&T. I was in a hoodie and shorts and asked who I needed to talk to about small business financing. We sat down, I started telling my story and they told me to come back tomorrow to tell it again to some more people. I came back the next day and met with their VP, Denise Mlynarick who was integral in a lot of the different plans down here, championing guys like me who just had a dream. They had an idea and a proposal for me and I went home and told my wife “we’re going to green light this thing!”. In the process of that, the building needed so much work. Once you start tearing a building like this apart, you start to realize what it should be and romantically fall in love with what it could be.”
We opened our doors last May and have tried to anchor this area and be a part of what’s happening down here. I think that we made people realize that this is possible down here. It’s a dream that I had, and we’re figuring it out as we go. We learn, master and then execute. We continue to do that every day as we grow.
What challenges have you faced?
James: “Finding the differences of Buffalo casual, Buffalo everyday, and the Buffalo people that are interested in new and inventive things has been our secret – encompassing that whole market. There are so many people in Buffalo that are anti-new, and there are so many that are only-new. In both of those groups, their economic standing is on both sides, so you have to have a price point that matches both sides, and then from a marketing perspective to have the ability be all-welcoming is a big one for us. We hold no specific market focus that keeps us from another group.”
“As a business downtown, we are still missing tapping into the markets of people that still believe that downtown is a war zone. We see that every day. There was an 80 year old couple in here yesterday that talked about their heyday of coming downtown for a show and dinner, and that’s happening again. I think that the generation of people that remember those days has gone, so it’s hard for people to remember that it’s possible down here.”
“The saturation of events in the summer time hurts everybody a little bit, too. People are confused about what to do. There are so many things to do, and so many announcements of things to do! I think it suppresses people.”
James on that Buffalo spirit
“The people, that good neighbor spirit but also that welcoming, it’s real. It’s genuine. People aren’t afraid to work hard. They’re genuine in their needs, which is where we fit in. Our business model is exactly that. It’s integrity. It’s simple. It’s familiar. It’s welcoming. It’s surprising how well we do it. It’s like that duck under the water analogy… it’s simple on top, but it’s hauling ass underneath. Adopting the City of Buffalo as our own… well, we really hope that it adopts us. We try to give as much as we can and be a part of the community. Especially the small restaurant community. This is a big deal for us. Keeping everybody happy is going to make us all better.”
Buffalo’s new restaurant scene
Jess: “The fact that there are so many restaurants opening around us is only better for us. You can’t really view each other as competitors. You’re here to help each other out.”
James: “We continually say that. There’s enough pie to go around. We continually increase traffic, and there will be a point where we saturate, but there is still so much market potential.”
“Visit Buffalo Niagara has been really incredible. It’s not just city based activities. It’s shows, all of the restaurants, the businesses, the tours. They are just capitalizing on Buffalo’s strengths. They’re necessary. Every great city or market that has a presence in the world today has one of those groups in the background working diligently to expose the finest points of that community. Visit Buffalo Niagara has done an incredible job in doing that.” (see Karen Fashana’s interview)
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
James: “I would say, I would have been just as diligent and hyper focused on the planning, the licensing ordeals, the building setbacks. The other thing would be to make sure we continue our focus on team, neighbors and community.”
“I can’t stress it enough to people. We’re trying to be great at what we do. We have had some success, but to rest on that success is silly. To really maintain that forward focus, and keep your hand on the pulse and foot on the gas is such a difficult balance. It’s a small business world, especially in Buffalo. There is so much support from developers, or government and plans and programs to help people make things happen, but people have to be prepared and have great plans, ability and execution.”
Jess: “I would tell myself to be open to continual learning. I think that when I was at Vera, I was so focused on the fun aspect of it, and being a friend to our staff, and not more specifically on hospitality and staff management. I came into this with an idea of what I wanted to execute, but not a lot of background for it. I learned a lot from James and his experience.”
– Elizabeth & Wanda Jones of In Room Plus
– The Sausage Maker, Inc.
– Donnie Kutzbach of Town Ballroom