Griffon gains national attention for strength, creativity of dishes
By Joshua Maloni
The Griffon and its owners are sort of like Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik.
When the performer is in WNY, he’s just Johnny from Buffalo. But to everyone else, everywhere else, he’s a hall of fame songwriter, the man behind a slew of hit songs, and a singer who can perform on any stage, anywhere in the world.
Ken Scibetta and Ed Webster opened the Lewiston Village Pub in 2008. To their friends and patrons, they were – and remain to this day – Ken and Ed, two easy-going guys with creative minds and big hearts.
To the world at large, though, Ken and Ed are known for the Griffon, a four-restaurant franchise recognized by national media outlets as having one of the country’s top kitchens.
Their success came organically.
“We knew our limits in Lewiston, and what the Pub had for those limits,” Scibetta said. “You know, the Pub, for us, it was our first restaurant. It was our love. We just wanted to have something that was fun. And, at the time, we didn’t care about the bottom dollar and profits; and it was just Ed and myself, so our expectations were very low. And as we grew, and as we started hiring staff, and needed more funds to continue to grow, unfortunately, Lewiston was a little bit too small for us, when it came to what expectations we had for growing, and for the growth of our company.”
Faced with a proposed raise in rent – and a burgeoning business at their first Griffon Gastropub, on Military Road in Niagara Falls – “We decided to close shop in Lewiston and focus on opening up more Griffons,” Scibetta said. “And after we closed the Pub, that’s when we opened up, not too long after, the second Griffon in Clarence. And then a year-and-a-half after that was the third Griffon in East Aurora. And then about two years, a year-and-a-half after that, was the Griffon House in Lewiston. And now we’re focusing on the brewery (in Youngstown).”
He explained, “Military Road – it was just a shot in the dark at the time; the concept, the name, what we were doing. And we got lucky.”
What’s more likely is that, with room to flex their imaginations, Scibetta and Webster found themselves in a perfect place for prosperity.
Scibetta took three months to formulate the Griffon menu. “And when I showed it to Ed, we discussed it – we didn’t argue about it, but we had kind of discussed it. He spoke about his fears of the menu, and didn’t know if Niagara Falls was quite ready for a menu like that.
“We were the first people to bring chicken and waffle to Western New York – and especially a variation of the chicken and waffle that no one’s ever done. It’s always been a traditional waffle with a fried piece of chicken and, yeah, sure, a little bit of honey or maple syrup or this or that, but there had never been a chicken and waffle sandwich, that I know of, in the country.
“That’s always been our thing, is to take dishes that people know, and put spins on them that may or may not work – but they actually do.
“And there was quite a few other things on the menu that were a little risqué – at least for the time and for the area. So, I told Ed, ‘Listen: Give me two weeks, give me a month. If this menu does not work out, I have no problem with changing it around and doing something more normal.’ And so, he said that’s fine.
“Again, our expectations were low. We got into Military Road. The rent was a very decent cost, especially for the area at the time. And we took that risk. And I remember the first day we opened, and the first week, and the first month, and still to this day – almost seven years later – lines out the door. We are packed every single day, every single night. Knock on wood that never ends.”
A look at the Griffon’s “Mac Attack” trophies. (Photo by Mark Williams Jr.)
Chef Will Smith, center, holding the “Mac Attack” trophy, is shown with Griffon team members and “KISS” 98.5 personalities. (Photo courtesy of the Griffon/Lewiston Web Solutions)
Griffon dishes have been lauded by local food critics, radio stations and even the New York Times.
“Someone sent me the link one day on Facebook, and I thought it was amusing, and I clicked on it. It said, ‘Best chicken and waffle dishes in America.’ And I thought, ‘Well, this ought to be interesting.’ I had no idea; they didn’t say anything; they just sent me a link,” Scibetta said. “And I’m scrolling through it. And it was the eight best chicken and waffle dishes in America by Yahoo. I’m scrolling through it and it’s, you know, Alabama, and all of these southern states and these restaurants. And all of a sudden, No. 2, Griffon Gastropub, Niagara Falls, New York.
“I lost my mind. I was like, ‘What?!?’
“Yahoo recognized our chicken and waffle sandwich in little old Niagara Falls, New York. We’re not in the south. I’m not a southern cook; and here I am with some of the most famous restaurants in the country – especially for southern cooking – and we’re listed among them.
“And that kind of catapulted everything, and we started kind of taking things a little bit more serious, and the menu started getting a little more serious – and even more creative – and it was a time where it was amazing. I never thought I had any sort of creativity when it came to that. I just, I knew what kind of food I liked, and I thought I had a good grip on what our guests would like, and it worked out.”
The original Griffon Gastropub at 2470 Military Road.
WHY IT WORKS
Though there’s no magic formula for restaurant success, Scibetta pointed out a few key ingredients that helped the Griffon.
•Staff, for starters. Ken and Ed began with, well, just Ken and Ed. Today, they have more than 200 employees – and perhaps none more valuable than Director of Operations Dan Shapiro and Director of Culinary Will Smith (no; not that Will Smith – but that hasn’t stopped the Griffon from citing the Fresh Prince on its menus).
"The two best additions to the Griffon are Will and Dan," Scibetta said. "Without them, I don't know what I would do. They are amazing, and have a dedication to their craft. And they truly care. It's hard to find people that care about – you know, it's our business, but they make it their own business. To find people that actually truly care, just as much as the owners do, for myself and Ed, it's irreplaceable.”
Smith leads a kitchen that, three years running, has won the WKSE “KISS” 98.5-FM “Mac Attack” macaroni and cheese contest in Buffalo. He had worked for private clubs, but – like his present employers – sought to spread his wings.
“They kind of gave me the outlet that I could do the things I like to do,” Smith said.
“I think our styles are very similar – and where they’re different is (Scibetta) likes a lot of Asian cuisine. I’ve gotten into it a lot more. I do a lot of southwestern stuff. I’m like more of – I don’t want to say Bobby Flay kind of style – but that’s kind of where I shine is big, bold flavors. It just kind of allowed us to mesh and meet in the middle.”
•Scibetta said nothing is more important than customer service.
“There was a study done years and years and years ago, that I’ve always held close to my heart. And it always really struck home that people go out for one main reason: They’re taking care of a need; they’re hungry; they want to eat; they may not want to cook at home. But their first instinct is, ‘I’m hungry; I want to eat.’ So, they go out to a restaurant to eat. And the study showed that, if the food was great and the service was bad, people are less likely to return than if the service was great and the food was bad, which blows my mind. Because the main reason people go out to eat, is to eat – for food. But that’s not even in the study; that’s not even important. People would rather go back to a place where it’s bad food and good service.
“And so, when we talk in these staff meetings, that’s one thing we always drive home is service, service, service, service, above everything else. And it’s great that we have a million beers and, you know, we truly care about the quality of our ingredients. And we try to get creative with the menus, and it’s fresh and different, and this and that, but it is all 1 million percent lost if you don’t have the service to back it up.”
•With staff and service set, it’s all about “fun. It’s always been,” Scibetta said. “Everything, from the beginning, from the Pub to the Griffon, a lot of it is based on fun. A lot of it’s based on that ‘wow factor’ of, yeah, kangaroo, to camel, to yak, elk” – all of which the Griffon has served. “And about 20 other different varieties of wild game burger. We sell more wild game than anybody else in Western New York – and we’re proud of that. We work with a company out of New Jersey, Fossil Farms, which they’re an amazing company.
“We just try to be creative, but not too overly creative, where it’s too chef-fy and stuffy.
“I see menus now, and I’ll go to places like New York City or Chicago or Toronto, or here and there – and I was just talking to Will the other day about it – I’m looking at menus, and I know a lot about food, and I’ve done a lot of research into food. I don’t know half the stuff on these menus. And I always sit back and think, ‘I would never want my guests to feel like that.’
“As you can see in the (Griffon) menus, they’re very over-explained, because, if I do put something, or if we put something, Will and I, or Will puts something on the menu that a normal person might not know, we over-explain it so they don’t feel stupid.
“We’re not trying to out-chef anybody, we’re just trying to have creative flavors, spins on normal food, and something that’s not scary; because people don’t like scary food. They just want fun and different and tasty, and that’s what it really comes down to.”
Smith explained, “I think the way of making it creative and fun and still keeping true to that is, like he said, taking each component, dissecting the component – maybe something had tomato, but we’re using smoked tomato instead,” Smith said. “I think it’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s making the wheel smoother, and making it work better.
“I keep it simple, as far as actual recipes. I think when you start overcomplicating your execution and how things are done, is when it doesn’t work. You know, you’re starting to make things a little bit too all over the place, and there’s no real structure to the dish anymore. We just really try to walk the line without going over top, as far as flavors and the culinary ability of it.
“I think a lot of what we do that’s better is our techniques and just really putting work into the recipes, and making sure that they work every time.”
When Scibetta and Webster moved to Niagara Falls, “We lost a lot of our clientele – and a lot of our friends – when the Pub closed. We stopped seeing them, because they didn’t want to ‘travel up the hill,’ as they said.”
When an “exciting” opportunity arose to return to Center Street, this time inside the former Clarkson House building, Scibetta and Webster capitalized. The Griffon House opened in 2018.
“We now see the same friends that we’ve always had – and the even better part, to me, was the Pub created a lot of friendships. And when the Pub closed, a lot of those friendships kind of dissipated. And now that we’re back in Lewiston, our regulars that used to come to the Pub, that now come here to Griffon House, they’re back to seeing each other,” Scibetta said. “To see that first reaction is actually really, really cool. Like, ‘Holy cow, I haven’t seen you since the Pub days, how have you been?’ And they just reconnect like they never left. And so, we’re building up that clientele again, and to see those same faces.
“But I think there was just the opportunity. We always loved Lewiston. It’s our first home – that’s where it all started for us. That’s where Ed and I met, and that’s where our first restaurant was. Lewiston will always have a place in our heart. So, it was nice to be able to grow up a little bit, and come back and show Lewiston that we have grown up. And our concept has changed but, you know, we still like to have fun. … We’re just older now (laughs).”
The Griffon House is open for dinner seven days a week at 810 Center St., Lewiston; while the original Griffon Gastropub, serving lunch and dinner, is located at 2470 Military Road. Visit http://www.thegriffonpub.com/ for menus, catering and more.
SO, ABOUT YOUNGSTOWN ...
Ken Scibetta and Ed Webster recently acquired the property at 200 Lockport St., the building that formerly housed Melloni’s Market Place.
“Youngstown right now is currently – it’s a very, very slow, long process,” Scibetta said. “We’re still in the stages of New York state, lawyers. … We’re working with the Niagara County IDA for grant money. We are working with our lawyers, the state of New York, which we already have approval from. But there’s so many stages and, to be honest, with us owning that building – and it’s the first building we’ve ever owned together – we don’t want to rush things.
“We have so much going on right now with the four locations; we have our new food trailer, which is stunning. … It is crazy; so it’s 20 feet long, 10 feet wide. Absolutely gorgeous equipment. It is brand, spanking new.”
The trailer is set to make its debut at local events.
“Yeah, tons of festivals, tons of events, tons of catering,” Scibetta said. “And then, as you can see in the parking lot is our beer truck, and eventually that will be a full bar, and part of our brewery; where, if you have a party, we can bring our beer truck to you. Six taps, full bar, the whole nine yards. And the food trailer.
“There’s just so much going on, plus there’s an expansion that we haven’t told anybody about yet, at our Clarence location, which is a 5,000-square-foot expansion. We’re doing a huge outdoor patio; 2,500 feet will be enclosed all season, with giant garage doors that can all open up; and then an additional 2,500 square feet that will be fully outside. Bands, outdoor bar, tons of events we’re going to hold.
“So, like I said, there’s just so much going on right now. And the fact that we do own the building in Youngstown, we don’t want to rush it. We want to make sure we do things right.”
This fifth location is intended to be a brewery servicing all Griffons.
“That’s the goal,” Scibetta said. “Right now, the goal is to brew just for ourselves. Really fun – again, along the same lines as our menu, we’re going to try to bring to the brewery side of things with creative, different, fun beers that hit home to not only beer geeks, but regular clientele like myself. Ed is the beer god; I’m just more of the food guy.
“We’re gonna have fun with it. It will also be a full-scale restaurant. And then we’re adding a 3,000-square-foot patio on the side of the building.
“We just have big plans for Youngstown. We’re excited. It’s just a matter of when. Hopefully, we’re still shooting for the end of 2020; probably more likely beginning of 2021.”
A peek inside the Griffon House kitchen. (Photo by Mark Williams Jr.)