Businesses find the address a plus in drawing customers
By Karen Carr Keefe and Michael J. Billoni
Grand Island Boulevard has undergone tremendous transformation in recent years, with residential property growth beginning to keep pace with commercial development.
An Island Dispatch series in late 2020, “Connecting the Boulevard,” detailed many changes underway as hope arises for bettering Grand Island Boulevard.
With this edition, we are updating some of that progress and focusing on some new bright spots along the way.
More than a mile of new sidewalk gives the Island’s major thoroughfare a pedestrian-friendly corridor near the center of town, with improved access to Town Hall, Tops supermarket and other vital retailers.
A traditional entertainment favorite has gained new life, as Niagara Amusement Park and Splash World – the successor to the much-loved Fantasy Island – dipped its toes into the water with the late summer opening of its water park. A full complement of rides should be ready for the 2022 season.
One of those rides, an Eli Bridge Scrambler arrived at the park on Wednesday, with photos posted on the park’s official Facebook page, www.facebook.com/splashworldny/.
Meanwhile, the Town Hall Square Plaza facelift has brought colorful new storefronts to brighten the look of the businesses in the plaza across from Town Hall and the Grand Island Fire Co. firehall. A November 2019 fire at Tai Pei Chinese Restaurant damaged the plaza. Plans are to reopen the restaurant once interior decorations and installation of new equipment is complete.
While the stage is set for more vibrant growth and retail diversity along the Island’s major thoroughfare, not all of the new development is pleasing to all Island residents.
Town officials, planners, developers and environmentalists have different ideas of what defines balanced growth that retains the Island’s core appeal of green space and rural character. All hope that what emerges makes Grand Island a hometown to be increasingly proud of.
The WellNow urgent care center is under construction at 2340 Grand Island Blvd. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
One addition coming to the Boulevard that’s welcome to many Islanders is the WellNow Urgent Care center. It’s under construction at 2340 Grand Island Blvd.
The Town Board on May 3 approved a motion to be the lead agency in the site plan and State Environmental Quality Review for the urgent care facility. Councilman Peter Marston Jr. said, “This has been something that Grand Island’s talked about for a decade or more. It looks like we may finally get our wish – it’s kind of exciting times, seeing some things come in like that.”
A WellNow spokesperson said the Grand Island urgent care center building should be completed by late February 2022, weather permitting, and the facility should be ready to open in early spring of 2022.
Certified AutoBrokers is one of the fastest-growing businesses at the south end of Grand Island Boulevard. The steel is going up as construction continues on a $3 million showroom and extensive service area.
Certified’s expansion may be the Marvel superhero of the Boulevard, providing staying power and a magnet for motorists that might draw others to the smaller players on the strip.
Customer Service Key to Certified AutoBrokers
Chris Taylor and Travis Smith, who founded Certified AutoBrokers 11 years ago, are in the midst of spending more than $3 million to build a state-of-the-art auto sales and service facility at 1693 Grand Island Blvd.
They’re doing this for one reason: “We are only making this financial investment so we can provide the best possible customer experience from beginning to end, forever,” explained Taylor, a proud veteran of the U.S. Air Force who was the finance chairman of the DeGlopper Memorial Monument Park unveiling earlier this year. “The goal of our entire team is to have customers for life – and to accomplish that, you must be able to have everything they desire when they call us or when they walk through the door.”
The steel framework is in place, and Ledge Creek Development Inc. of Clarence is on target for the co-owners to cut the ribbon in March 2022 to open what they believe will be an auto dealer and service facility unlike any other in Western New York – with few comparable in the country. They are creating a service center that will offer an experience like no other, Taylor said.
“Let’s face it: No one wants to bring their car in for service because it takes time out of their day and it costs money,” he said. “We will provide our customers with a new experience with our new service center by offering things most dealerships do not.”
That includes concierge service where someone will pick up and deliver a customer’s vehicle upon completion of the service. If the tech finds additional work to be done, the customer will be on a video call with the mechanic so they can see the problem, learn the cost, and the new estimated time of completion if they want the work done.
Certified AutoBrokers’ present show room will be remodeled into an attractive and relaxing waiting area for those customers who would rather wait while their vehicle is serviced. Joe Finlaysan is the service manager who will oversee an area that will be expanded to four bays for quick service, and eight bays dedicated to more standard service. The company will now have enough room and techs to handle its customers and others.
Dean Jackson, a U.S. Army veteran, is the sales and finance manager who will be seated inside the front door of the new, two-story, clean and bright facility, facing Grand Island Boulevard, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls on three sides. Sales associates will be seated at desks along the side walls with no walls between them and, in the back, there will be a second floor for development, with the goal to communicate with customers.
“The acquisition of a customer costs a lot of money,” Taylor said. “We are not satisfied with the transaction ending there. We truly want our customers for life, and that means we must service their vehicles properly once they purchase it from us.”
To close the deal, Taylor and Smith knew they had to enlarge their footprint for vehicles, which is currently at 125 if every inch of the property is used. When the new facility opens, they will have the ability to house more than 300 high-quality certified vehicles.
“I do not want a customer to come in looking for a certain type of vehicle and we do not have it,” Taylor said. “We are creating a better customer service model.”
If a customer arrives and does not want to deal with a sales associate but knows the type of vehicle they would like to see, a greeter will take them to a kiosk in the lobby where the customer can browse the lot and click on a car they would like to test drive. In a few moments, the lot porter will have that car by the front door.
Neither of the owners had previous experience on the service side of the business, but they quickly learned the importance of providing exceptional service.
“That is how you retain good customers, so we will never have to turn down a customer looking for good service,” Taylor said.
He and Smith have worked hard to build a strong team of associates, because they know that is not the norm in car sales.
“Our industry is known for turnover of employees and that was a goal of ours to change,” Taylor said.
They are doing that by starting minimum wage at $18 per hour, striving to create a good work/life balance for team members, and – realizing this is a stressful industry – they’re provide time off and significant benefits.
“Having a solid, loyal, hard-working team is something we have been working on since we began, and we are proud of our team,” Taylor said. “Our new goal is we will ramp up service for our customer’s vehicles like never before.”
A trio of “new kids on the block” is enjoying the strategic business advantage of being on Grand Island Boulevard and in plain view for both Island and off-Island customers. These three are KinderKiddz child care, Taquito Lindo restaurant and Medicare consultant company Thoughtful Insurance.
KinderKiddz early childhood learning center will be opening soon at 2710 Grand Island Blvd. From left are Assistant Director Kim Nelson, Reneé Lasher, Katie Faturos, owner Shellina Patel, Stephanie Wilkinson, Director Jordan Tartaglia, Jessica DiMatteo and Nikki Rivera. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
KinderKiddz – New day Care Option on Boulevard
The first of the “new kids on the block” is actually for kids. It’s KinderKiddz early childhood education center, which will have its soft opening next week. The 12,000-square-foot building – former home to the Health Care Plan medical facility – has undergone a transformation to a state-of-the-art child care and learning center. There is a playground behind the building and an all-weather area for outdoor recreation and crafts.
The center can accommodate 180 children. KinderKiddz is for children from 6 weeks old and up. The classes start with infant day care; then to “waddlers,” babies who already are walking; then toddlers, preschool, pre-K and also school-age kids up to age 12, before and after school. The center will offer breakfast, lunch and snack on-site, at first through Cater Tots, then through their own meal preparation.
The facility is planning to apply to be a universal pre-kindergarten, as well.
A soft opening is set for Monday, Oct. 18, to accommodate public demand, with a grand opening planned for early November. “After the grand opening, we’ll really be taking a lot of registrations,” owner Shellina Patel said.
The original target was to open in September, so Patel has had her management team assembled and on the job for a while. The team includes Director Jordan Tartaglia and Assistant Director Kim Nelson.
“I’m really looking forward to having the kids in here, hopefully starting from when they’re younger, growing and prepping them to get ready for kindergarten and elementary school,” Nelson said. “It’s amazing to watch them grow from year to year.”
She added, “I’m hoping that this will be like a family setting. I want all the families to feel like we are part of their family, and we love their kids as much as they do.”
Patel comes into the child care field with a passion for early childhood education, a strong commitment to provide the best environment for the kids, and a professional background in business.
Patel was born in Kenya, studied in England and got married in Canada. She owned a retail outlet and three businesses in Canada after studying to be a safety auditor for gas industries.
She moved to this area when her husband’s career at Praxair brought him to the Buffalo area.
“The day care opportunity is something that came up when I went to check out a day care for my godson, and I didn’t like anything that I saw and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to open a day care for him,’ ” Patel said.
She designed the exterior signs, as well as interior herself, with the help of an architect.
Patel and her husband have friends in New Jersey who own and have franchised several day cares.
“We look upon them as a mentor facility,” Patel said. “Because of COVID, we have been delayed in our opening.”
Her philosophy for providing a child care service is nurturing and educating.
“Eight waking hours of the child gets spent here, so you’re shaping that little child’s future with the knowledge that you impart to them,” she said. “It doesn’t just have to be an educational knowledge; it’s complete knowledge – ethics, etiquette, manners, crossing your T’s, dotting your I’s.
“Teach them everything to make them into good citizens and that’s the best thing you can do. They may become doctors, they make become engineers, they may be a plumber – but they will be good people – and that’s what you instill into them.”
“I have such a passion for kids,” Patel said. “I can’t wait to be grandma.”
What inspires her, she said, is “the feeling you get with somebody leaving their bundle of joy with you … and feel comfortable going to work. You want to make the parent feel good about themselves; you want the kid to feel good about him or herself.”
To develop a thirst for knowledge in the children they care for, Patel assembled a well-educated staff and cutting-edge educational technology.
KinderKiddz Director Tartaglia said, “I think here, we’re really striving for excellence. We’re striving to be very inclusive to all families, making sure that we’re covering our bases and making sure that we’re equipped to handle the needs of all the students that come through our door. And just making sure that we give an excellent environment for the kids, excellent curriculum, excellent teachers — just really striving to be an awesome facility here.”
Tartaglia added, “I think a lot of people, still to this day, still see (child care) as babysitting, but they don’t see the time and the studying and effort that goes in behind the staff here, the curriculum. It’s not just coming in and us watching the kids anymore. It’s making sure that they’re ready socially, emotionally, ready in gross motor skills, that we’re making sure that they’re up to par for when they do go to kindergarten. We’re getting them ready for that next step in their life; and that doesn’t just mean knowing their ABCs and 1-2-3s. That’s really important, but it’s really just getting them ready with all of their skills.”
“Our teachers go through a lot of training; we go through a lot of staff development; we work on curriculum here. We’re getting ready now with a nice setup for our curriculum, so that when parents do start with us, they see the outline, they see what’s going to be happening with their kids throughout the year,” Tartaglia said.
To be a teacher in a child care facility, one has to have an associate’s degree related to education, or you have to have a CDA, which is a certificate program through New York state that specializes in either infant/toddler or preschool.
Among the tools KinderKiddz offers is a 75-inch smart-touch TV in some of the classrooms for use in up to 20 minutes of instructional interaction during the school day. Patel said this will draw the children away from solely entertainment use of smart devices and toward a curiosity to know more about the world around them through geography and similar topics.
Patel wants to make sure the kids enjoy every minute of their stay at KinderKiddz.
“I just want the child to be happy. I want the child to want to come in on Mondays,” she said. “When it becomes fun, then you’re like, ‘I can’t wait to go.’ “
She is a proponent of children learning through play: “With play, it just makes them remember very clearly” what they have learned.
There also will be an opportunity at KinderKiddz for music classes and one-on-one piano lessons, if the parents so desire, she said.
Indoor activity includes what Patel calls KinderTown, a simulated town environment for the children. “That’s where we’re going to have a police station, a fire station,” she said. This and other activities are planned to help the students there develop their gross and fine motor skills.
“Your real investment in this world is not your house, not your vehicles, not your business – it’s your children,” she said. “Because of our busy life, and especially in today’s world where you can’t survive without a dual income, you have to trust someone else to help you bring that child up. I want to prove that I’m a trustworthy person for that.”
Patel said the center will have an ionized air system, not only because of COVID-19 concerns, but also to reduce the chances of passing colds or other illness to each other and to the families at home.
“I think Grand Island deserves a 5-star day care – a state-of-the-art” facility, Patel said.
“I can’t see why any parent would not want their child here – with our philosophy, with our mission, with our location and our building, and center, itself. It covers everything that a parent would want.”
The crew at Taquito Lindo, 1849 Grand Island Blvd., prepares traditional Mexican food in the kitchen of the restaurant that opened in June. From left are Eduardo Casas, one of four partners who operate the business; and Tim Kordela, Jacob Massucci and Dominick Massucci. Other staffers include Nick Rein, Andrea Tormino, Armanda Mendez, Justin Mitchell, Luke Hess and Jess Kuhn. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
Taquito Lindo: Unique Cuisine, High Visibility, Easy Access
“You don’t want to have the best billboard in the middle of the forest, right?” said Andrew Mackmin, who, with three partners, opened a Mexican restaurant, Taquito Lindo, in June at 1849 Grand Island Blvd.
The site has a long history with Islanders. It was opened as the Clown House in 1955 and subsequently was the McMahon Family Restaurant and then the Viking Diner.
“It’s nice to have the location for two reasons,” Mackmin said. “One, everybody knows the Boulevard. This is a historic spot on Grand Island, so Grand Islanders know it well; but for somebody coming over the bridges, to be able to find it is very simple, and that’s been very advantageous.”
He said the easy access to the restaurant has been part of the reviews from off-Islanders. “(They say) ‘Go there. It’s worth the time and the food, and by the way, it’s very easy to find,’ ” Mackmin said.
He noted support from Islanders has been strong.
“I think the one thing we can speak to is over 900 loyalty customers since the middle of July,” he said. The program allows customers to earn points each time they buy a set of tacos and a soda; and once those points accumulate, they can be redeemed for savings on future meals.
Mackmin said other businesses on the Boulevard have been supportive of the restaurant, too. He mentioned Certified AutoBrokers, Wavelengths Hair Design and Thermo Fisher Scientific as frequent customers of the Mexican restaurant. “They’re looking for ways to help us out,” he said.
Taquito Lindo’s unique menu gives customers the experience of a real restaurant in Mexico, Mackmin has said. He noted that, just like any new business, there were kinks to work out at first. But the learning curve was very short – in fact, just one day – to cut back the wait times to four minutes from order to table.
“We are very fortunate to have the best staff I’ve ever seen. We have great servers, we have great back of house, and those are the people who are interacting with our customers,” he said, “Our product can sell itself, but you don’t go out because you can’t cook; you go out because you want to have a nice experience.” They want the restaurant to be like “Cheers,” he said. “You walk through the door, we know your name.”
Mackmin said, “As far as reception on the Island, they’ve been wonderfully supportive.”
As to the off-Island customers, he said the internet brought one couple from Syracuse recently when Taquito Lindo was trending on Google, and they decided to make the trip.
The basic menu is a variety of meats on tortillas, but 10% to 20% of the offerings are designed for vegans and vegetarians, Mackmin said. Unique tequila drinks and microbrews are offered, as well. The dessert menu includes churros and flan. Customers can order takeout or dine in amid a festive and colorful décor. A special that can be ordered on Buffalo Bills game days is all-you-can-eat tacos.
Taquito Lindo is partnering with 12 Gates Brewing Co. of Williamsville in a charity project to benefit Roswell Park Cancer Institute. A portion of the sale of every can of 12 Gates brew purchased in the restaurant will go to help Roswell Park’s pancreatic cancer research team. The project is in honor of Ezra Castro, known as Pancho Billa, the late super fan of the Buffalo Bills.
Insurance Adviser John Koller of Thoughtful Insurance operates a Medicare Advantage Enrollment Center in his office at 2431 Grand Island Blvd., in Grand Island Plaza. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
Thoughtful Insurance: Medicare Advantage Advice
Another new business on the Boulevard has a very timely appeal. The Medicare Advantage annual open enrollment period begins this Saturday and runs through Tuesday, Dec. 7.
If you have questions, John Koller of Thoughtful Insurance has answers. Koller opened his office on Oct. 1 at 2431 Grand Island Blvd., in Grand Island Plaza. There, he is set up to review Medicare Advantage plans and find the one that best suit his customers. The service is free because, as a broker, the insurance companies he works with pay the cost.
“I get paid by the insurance companies based on the policies that I sell or I maintain, so it’s in my best interest to make sure I do a good job for my clients,” he explained.
His office hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, and he is available by appointment after hours or Saturdays. Koller has done this type of work on Grand Island for six years before establishing his own office on the Boulevard.
Although his office is not right along the roadway, he said the location in the plaza on the Boulevard is a plus because it’s eye-catching.
“That big sign out front is really the best investment I make, and that’s why I have to have a retail storefront, especially during annual enrollment because people are looking this time of year,” he said. “A lot of Grand Islanders, especially seniors, don’t like to leave the Island. So, if they can get the service here on the Island, they’re happy.”
He added, “There’s a lack of retail space that’s affordable that’s on the end of the Boulevard from Baseline on down. And that’s really key. You want the traffic. I spent several months trying to locate appropriate space.”
Koller offers a service he said is unique and specialized.
“I’m responding to what I perceive as a void here on the Island,” he said. “There’s other Medicare agents that work Grand Island, but really nobody has an office you can walk into” and take care of your Medicare needs.
“I work with a brokerage, so I carry all of the local brands – Univera … Highmark and Independent Health – I’m one of the few agents around that can handle Independent Health outside of going to see a Red Shirt,” he noted. “On the national brands, I have United, Aetna, Humana, WellCare. So, pretty well-rounded. One-stop shop is the key to what I do here.”
Other brokers do house calls, and Koller does that, as well.
Once one consults with an insurance broker about Medicare Advantage options, they make a selection for 2022, he explained.
He said people can become confused amid all the options.
“That’s really the niche that we hope to serve,” Koller said. He pointed to the amount of information people get from Medicare and mailings from different companies at this time of year. “It just really confusing, and what we try to do is eliminate the confusion by educating, first of all, and then finding a plan that best suits their needs.”
He explained original Medicare does not have any options: “Medicare pays 80%, you pay 20%. And that’s fine as long as you don’t get seriously ill, because 20% of some of these hospital bills and chemo therapies, that sort of thing, can become very expensive.”
“Along comes the insurance companies and the Medicare Advantage market, there’s also Medicare supplement market, but Advantage is the most popular,” Koller said. He deals with both types, but said supplements are expensive. “In most cases, people don’t find the need to spend those high premiums for their coverage because the Advantage plans actually do a very good job of covering them.”
He sees his job as taking the worry out of the process for the people he advises.
“Once you understand how Medicare works and your options, then it’s just educating them on the different types of plans and different companies and what best suits them,” he said.
“One of the things I specialize in is people that are turning 65, because that’s a process that you have to start, really, three months out, before you turn 65.” Most of that business comes through referrals. “I’ll meet them and educate them on Medicare and get them moving on getting their Part B and all set up with Social Security.” He gets them into a plan so, on the first of the month they turn 65, they are all set.
“I provide a backup to the standard customer service that companies provide,” Koller said. “I take a lot of phone calls from my clients where they’re not getting satisfaction and that’s why I step in and try to help them out as best I can.”
Start the Day Right with Eggsquisite Eats
This evening, final night dinners will be served at Eggsquisite Eats, 1752 Grand Island Blvd., as owner Tim Lango and his wife, Danielle, will return to their roots as an exquisite breakfast and lunch destination on the Island.
“I have an outstanding staff of servers for breakfast and lunch, but it became a challenge finding staff to work dinners – and with the cost of product continuing to rise, we felt it was best to focus on what brought us to Grand Island: A much-needed breakfast and lunch restaurant,” Tim said this week as he took a break from cooking breakfast.
“We are looking to enhance our breakfast experience here and we will soon be offering mimosas,” he said. Eggsquisite Eats will offer the traditional champagne mimosa along with beer and wine mimosas.
“Our mission is to focus 100% on why we came here: Offer the best breakfast and lunch experience on the Island to our loyal customers,” he added. That will include in-restaurant dining and takeout service, which the eatery debuted to survive when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year.
“We never closed for one day during the pandemic,” Tim said. “We switched gears and offered takeout service. We created curbside signs and we changed our website so customers could order online or phone in, and we made sure we purchased good strong containers to keep the nice portions of our high-quality food hot.”
Along with COVID-19 came the challenge of finding available laborers, plus the cost of products rose as availability declined – with some items taking up to eight weeks to arrive.
One positive from the pandemic: Eggsquisite Eats still does 25% to 30% of its business through takeout, which is said to be extremely rare for a breakfast restaurant.
“We are still offering our takeout service and we have expanded our catering to include breakfast, lunch and dinner for residences and businesses,” Tim said. “Our goal remains being consistent with high-quality food.”
After a career in sales and insurance, this is his first venture in the restaurant business. He had always wanted to open a breakfast restaurant and, when he heard the space was available, he scheduled a meeting with the landlord. He was surprised to meet former Buffalo Sabres great Larry Playfair.
“What a great guy – and nothing like the player I used to watch play for the Sabres,” Tim said with a laugh. “He is a sharp businessman who wants the plaza to have a certain image and that is how I am, so we clicked immediately. Anything I have ever needed, Larry is right there for us.”
Danielle, a principal at Charlotte Elementary School in Hamburg, will assist at the restaurant on weekend. They have three children.
“It has been great being here on Grand Island, and the customers appreciate a restaurant that is open for breakfast every day and serves good-sized portions and the food quality is high,” Tim said.