Is Lloyd the Missing Link in the WNY Culinary Evolution?

After months of hype and even more delay, much to the delight of WNY the Lloyd Taco Factory finally opened its doors in December. With its whimsical nod to Willy Wonka, the Taco Factory is a wonderland of inexpensive eats and a cocktail lover’s paradise.

For many of us it will come as no surprise that since opening, the restaurant has been crushed with loyal fans. The credit for this falls squarely to owners Peter Cimino and Chris Dorsaneo whose culinary, marketing and bureaucratic skills have rarely seen equal. While it didn’t hurt that they were subject to some quality exposure on national television with Restaurant Startup, they recently shocked WNY by turning down $250,000.00 in start-up capital so they could be free from outside investors. Yet their boldest moves, and those with the largest potential repercussions for all WNY restaurants and diners were behind the bar.

WNY is presently going through a culinary renaissance; a steep upgrade in our local dining and drinking experiences. With food this renaissance can be traced back to local chefs like Carmelo Raimondi (Carmelo’s Restaurant) or Steven Gedra (The Black Sheep/formerly Bistro Europa). For years, these chefs pushed boundaries and raised the culinary status quo. They put the necessary time and thought into their cooking to create quality for the diner. This stood in stark contrast to many former local restaurants whose ingredients were found in cans from Sysco or the impersonal corporate chains whose dishes were prepared many miles away and reheated in a broiler. Yet there are still lines at the local corporate chains where people wait hours for a table on a Friday or Saturday night paying just as much for an entrée with a soupçon of the quality. While the local community has been slow to catch on, the local restaurant industry has whole-heartedly embraced this trend with a slew of new restaurants following this new school formula.

Jon Karel at Vera Pizzeria (2012, Aaron Ingrao)

Bars in WNY have gone through this same evolution. Ten years ago your choices for cocktails were basic like a rum and coke or salty margaritas made using a soda gun and pre-made mixers. Drinks were cheap and were meant to be consumed quickly and in volume. While some would say the advent of the cosmo or appletini was an upgrade, they were cheap tricks without any real depth. Bartenders were hired for looks not skills, so if quality was your thing your only choice was to pick the most expensive spirit and hope that you ended up with a balanced cocktail. This was the nadir for the WNY bon vivant.

Then in 2011 Vera Pizzaria opened up in the Elmwood Village with Jon Karel running the bar, introducing WNY to craft cocktails. Pre-made mixers were tossed for fresh squeezed juices and simple to complex house-made syrups and shrubs. Flavored vodkas were replaced with the finest curated spirits. Fresh herbs were commonplace in the drinks and a myriad of bitters were on hand to round the flavor of any cocktail. Drinks were bound in barrels, yet the creativity was boundless. The focus shifted from “get you drunk” to hospitality, quality and balance. While the cost per drink went up substantially, generally $10.00 a drink, there was much more alcohol in each smooth and balanced cocktail.

While many existing local restaurants followed suit, not many got the formula right missing the necessary elements of balance and hospitality. These restaurants did not take the time to develop a solid bar program, only hoping to gain the advantage of higher drink prices. Having bitters and a better selection of liquor does not automatically create a true craft cocktail bar. However, the cocktail bars that did get it right blossomed like Karel’s new restaurant Buffalo Proper, or Bourbon + Butter, Black Iron Bystro, Martin Cooks, Ballyhoo, Jaguar at the Bistro, Toutant and Marble + Rye.

Yet there still remained a great divide between those who like to imbibe in WNY. It takes a small learning curve and a bit of open-mindedness to appreciate that which these new school bars are trying to accomplish, yet the time pays off in spades. The new school saloons are upgrading the status quo for the benefit of all, yet not everyone has learned that lesson, continuing to grasp onto the stale, old school style of drinking. I truly believe the majority of WNY is ready to move on.

Lloyd Taco Factory

This is where Lloyd Taco Factory enters the picture bridging the gap between both sides, the bon vivants (new school) and the conservative diners (old school). Lloyd, through their marketing has already converted the conservative diners upgrading what they expect from a taco in WNY with locally-sourced quality ingredients and outside the box fillings. Now Lloyd is trying to bridge that same gap with cocktails. Should they be successful, they could potentially introduce large numbers of eaters to the quality food and drink that already exists and is continuing to grow in WNY, siphoning diners from the low-quality, impersonal corporate chains that plague our nation.

Prior to opening, Lloyd hired Queen City Shaken & Stirred partially run by Jon Karel and his fiancée Kerry Quaile to construct a bar program and train the staff. For months prior to opening Peter Cimino and Lloyd Beverage Operations Manager, Yuri Polyachenko worked behind the bar at Buffalo Proper learning the new school craft cocktail formula from Karel and his expert staff. As a result Lloyd presently boasts one of the finest bar programs and bartender (Polyachenko) in WNY.

Their cocktail list, with names drawing from influences like Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass to local favorite The Tragically Hip, is complex in flavor yet completely accessible, with prices drawing from the industry standard of $10.00 a drink. The best seller is the Kiwi Krush, a kiwi strawberry twist on the Brazilian caipirinha, a rival of the mojito for tropical refreshment. As every local bar must have their twist on a mule, Lloyd lists the Snozzberry Mule that tastes like real snozzberries made with vodka, lemon, ginger beer and a blueberry shrub. For cherry cola fans they have a cocktail made with Mexican cola, cherry liquor and an herbal amaro (for a roundness and depth of flavor). They also have the finest curated selection of mezcal (similar to a smoky tequila) that I have yet to discover in WNY. Yes, that even includes the wonderful Cantina Loco (I may never again get a hug from Adam Smith for that comment).

Lloyd Taco Factory

With a frozen cocktail, punch, a coffee drink and even a drink thickened with egg whites Lloyd has every ingredient necessary to craft the perfect cocktail for your unique tastes. As long as you take the time and talk with bartenders like Polyachenko, who will be more than happy to share with you his knowledge of fine spirits you will see there is nothing pretentious or frightening about this bar. It was crafted with the consumer in mind to maximize the enjoyment of your experience at the Wonka-esque Taco Factory.

Lloyd may very well be the missing link in our WNY culinary revolution, occupying that rare bi-partisan berth. WNY already trusts Lloyd, and now Lloyd can teach WNY how to properly enjoy a cocktail. Should Lloyd succeed with their bar as they have succeeded in converting people to their food it is only a matter of time before their loyal fan base will begin to seek out and discover the other wonderful alternatives that already exist in WNY. Ideally, this turns into a win for local businesses that give you their all, and a severe loss for the impersonal, corporate chain.

It is time to usher diners out of the Plantonic caves of ignorance. It is time that Buffalo cemented their position in the culinary pantheon. It is time that diners demand more from their eateries and drinkeries, weeding out the schlock and nurturing growth in the proper manner. Lloyd will shape what the future will look like in WNY, and maybe its because I’m hungover, but from this writer’s perspective the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. Salute!

Buffalo Eats

About Buffalo Eats

Donnie Burtless is the founder of BuffaloEats.org. He also co-hosts two podcasts: Grain of Salt and The Burtlist. He's judged over 30 different food contests around Western New York and has written for Buffalo Spree, The Public and Visit Buffalo Niagara.

One thought on “Is Lloyd the Missing Link in the WNY Culinary Evolution?

  1. eagercolin

    Drink whatever you like, and pay however much you’re willing. Really. But let’s lay off the idea that you need to spend a certain amount to “properly enjoy a cocktail,” and let’s not sing hosannas to those who have a financial stake in “teaching” us otherwise.

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