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Bad Ass Babes of the Buffalo Bar Industry

Coco's owner Maura Crawford, Gabrielle Mattina (The Gypsy Parlor, Duke's Bohemian Grove Bar), Molly Brinkworth (The Old Pink), and Valerie Meli (Hot Mama's Canteen)
Cocktail Class
Bad Ass Babes of the Buffalo Bar Industry

On the sixth day, God created Man and named him Adam. When Adam fell asleep that afternoon, God created women and booze. Adam woke up and said, “Oh yeah, this is good.” But by 1920, American women of the Temperance Movement didn’t agree it was all that good and they shut that booze shit down with the 18th Amendment and Prohibition.

Gypsy Parlor Zoltar Fortune Teller
Gypsy Parlor's Pink Pool Table
The ladies in front of The Old Pink's Mural
Coco's Patio
Coco's Painting La Dormeuese
Headstone Heat Hot Sauce at Hot Mama's

During Prohibition, Buffalo became the second-largest bootlegging city nationwide—and bragged about it, too. Buffalo mayor Francis X. Schwab, a former liquor storeowner and president of Buffalo Brewing Co., proudly declared in his 1922 annual State of the City address that there were roughly 8,000 speakeasies in town. Schwab himself was indicted when federal agents raided Buffalo Brewing and found illegal beer, yet he was enthusiastically elected to a second term.

It was our own now famous over-achieving dude—William “Wild Bill” Donovan—who led the Prohibition enforcement campaign in Buffalo. Donovan, a First Ward Irishman and WWI hero, was appointed US Attorney for the Western District of New York in 1922. He raided elite speakeasies like The Saturn Club (of which he was a member) and the Country Club of Buffalo. Everyone hated him, from the lowliest corner drunk to the loftiest scotch-sipping banker and there were threats to assassinate him and bomb his home. (General “WIld Bill” Donovan later created the WWII spy agency OSS and helped form the CIA—and experimented with using drugs to interrogate criminals during the 1940s.)

In spite of folks like Donovan and the Temperance ladies, Prohibition proved to be a miserable failure and by 2015 the women’s Temperance movement was just a distant memory. In fact, many astute women across the country have decided that it’s a smart idea to own the saloons and sell the booze. In Buffalo, women own and run some of the hippest bars/restaurants in town. Buffalo bars are plentiful and while women bar owners are the minority, their establishments are among the best.

On the patio of Coco Bar & Bistro, four women are relaxing on the leafy terrace. They are: Coco’s owner, Maura Crawford (formerly of Le Metro); Gabrielle Mattina (The Gypsy Parlor, Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar); Molly Brinkworth (The Old Pink); and Valerie Meli (Hot Mama’s Canteen).

A warm breeze whispers through the trees as four glasses are raised in the air—but it’s not to toast the “glamorous life.” It’s a toast to being on call all night, every night, living and breathing their businesses first, and doing whatever the hell they want to do.

“I was a waitress at Mother’s,” Crawford says, “and you all know how Mother’s was back in the 80s, hence my divorce—and then I opened my first business because I didn’t know any better. I just fell into it.”

Crawford found her calling while working in restaurants during college. She’s opened 11 of her own over the years—Coco opened at 888 Main in 2013. Its ambiance is unpretentiously chic with a French flair—muted earth tone colors typical of a French bistro with a hand painted Paris cityscape by Dani Weisner and a mural by Destiny Rogowski reproducing Tamara de Lempicka’s La Dormeuese (the sleeping woman).

Coco’s is clearly feminine yet rebellious, there are intriguing quotes on the walls by rabble rousers like Hunter S. Thompson and there is romantic seating that increases the likelihood you’ll get to third base.

“I wanted to make Coco warm and welcoming with a feeling of timelessness. I find that a lot of the new places in Buffalo are cold with sharp edges. I wanted Coco to have curves. Coco is the most inexpensive place I’ve ever put together and my favorite. I feel it is the truest expression of me. My only formula was to keep a balance of ying and yang (masculine and feminine) and express myself from the heart. Then people naturally respond. I also have a very patient and talented husband who makes my ideas a reality”

Coco was an early advocate of unisex bathrooms for the neighborhood transsexuals. She kicked a former business partner to the curb for not acknowledging her equality standards. But Crawford’s liberalism does not compromise her professional standards in the kitchen or with staff. Chef Conor Casey is extraordinarily talented and the wait staff is top notch. That’s typical for Crawford.

“Back at Le Metro, it was an industry standard- sleeves, and covered midriffs,” Crawford says of her bartenders’ attire. “I had a male partner at the time who was trying to wrestle me for control. The bartenders’ shirts would start to move up like this... [motions up her midsection] and I told him—a lot of female customers are not comfortable and we have a rule. And my partner said to me, ‘You’re just jealous.’ My former partner!”

“Hey, I’ve hired a couple guys just to look at them,” Brinkworth says. Her laughter punctuates a Janis Joplin like voice that’s acclimated to being heard over decades of barroom noise.

The name “Brinkworth” has been synonymous with Buffalo bar owners since the 1950s.

“I’m from a family of eight, and went to school for travel and tourism. I thought that’s what I wanted to do,” Brinkworth says. “But my plan—it was already made for me. I was cleaning the Saratoga when I was seven years old. Then, all of a sudden, my father was opening Colter Bay and I helped him for a couple years...”

Brinkworth bought the Pink Flamingo at 223 Allen St. 25 years ago from Mark Supples (owner of Mother’s), and the rest is history. Although its real name is Allen Street Bar and Grill, not a single person has ever called it anything but The Pink or The Old Pink. With her thick red Irish curls, freckles and booming energy Molly Brinkworth is like a shot of Fireball Whisky down the throat of Allentown—strong, forceful, and lots of fun.

“My father was always my equal [business] partner,” Brinkworth says, “and I was never alone in this business until the last seven years.” Her father Dennis Brinkworth Jr. died of a stroke in 2007. “He gave me support, information, and knowledge. He let me make mistakes, and I made several. He’d say, ‘Well, what did you learn?’ To me, that was the greatest gift ever. I was never afraid to talk about what was going on.”

Brinkworth runs her spot by hiring people who fit the funky dressed-down and artsy character of her place and then lets them be themselves. “I wouldn’t be here if it not for my employees,” said Brinkworth. “They make us who we are.” There’s nothing trendy about the Pink and there never was. That’s always been its attraction for Pink regulars and something also appreciated by many out of town artists and rock acts touring through Buffalo who stop in. The building is painted by an artist who won a mural contest done with Artvoice and the whacky decor behind the bar is created by patrons. “Most of the ‘look’ came from our customers bringing in unique items. If I liked it, it went behind the bar. Now the back bar is jam packed and none of it came from me!”

Brinkworth gives her DJs freedom to assess the crowd and their moods and counts on them to be smart enough to play the right music. And they do. People love the music at the Pink. They also love the grilled steak sandwiches, which many will say are as good or better than anything you’ll get at E.B. Green’s or the Chophouse. That may be surprising to folks who note the Old Pink has consistently won Best Dive Bar in the Artvoice Best of Buffalo awards.

Val Meli started from the ground up, tending bar at nineteen in a rough-and-tumble Grand Island joint. In 2010, she launched her hot sauce company, Headstone Heat. Her sauce graces many of the menu items at Hot Mama’s Canteen, which she opened last year in Black Rock. The quirky cocktails are based around fiery, house-made pickles.

“I started making hot sauce in my apartment, with habaneros growing in my garden,” Meli says. “I started giving it to people as gifts and making drinks with it. Now, I have a staff that does it. It’s wonderful!”

The place is her style, all the way. She followed her instincts, rather than go for the ubiquitous trendy-bar-in-a-box formula of many new bars opening up around town i.e., brick, check, designer lights, check, stainless steel, check, distressed wood, check, industrial ceiling, check, craft cocktails, check, etc., etc.

“My place is a place that makes you feel at home, meaning comfort from the moment you walk in,” Meli says. “ A lot of places lose that nowadays, and I want to make sure it’s constant from open to close.”

Located in a cool looking red brick building Meli defines the aesthetic of Hot Mama’s as “Classic American.” She was inspired by pinup girls of the 1940s and 1950s and the approachable sexiness of that era.

“Everyone loves the pinup girl. It’s a classic American image,” Meli says. “There’s a sexy wholesomeness to it, so it goes well with the dining and bar. What I see in other places, is people jump on a bandwagon like ‘this is in.’ I’ve never been like that. I want to cater to people and want them to have fun. It has nothing to do with what’s ‘in.’”

Fittingly, one of her bartenders is a member of the popular burlesque troupe the Stripteasers, who fashion themselves as 50s style pinup girls—and there’s a funky piano used regularly by bands playing blues and honky-tonk Americana music. Jazz bands and other acts also play there and they all enjoy the gig. After more than 25 years of working in other people’s bars Val Meli has found her home.

Gabrielle Mattina opened the Gypsy Parlor in 2012, conceptualizing the bar based on her own proclivities and desires. She worked with her father on all the carpentry inside. People told her opening up on Grant St. was “weird enough to work,” and it did.

Mattina has a curvaceous figure that she’s flirtatiously used to her advantage over the years, including igniting patronage to the Gypsy Parlor in it’s early days.

“When we first opened, I thought everybody was going to love us,” Mattina says. “I felt like we did all the right things. Yeah, there were a couple mistakes I made. Being over the top sexual—a lot of people did not appreciate that. I’m older now, I’m married, and I’ve toned it down.”

Many at the Gypsy Parlor now refer to Mattina as “Big Mama,” because she fosters a sense of family within her group of employees. She created a great spot with good food, good music and its own identity. Where else will you find Zoltar the Fortuneteller or a pink pool table?

“It comes down to having experience; that’s what makes for success, not how much money you have,” Mattina says. “You have to know how to be a leader.”

Mattina’s bartenders travel back and forth from Gypsy to Duke’s Bohemian Grove Bar, which she recently purchased. She’s also working on a future spot in the Market Arcade.

“I always thrived off of being different and not conforming,” Mattina says. “I could never work a ‘normal’ job. Stability doesn’t motivate me. There’s camaraderie amongst restaurant crews that you don’t see in other industries. We share an addiction to being social. I could never stay home at night as a young adult; even now I can’t just stay home and chill. I have to be up and doing something stimulating.”

During the darkest hours of the night, Mattina drives back and forth from Gypsy to Duke’s. While taking a trip down to the smoky basements and driving through back alleys, Mattina gets honest about lessons she’s learned, particularly from an incident around Thanksgiving 2013. Mattina posted a photo of herself and another barmaid dressed up as scantily dressed hot looking Indian girls, “Pocahotties.” When UB American Studies PhD student Jodi Maracle, who is part Mohawk, went on the attack accusing them of racism, sexism, stereotyping and more, social media exploded until articles appeared in the Buffalo News and elsewhere.

“I’ve moved away from that,” Mattina says about dressing up in sexy outfits in the dawn days of Gypsy. “Ironically, the week that story came out and everyone was talking about it, that remains the most financially successful and highest grossing week we’ve had. Everyone was talking about it and curious; people came to see what it was all about.”

Overall, success has come to these women and their businesses due to the fact they did what they wanted. They didn’t rely on trends, what other bars in Buffalo look like, or what they thought others wanted. They make cocktails out of pickle juice, host belly dance nights, and drink beer while watching General Hospital with Monday afternoon patrons.

“To everyone who wants to start a business or open a restaurant—do it. But do not do it blindly,” Meli says. “If you don’t have experience, don’t even try. You’re going to waste money and a lot of people’s time.”

“Service people, I think they are born not made,” Crawford says. “There is nothing demeaning about giving service and making someone happy. There were a lot more people like us back in the day than there are today. In the business, I thought as a boss I had to be the mother and a best friend. Age has really helped me. Being a young boss was really tough. Especially employing friends and family.”

It’s a fact that many women get out of the bar industry, since it’s not that female-friendly to begin with. For those ladies with the experience and leadership qualities, there’s simply no other life for them. Crawford recently formed the Buffalo WITCHES (Women in The Culinary-Hospitality Service) as sort of a Skull and Bones society for female bar/restaurant owners.

“Women are creative and resourceful, even though they are more of a target,” Mattina says.

Anything these women touch carries their own Molotov cocktail of badass. They are one step ahead of the game. Cheers to that.

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