Deco -- Our History title Deco Restaurant at Delaware and Hertel

Deck and hot dog cart
Obviously, Gregory Deck was much older than what this promotional image portrays. He also didn't look like Huck Finn!

In the summer of 1918, an enterprising young man wanted to earn some extra money to help pay his college tuition. After giving it some thought, 18 year old Gregory Deck went into his yard to borrow the old kitchen table that was riding out its final days in the back shed. True to life, the table had seen better days, but it would serve young Deck's purpose just fine. Next, he took the family charcoal grill and together with the old table, placed them in a small wagon. Deck checked his pockets; six dollars and some change. Just enough to buy what he wanted.

Deck then walked the few blocks from Chester Street, where he lived, up to the local grocers and purchased a bag of charcoal, some pickles and mustard. The butcher shop was the next stop where he purchased some hot-dogs; the bakery for rolls. Now he was ready. After neatly assembling his wagon, he walked from his home to the corner of Main and Lisbon Streets and waited. It was early evening and the sun was just beginning its decline causing a warm reddish-orange glow to the neighborhood. The unmistakable sound of an approaching steam train made young Deck look over to the two railroad bridges that crossed Main Street just beyond where he was set up. A train had stopped on the bridge discharging passengers. Soon, customers approached - then more. He charged them a nickel for a hot-dog; money which they were happy to part with. He had struck gold.

Gregory Deck portrait
Gregory Deck in 1932.

In almost no time at all, Deck's small business grew to include a small cooler with ice that contained soda pop. After a few weeks, with business being as good as it was, Deck was able to strike a deal with one of the neighbors to store his wagon in the person's garage. "He would order just enough hot-dogs to run out," says Gregory Deck Jr., "because he didn't have any means of refrigeration. And he always saved the last hot-dog for the motorman on the street car because that's how he would get home at night. His fare was the hot dog."

With the Main and Lisbon location raking in more than just "pocket money", Deck got the notion to expand his little enterprise. By recruiting some of his neighborhood friends, he was able to set up three more of his hot-dog carts throughout the city the following year. Business was booming, and the young man was making more money than he ever dreamed - but what to call his operation?

Deco Button

They only sold hot-dogs and pop so there wasn't a catchy name to be had there. After giving it some thought, Deck took the first part of his name and the fact that his friends were his "co"-workers and put them together. The result was Deco, the beginning of what became a 60 year Buffalo dining tradition and one that kept the home fires burning for millions of hungry Western New Yorkers looking for what professor John Bray from D'Youville College called an "Oasis in the Night."

Niagara Falls trolley

Gregory Deck chose his first location very wisely. Nowadays, the location for where he set up his wagon can be found roughly where the Light-Rail Rapid Transit System station is situated at Main and Minnesota Streets, not far from Hertel Avenue. This spot was a station stop for both the Erie and Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroads, but was also a stop for the Niagara Falls high speed trolley line. This line was known for its yellow cars and its direct routes from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, and Buffalo to Lockport.

An early Deco stand
The first Decos were outdoor hot dog stands like the one in this 1920 photo.
Deck knew that people getting off the Erie or the Lackawanna trains would have to wait to catch the trolley, so he set up under a street light and catered to these people. Every evening, during the summer months, he would set up his wares at 8:00pm and sell hot-dogs and pop until 11:00pm. By the summer of 1920, Deck had enough gusto to expand his business beyond wagons. He had three permanent stands built and these were manned by his friends from the neighborhood as well as his two younger brothers. All sold the same thing; hot-dogs and pop. The quality control of each stand was handled by Deck who gave each stand 50 hot-dogs to sell at a dime apiece. The Deco chains were doing a land-office business.

Deco stand at Main & Riley
Deco Refreshments had grown to include more than just hot dogs. This early stand at Main and Riley Streets also served hamburgers and soda.
It seems that Deck was born to be a businessman. When he was 14 years old, he had one of the largest paper routes in the city. When he was 15, after hiring two boys as his assistants, he began to peddle newspapers, candy and souvenirs on the high speed trolley line running from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. He kept up this occupation as a "news butcher" even up until he opened the first Deco stands. By now, it was 1921 and Gregory Deck had some serious decisions to make.

"He had to quit Canisius College," says Deck Jr.. "It was beginning to interfere with his restaurant business. In fact, he was advised by someone at the college who told him, 'My God, man, you've got so much going for you and to top it off, you know what you're doing.' So he left to pursue Deco further."

First enclosed Deco
The first enclosed Deco Restaurant, shown in 1921, was at 24 W. Eagle St. at Pearl. It boasted two of the slogans that made Deco famous; "That Extra Bite" and "We Always Satisfy."
Deck now had some incredibly successful hot-dog stands generating loads of money. The early Decos consisted of a counter with five or six stools, a short order cook and good food at reasonable prices. In 1921, he decided that his restaurant should have more of a permanency to it so he leased some space at 24 West Eagle Street, corner of Pearl Street, and opened the first enclosed Deco Restaurant. Downtown Buffalo in the Roaring '20s was a hotbed of activity. Prohibition was big politics, Henry Ford was rolling out a million Model Ts a year and Rudolph Valentino was causing a sensation in "The Sheik." It was a perfect time for an ambitious young entrepreneur.

That EXTRA bite explained

Deck strived to offer his customers the best quality food at the lowest price possible. When the first enclosed Deco opened in 1921, the brightly colored orange and yellow tiled restaurant was adjourned with the slogans "We Always Satisfy" and "That Extra Bite". Deck coined that phrase while observing both ends of a hot-dog sticking out from a roll. He was also very shrewd in choosing the locations for his restaurants. The first Deco stand was located at the station for the high speed trolley line and subsequent locations were placed at trolley turn-around stops, and places where people had to wait. It was not long before Decos were all over the city of Buffalo. For example, there was a Deco at the corner of Genesee and Pine Ridge and another on Main and Jefferson streets by Canisius College. These were both trolley stops.

Deco at William & Fillmore
The Deco at William and Fillmore Streets. Low and behold, Central Terminal looms in the distance.
A Deco was built on William Street at the corner of Fillmore. Deck saw that this location was very beneficial to the newly constructed New York Central Terminal in 1929, but also to the meat packing business and slaughterhouse on William Street. A Deco was on Clinton Street right across from the food terminal. Deck built that one to serve the farmers who sold their produce at the market. In fact, the Clinton Street location demonstrated the need for 24 hour service for which the Deco restaurants were known for. Farmers would come in to eat at 3:00 o'clock in the morning even in the wintertime.

Some locations had colorful histories. "We were at Main and Hertel," recalls Gregory Deck Jr., "and this was another transfer station for the trolley. This was a great location because there was a dairy and some other business near there. But by the late '40s, business started to drop off and there wasn't any parking - more and more people had cars by then - so in the '50s, we took that restaurant and moved it to Military and Skillen streets. We bought the piece of property on the corner, and in the middle of the night, we moved the building down Hertel Avenue. Two days later, we opened at Military and Skillen. We did the same thing for the location at Hertel and Colvin; we moved it to Niagara and Ontario."

The Deco commissary
The Pecan Rolls, a Deco specialty, wereprepared for each restaurant in Deco's commissary.
Much of the chain's success resulted from Deck's innovation that included measured portions, fresh ingredients and frequent on-site inspections. Deco Restaurants had their own commissary behind the company's headquarters at 935 West Ferry Street. There, the food was prepared and delivered in company trucks to each location. The commissary contained facilities for butchering and preparing all the meat products, and a bakery for the restaurant's baked goods such as doughnuts and rolls.

Take your Gal to Deco... "Take you gal to Deco. Meet your pal at Deco. Everybody's eating where the eating's fine. Everybody's looking for a Deco sign. Food is so delicious, it fulfills your wishes. Get in line day and nite for that good extra bite at Deco all the time."
Gregory Deck knew how to run a business. By 1929, he was the head of a million dollar industry and had close to 20 restaurants dotting the city. He was also very respectful of his employees. "My Dad took the time to remember each employees name," recalls his son. "Every time he visited a restaurant he would know the name of the employee and each member of his family. He would ask how the wife and kids were. He got a lot of respect that way." Deck promoted company togetherness. He organized football and baseball teams, held company picnics and huge Christmas parties. Deco was one of the first businesses to offer a profit sharing plan to its employees. It even had a company song, "Take Your Gal to Deco, Meet Your Pal at Deco."

In 1929, with Deck at the age of 28, the company continued to expand. With an estimated sales volume of two million dollars, Deck wanted to create the largest restaurant chains in the country. In 1930, he went to the Marine Trust Company and borrowed one million dollars using his restaurants as collateral. Most of the Decos were enlarged and the menu was expanded. He built more branches and even expanded into other areas of New York State. Deco Restaurants were turning up in Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and Toronto. In four years, Deck had the loan paid off.

The inside of a small Deco
Cramped but comfortable, most Deco interiors looked like this; counter service with two booths. Oftentimes, a line was out the door.
The city of Buffalo alone had 50 locations. Some had service for both booths and tables, but for the most part, Deco Restaurants were small diners that offered mainly counter service. Most importantly, each location offered excellent food at very low prices. A hot-dog was a dime, a hamburger was a dime and a cup of coffee was a nickel. The menu offered specialties such as the "Hamburg Deluxe" which was a hamburger served on bread, covered with gravy and a side order of french fries for fifteen cents. Add a cup of coffee and you could do lunch for twenty cents.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Buffalo didn't suffer from the severe economic ruin that plagued other parts of the country. "Deco made more money during the Depression than at any time in the country's history," according to Stanley F. Phillips, the comptroller of Deco in the late '50s and early '60s. In the 1930s, most people were out of work so a Deco Restaurant was a natural hang-out. Open 24 hours, a Deco was always crowded with all types of people. Politicians, cops and street urchins all went into a Deco for a 5 cent cup of coffee.

"Everybody was broke," recalls Gregory Deck Jr.. "People were working for 12 dollars a week for a 60 hour week. A place like my Dad's was a great draw to the average guy because the food was so cheap but the quality was exceptional. For 20 cents you could get a delicious meal where at other places the same meal might cost 75 cents."

Deco delivery wagon
A Deco delivery van brought hot dogs, waffle batter or hamburgers to your home if your order totaled $1.00 or more.
Deco Restaurants reached their peak by the time World War 2 broke out. Buffalo had many factories and businesses that converted their operations into making supplies for the war effort. Local steel and auto factories went into three shifts and the restaurants were busy 24 hours a day. This was also the time when Deco did an incredible home delivery business of milk, bread and baked goods. But certain changes were taking place within the company as a direct result of the war. "When the war broke out, the government started rationing," says Deck Jr., "so we couldn't buy all the meat we wanted. Plus, in order to get help we had to offer some sort of decent salary. People at this time were still earning 12 to 15 bucks a week as a result of the Depression, but when the war broke out and all these people went to work in the war plants, they were earning over 100 bucks a week. We had to compete with that."

"We lost most of our help this way not to mention the fact that there was the draft also. We were forced to close a few of the restaurants in order to continue with the amount of produce needed to keep the other ones going. We also closed the Decos from out of town because we needed those key people back here in Buffalo. This was also the time when we started to hire a majority of women to work at the restaurants. Up to this point, most of the kitchen help and counter people were all men."

Fried egg sandwhich
Each cook at a Deco was the "ambassasdor" for the company so they had to reflect the Deco image right down to the way they wiped their noses. Fried egg sandwich anyone?
Most of the women that worked in the restaurants were housewives with no special skills; they were just looking to supplement their incomes. Deco started a training school that had all the newly hired employees go through three days of Deco mannerisms. They were made familiar with the menu items as well as how to prepare them. They were taught everything about interacting with the customers from not wiping one's nose in front of the customer ("duck under the counter") to handing change to a customer ("don't just throw it on the counter").

There is an interesting story that goes hand in hand with the government rationing during World War 2. When the first Deco opened, coffee was 5 cents a cup. The price stayed the same until 1941 when it was raised to 10 cents. Deck knew that the government would freeze prices because of the war so he raised the price of the coffee just before the freeze went into effect. When it did, he could still offer his customers a good cup of coffee at 10 cents while the other restaurants were caught in the freeze and had to water down their 5 cent cups.

The bottom line throughout all of Deco's history is the fact that these restaurants were THE place to hang out for most Buffalonians. "It was a place where a gentleman in a tuxedo would be sitting next to a drunk, both trying to get sober," says Joseph D. Pici, a retired Buffalo school teacher.

"In the 1930s," recalls Charles Leone, a longtime West Side resident, "the Deco at Niagara and Georgia Streets was always crowded. It was a gathering place for everybody in the area. It was the Depression, no one had a job, so they went to the Deco. You could get one hell of a cup of coffee there."

The Deco located at Delaware and Chippewa St. Like most Decos, this spot was a constant hang-out during the Depression and beyond.
Former Mayor Jimmy Griffin fondly recalls the Deco at Main and Seneca Streets: "When I was a young teen-ager in the First-Ward, my buddies and I would go to the Deco to say hello to Billy O'Shea's mom who used to work there. The people at the Decos were always friendly and if you could come up with 25 or 30 cents, you could get a good hamburger and a cup of coffee."

Educator James Van Dyke of Orchard Park remembers one particular day involving a stop at a Deco: "My father owned North Park Dairy and I would help him deliver milk very early in the morning. We stopped in the Deco at Hertel and Colvin around 4:00am on Sept. 1, 1939 and a radio was on. That's where we heard the news that Germany had invaded Poland."

"Back in the late '50s, I hung out with a bunch of guys who were pretty rough and I started a club called 'The Wanderers,' " says Donald Paddock. "We would drive to the Deco at Main and Fillmore and hang out there almost all night. A lot of times we ended up in fights in the restaurant and the police would come and break it up. We never got arrested, they were just fist fights, not like what kids get into today."

Deco at Delaware & Hertel
This was the look of the typical Deco from the '20s to the '40s. The lower part of buildings were painted a pale yellow with the upper part being orange. The roof was red tile.
Charles Polizzi, a resident of the West Side, recalls one waitress at the Deco at Main and Fillmore: "I remember asking one of the waitresses there how she did with tips. I mean, it was such a busy place with a fast turn-over and most of the customers were executive-type guys. Some of these waitresses would walk by and swing their fanny around good enough that they HAD to be making great tips! Anyway, this one girl told me that she liked working at the place so much that she told the manager she'd work for nothing because she was indeed making so much in tips. It didn't hurt that she was drop-dead gorgeous."

In 1941, Gregory Deck decided that he should retire. He was then 38 years old and felt that he had done all there was to do. He wanted to turn his attention to his church and helping others. He had dedicated his restaurants to the Blessed Mother and had all of the locations painted white and blue, the colors used by most artist when depicting the holy figure. He then turned operations over to his brother Joseph and his son Gregory Jr.. With the daily grind of running the business left to others, Deck dedicated his life to the Catholic Church. He was dean of the Papal Knights in the Buffalo Diocese, a Knight of St. Gregory the Great, a Knight of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher, and a Knight of Malta. He founded the Catholic Pamphlet Society and the Catholic Guild for the Blind, and assisted in the founding of Rosary Hill College. Deck continued his extensive involvement in church work right up until his death in 1969.

The newer look
By the 1950's, all the Deco restaurants were changed to look like this one; white with blue trim. This Deco is under construction.
By the time the 1950s dawned on Buffalo, Deco Restaurants were going through some changes. These same changes were being felt by most businesses in the downtown Buffalo area. Gregory Deck Jr. explains: "During World War Two, all automobile production that had boomed during the late '30s and early '40s, abruptly stopped. The majority of the people didn't own a car so they had to rely on public transportation; everything was key to the downtown shopping district. After the war ended, all the war plants reconverted back to what they were before so all the people went back to their jobs. In the auto industry as well as others, salaries went from $100 a week to around $125 a week. In 1949, the cost of a car was around $2200 bucks. So you had people buying cars like crazy."

"Now everyone had a car and they were heading out to places that the street-car didn't go to. Strip plazas turned up everywhere offering shopping convenience in one spot. You no longer had to walk 5 blocks downtown to go to Hengerer's, Kleinhan's or A.M.& A's. You could do all your shopping in one spot. Movie houses and theaters shut down because everyone was staying home and watching television. Everything died towards the end of the '50s. We died."

A modern-looking Deco
Some Decos were modernized and enlarged like this one, but to no avail. By 1961, Deco was sold and the business failed to compete with the changing society.
In 1961, the Deco Restaurant chain was sold to Sportservice, a major food concessionaire run by Louis M. Jacobs, a long-time contemporary of Gregory Deck. (Sportservice now is part of the $1.07 billion Delaware North Companies.) Gregory Deck Jr. tried to find ways of keeping the chain successful even to the extent of closing some of the less profitable locations and eliminating the 24 hour service, but Sportservice never showed an interest in improvements or changes. Deco's only major competitor throughout its entire existence was the Your Host restaurant chain. By the late '40s and early '50s when shopping plazas were being built, Your Host opened branches in these plazas. Deco didn't. Because of this, Your Host took a big lead from Deco and forced the closing of a number of restaurants and properties being sold. With the gradual decline of the downtown area and the fact that most of the Decos were in older, unsafe neighborhoods, the chain began a downward spin that was unrecoverable.

"We should have never owned the properties the restaurants sat on," says Deck Jr.. "Let landlords make their money; we're in the restaurant business. I wanted to cut down on the volume of diversification and center in on specific items. I wanted to end up like Ted's; a hot-dog stand selling dogs and pop. Just how we used to be. The 24 hour thing was dumb too. When we first opened some of these locations, they were prime spots. Then as geographic changes take place, those same areas became morgues and there was no reason to stay open 24 hours. The payroll was getting prohibitive as was the cost to run the place. From 11pm until 5am, the place would be dead."

Deck Jr. continues about how the times changed for the worse: "There came a time when the neighborhoods forced us to eliminate a restaurant. The Deco at Niagara and Georgia streets did a fantastic business during the day. It was a little place having only 5 booths and 25 stools. When it got to be around 10:00 at night all the seedy elements came in and all hell broke loose. There were knife fights, they'd threaten the help, they'd try to get at the cash register - the police were there all the time. We couldn't keep the place open. It just wasn't worth it."

The last Deco
The last Deco in Buffalo was this one at 389 Washington Street in downtown Buffalo. The building is still in use as a restaurant.
Deco Restaurants hung on until 1979 when the last one, located on Washington Street next to the Lafayette Hotel, closed. Deco is now a part of Buffalo history and was a familiar institution to everyone who lived in Buffalo during its 60 year reign. Each Deco had its own personality, formed by the people who frequented a particular location. The cook, the waitresses, the regulars lingering over coffee, businessmen, policemen and drunks, bikers and motorheads, teen-agers and tradesmen in and out, their favorite selections on the jukebox; it was "their" Deco. They all became part of the passing scene in the city, non-stop, 24 hours a day.

In 1998, the old Deco building 389 Washington Street was still being used as a restaurant; the Sugar and Spice. However, as of 2006, the business was closed. At the time it was known as the Sugar and Spice, the only thing "Deco" was a copy of an old menu hanging on a wall inside. Oddly enough, the building is next to another of Buffalo's losses -- A.M.& A's department store. The chrome sign that spells out "RESTAURANT" was original to the Deco building.

As we look back, let us not forget that this institution is another part of Buffalo's great historical legacy; certainly gone, but definitely not forgotten.