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.
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?
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."
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.
"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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
"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."
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."
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."
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.
"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."
"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."
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.