A Cut Above
As "Charlie the Butcher," Charlie Roesch Has Carved Out a Tasty Career as a Restaurateur and Goodwill Ambassador of WNY's Unique Cuisine
by Doug Carpenter for After 50 Newspaper
For some people, you have to rewrite the rules. For Charlie Roesch, they'd have to rewrite nursery rhymes. You know the one that goes "Rub-a-dub-dub. Three men in a tub?" Well, if you're talking about Roesch – known far and wide as "Charlie the Butcher" – those three men would have to be "the butcher, the sandwich order taker and the public appearance maker." And busy man that he is, he would be all three.
At age 57, Charlie Roesch is still perfecting the life recipe that has transformed him from the keeper of the flame for his family's longtime Western New York meat business into "Charlie the Butcher," a popular restaurateur and media personality. The secret ingredients, he is quick to admit, have been equal parts love and luck.
Meet Buffalo's First Family of Meat.
When you come from a family like the Roesches, there's no denying that history plays a big role in your destiny. And so it was with Charlie. That's what everybody calls him, of course. Charlie. Aside from the fact that it's hard to stand on formality with a guy with as big a smile and as warm a handshake, the name seems to come with job. And it's a job that Charlie loves.
As the third generation to run the well-known
Charles E. Roesch and Company meat business, Charlie […Charles W. in family photo captions…] succeeded his Dad, Charles J., who himself followed in the filleting footsteps of Charles E., who started the whole thing in 1914. Being a Buffalo butchering pioneer, however, was not Grandpa Charlie's only claim to fame.
Had he not made a name for himself, as well as numerous generations to come, as a purveyor of fine meats and poultry, Charles E. Roesch would still be recognized by history for having served as Mayor of Buffalo from 1930 to 1934. He was, in fact, the first Mayor to occupy Buffalo’s then newly-built City Hall.
But it would be the time he spent in yet another prominent local building – the famous Broadway Market – that would leave the most lasting legacy. It would be there that his family’s butcher shop, operated by three generations of Roesches, would be a mainstay for the better part of eight decades.
It was, remarkably enough, a tradition of commerce and service that had its roots in an even earlier generation of the family, stretching all the way back to the current Charlie’s great-grandfather, Jacob Roesch, who in the late 1800s was himself the proprietor of a shop in the Washington Market, which stood in the area at the intersection of Washington and Genesee Streets in the heart of Downtown Buffalo now occupied by the M&T Bank parking lot.
Where’s the Beef? Right Here.
Four generations and more than 120 years later, the Roesch family is still part of the Buffalo scene. Only now, your genial host is a fellow whose name and face have, thanks to television, become familiar to not just to you and your fellow Western New Yorkers but to an expanding audience across the country and even in far-flung places around the globe.
Charlie the Butcher, as the company is now officially known, operates a multifaceted restaurant and catering business that has taken the Roesch family legacy and married it to the equally-rich culinary traditions so prized by those of us who are proud to be Buffalonians and so sought after by people who can only wish they were. Prime among these delicacies is, of course, the world-famous Beef on Weck sandwich.
As Charlie the Butcher, Charlie Roesch considers himself honored to represent Buffalo as its unofficial “Food Ambassador” in appearances spanning more than two decades. Just as the reputation of Buffalo cuisine has benefited from the explosive popularity of its now world-famous chicken wings, the spreading recognition for Buffalo’s equally-proprietary Roast Beef on Kummelweck has been very good to Charlie… and he to it.
Charlie has a special fondness for the sandwich. which according to legend was invented right here in Buffalo in the 1800s by an entrepreneurial waterfront bar owner looking to feed his hungry customers and, as a side benefit, perhaps help them work up a little extra thirst, as well, courtesy of the salty rolls.
As popular as this concoction has become among generations of locals, Charlie says you should see the reception the tasty treat receives when he takes it on the road. And so far, it’s been quite a road trip indeed.
Reinventing the Meal, the Man and the Message.
Charlie’s evolution from mild-mannered meat man to media personality has been a gradual but steady process of self-discovery. It began with his realization that, even with a 1971 Chemistry degree from the University of Toledo, returning to Buffalo to be part of the family business offered him something working for someone else never could. Control of where his professional life would take him. And he has obviously made the most of it.
When he fully took the reins of Charles E. Roesch and Company in the early 1980s, Americans were just beginning to embrace the changes in health attitude, taste and lifestyle that ultimately so dramatically altered the way we live, eat and shop. Inevitably, those changes would require some “outside the box” thinking on Charlie’s part. And what he found when he looked outside that box turned out to be pretty exciting.
One of the first things he discovered was himself. Or, more precisely, his colorful alter ego: “Charlie the Butcher.” That Charlie made his unassuming debut at a 1984 trade show, where for the first time he donned his soon-to-be-trademark Charlie the Butcher-emblazoned apron and “bump cap,” as his distinctive white hardhat is known in the business.
The warm and enthusiastic reaction the look received seemed to perfectly match both the demeanor and the dreams of the man behind the apron, who wanted to put his personal mark on his chosen profession while promoting the distinctive cuisine that only Buffalo could offer. And thus an icon was born. It wouldn’t be long before others began to take notice, and the “luck” part of the recipe began to be added to the mix.
Thanks to Charlie, Word Travels Fast.
First came invitations from local media like WKBW-TV’s AM Buffalo to appear in on-air food segments. When word spread, so did Charlie the Butcher’s reputation, leading to more invitations and more opportunities to appear in more places. And the list has grown to include some pretty impressive gigs.
TV guest spots on ABC’s Good Morning America, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee and the Food Network’s Food Nation with Bobby Flay. Personal appearances – across North America in New York, Toronto, Washington DC, Orlando, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Dallas and San Diego – and subsequently in distant, exotic locales like Düsseldorf, Germany, and Lyon, France.
In print, in feature stories for newspapers and magazines like Gourmet and even in national advertising campaigns for products like Alto-Shaam roasting ovens and VISA® Fabrics. All were golden opportunities to convey what Charlie considered to be his most important message. That good food could still be fun to eat, and that Buffalo was one place that knew just how to do that just right.
There’s No Place Like Home for Home Cooking.
Of course, Charlie didn’t have to take his show on the road to drive that message home. He had more than enough on his plate right here in Western New York. And making sure his family’s business kept pace with the increasingly-hectic lifestyles of his customers was just one place to start.
As changing times often do, that original meat business underwent an inevitable transformation, moving from its longtime home in the Broadway Market to a new location at 1065 Wehrle Drive at Cayuga in Williamsville, where it transitioned to the next stage of its identity, evolving into Charlie the Butcher’s Kitchen in 1993, joining the company’s popular catering service, Charlie on Location.
Having a new sitdown restaurant with a wide menu of tasty grill selections and trucks that could deliver delicious meals in quantity to homes and offices provided Charlie with an excellent vehicle for his message. “What we saw,” he says, “were consumers looking for good quality food at a reasonable price with excellent service. Not fast food, but healthy food that was convenient.”
He realized that while his new restaurant and catering capabilities were part of what people were looking for, there had to be more. And when he went looking for answers, what he found was opportunity. That opportunity has so far taken a variety of exciting forms.
What’s New on Charlie’s Menu?
Charlie the Butcher is now a presence in a variety of venues throughout Western New York. There’s Charlie the Butcher Express, which feeds Downtown Buffalo’s hungry workforce Monday through Friday at its location in the historic Ellicott Square Building on Main Street.
There are also Charlie the Butcher franchise operations located inside three Buffalo-area Wegmans Supermarkets. Additional Charlie the Butcher-themed units also operate in other Wegman stores across New York State.
Recognizing the irony that the more mobile potential customers’ lifestyles become, the harder it seems to be to get them to come to you, part of the Charlie the Butcher strategy has become being as easy to get to as possible. That’s where the company’s new NOCO Express locations come in, providing Western New Yorkers – who today are as busy as they are hungry – convenient, one-stop access to food that’s both fast and good, Charlie the Butcher style.
“Carving concept” operations in suburban NOCO locations in Orchard Park, East Aurora and Lancaster/Depew, with a fourth scheduled to open shortly, now offer what Charlie calls “home meal replacement” menu choices, including not only his signature carved roast beef but also healthy side dishes like seasonal roasted vegetables to accompany dinner orders after 4:00 p.m.
Thinking more like someone cooking to feed his own family rather than the paying public, Charlie is both customer service-driven and business-savvy. “People are obviously more health-conscious today,” he observes, adding that as rushed as they may be, people still want a healthy meal that satisfies. But if their food options included choices that “went back to the way Grandma cooked,” everybody wins… their taste buds and their bodies as well as the restaurant that takes care of them both.
Celebs of a Feather Dine Together.
Over the years, of course, Charlie the Butcher has definitely taken care of some of the best. Modest about his status as a “celebrity,” Charlie has nonetheless rubbed elbows with some pretty famous folks. The wall at his Williamsville “Kitchen” location boasts an impressive spread of photos showing a familiar-looking man in an apron in the company of even more familiar faces.
People like TV’s Regis Philbin, Buffalo-born humorist Mark Russell and Tim Russert of NBC News, Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, and both former New York Governor Mario Cuomo and current Governor George Pataki, whose Super Bowl wagers with other states’ chief executives have proudly included Charlie’s trademark Beef on Weck.
The reputation of his inimitable personal take on that dish travels nearly as well as Charlie himself. Testament to that fact are the enthusiastic crowds he has served in venues ranging from the hometown folks atmosphere of Washington, DC’s annual Buffalo Night celebration to the upscale ambiance of the five-star Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas.
But none of these appearances, Charlie points out, have come close to the fun he has had sharing the food he loves to prepare with friends and neighbors. Working with longtime Channel 7 weatherman Tom Jolls catering “Charlie the Butcher Backyard Barbecues” for lucky area families throughout much of the late ’80s and ’90s still ranks high on his list of favorite Western New York memories. The local fame that came with such experiences has, he adds, made it possible for him to “give back” to the community that has given him so much.
The Sweet Taste of Success… Family Style.
In addition to serving as an enthusiastic national spokesperson for Buffalo’s great culture and cuisine, one of the other ways he’s given back has been by creating jobs. Charlie notes that his family business, which had a staff of about 20 people in 1975, has more than tripled its family of employees over the past three decades to nearly 70, with more growth still on the way.
To say that the success of Charlie the Butcher has been a family affair would be an understatement. It’s more than just the fact that its longevity has been the result of a commitment to excellence and service shared by four generations of Roesches. Wait. Make that five generations. Charlie’s son Tim now works with his Dad, supervising Charlie the Butcher’s NOCO Express locations.
And while you’re at it, let’s not forget the person who Charlie himself credits with being “the spark” that for 18 years has inspired him to be open to the new ideas that have worked out so well for the family business. The unwavering encouragement, energy, enthusiasm and creativity of his wife Bonnie, Charlie says, have been instrumental in transforming what was a traditional meat business into the innovative enterprise it is today.
Her zest for doing everything possible to see Charlie the Butcher realize its potential, he gratefully acknowledges, reflects an important belief that they both share. That a good meal should do more than satisfy your appetite for food. It should also whet your appetite for life.
Sounds like a pretty good recipe for success, doesn’t it?