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The road to Buffalo’s future goes through our (fast food) stomachs

HAMBURG — Western New York residents have many new reasons to feel optimistic about the future of the region. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is growing at a rapid pace, with some buildings opening their doors for the first time, this month.

Re-use of existing buildings is seeing new popularity. Harbor Center adds muscle to Canalside.

Yet the real litmus test may be in our ability to attract national casual dining establishments. Here, I present a list of the top five eateries that are a barometer for Buffalo’s success.

Number one: SONIC restaurants. These staples of the South are planning significant expansion in the Empire State. In fact, eight new locations are planned for the Buffalo area during the next six years, according to Patrick Lenow, vice president of public relations for SONIC. Five new locations are pegged for the nearby Rochester market within the next four years.

SONIC boasts some 3,517 drive-ins in 44 states. One of the eight new locations is sure to be found near our hungriest (and thirstiest) readers.

For trivia lovers, the chain began as a hamburger and root beer stand in 1953 in Shawnee, Okla., and was called the Top Hat Drive-In. It revolutionized the ordering process by using curbside speakers that allowed customers to place food orders without ever leaving their cars. This technology spawned the slogan “Service at the Speed of Sound,” which translated to one word: SONIC.

Number two: Waffle House restaurants. I know the brand has a certain redneck reputation, but that’s what would make it flourish in the Northeast. The closest one to Buffalo is more than 130 miles away in Austinburg, Ohio. What does Austinburg have that we don’t?

The Waffle House tradition began in 1955, when the first Waffle House restaurant opened in Avondale Estates, an Atlanta suburb. Each restaurant is open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, inspiring urban myths such as “Waffle House doors have no locks,” according to its website. There are plenty of people in Buffalo who have no reservations about chowing down under the cover of darkness.

Where else can you order pork chops and eggs? Or make the distinction between country ham and city ham?

Number three: Chick-fil-A. At less than 95 miles from Buffalo, you’ll find Erie, Pa. has one within striking distance. It all started in 1946 in Hapeville, Ga. Chick-fil-A’s boneless breast of chicken sandwich has been the cornerstone of the second largest quick-service chicken restaurant chain in the United States, with more than 1,700 locations.

Chick-fil-A has the most creative advertising campaign of the three eateries. You may have seen a cow, paintbrush in mouth, scrawling the words “Eat mor chikin” on a billboard. This fearless cow and his compatriots realized that when people eat chicken, they don’t eat them.

Options four and five are long shots, at best.

The Varsity in Atlanta has sensational hamburgers, as well as countless employees lining a stainless steel counter. In the interest of great customer service, you will be greeted with a hearty, “What’ll ya have? What’ll ya have?” Answer fast; they are impatient.

Billed as “The World’s Largest Drive-in Restaurant,” the Varsity has been in business since 1928. There are eight such restaurants in the Atlanta and Athens areas, so opening one in Buffalo would be the Varsity’s first foray north of the Mason-Dixon Line. We’re ready.

Finally, there is Ben’s Chili Bowl. Newlyweds Ben and Virginia Ali used $5,000 in 1958 to begin renovating a vintage 1910 movie theater on U Street in Washington, D.C.

Ben’s opened that summer. Five decades later, President-elect Barack Obama ate lunch there a scant 10 days before his first inauguration.

It is easy to see that if even one of these restaurants were to plant its flag in Buffalo, the rest of the nation would realize that we have finally come of age. Hockey tournaments and medical conferences come and go, but waffles live on forever.

David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at

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