Get to Know: Roger Spell
Title: Co-Owner, The Barn Restaurant; Chair, Ellicottville Central School Board of Education
A Few Facts: Roger Spell is a relative newcomer to Ellicottville. He has only lived in Ellicottville since 1997! That’s the year he and his wife, Mary (Laidlaw) Spell, purchased her childhood, historic home on Washington Street after her father’s death. FYI: The Laidlaw family has been a fixture in the village since 1875, when Mary’s grandfather William K. Laidlaw purchased the home that was built in 1846.
When the Spells first moved to Ellicottville from Texas, Roger worked in Buffalo for Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor, after serving for many years in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour in the first Gulf War. Mary also was working in Buffalo, and though they enjoyed their jobs, the commute was wearing them down. Plus, Roger was coaching their two children’s sports teams, and he had been elected to the Ellicottville Board of Education. When The Barn Restaurant was put up for sale in 2010, Roger jumped at the chance to own a business and work locally. Now, nearly three years later, Spell and partner Kevin Watt have put their stamp on The Barn, which has a special place in the hearts of community residents and tourists alike.
Q: What’s the best part about owning a restaurant in Ellicottville?
A: Like so many other businesses in Ellicottville, ours is a family affair. Both of my children, Shelby and Robert, help out in the kitchen, as do Kevin’s sons. Our wives both are very involved, and Mary took a bartending class and developed our drink menus. And our staff, which totals 25 in the peak winter months, also is like family to us. We all love the place and are always coming up with ideas for improvements.
Q: Taste of Ellicottville is coming up next weekend. How important is that to the businesses in town?
A: In the restaurant business, people often have their favorites and just stick with the places they know. This is an opportunity for people to try everything, expand their horizons and maybe find a few new favorites. It really is a huge opportunity for every restaurant in town to introduce themselves to people, and we all work for a month to prepare for it.
At The Barn, our orders were placed weeks ago and this week we’ve begun prepping. Last year we went through 70 pounds of banana peppers for our Hungarian Stuffed Peppers (with Andouille sausage and four cheeses) and 100 pounds of pork for the bleu cheese encrusted medallions. We also plan for a lot of people who come back for dinner and another order of coconut shrimp. All the restaurants have busy dinner hours on Taste weekend. It’s a very valuable event for everyone.
Q: You’ve been actively involved with Ellicottville Central Schools for many years. Now in your second year as Chair of the Board, what do you think the biggest challenges for the school will be in the next few years?
A: For the near future, of course, the board and staff will be very busy with the renovation project. Right now, we’re working to get the architect’s plans finalized. The next task will be to get the plans and budget to align. But the hard work really will be after construction begins when we have to ensure students and teachers have everything they need to keep school going without too much disruption. We’ll have to find places to hold games, performances, testing and other activities that are normally held in the gym and other areas that will be under construction. We’re confident that it will all work out well, and everyone agrees that the end result will be a much better learning environment for our kids.
As is always the case, school funding is another challenge and will remain one for the foreseeable future. The State Education Department has been cutting budgets for years, while asking us to do more with less. Last year was especially difficult with the dramatic increase in pension benefits contributions, but we anticipate those increases will be less severe in a year or two.
To add to the challenge, the state, which wants us to rely more on local funding, also mandates a maximum 2 percent local tax increase. We’re fortunate in Ellicottville that we’re seeing economic development, which will add to the tax base, but some of the neighboring communities in the school district have seen property assessments go down, which puts more of a tax burden on the healthier areas.
Luckily, we also have a very supportive community. Between formal organizations such as the Sports Boosters and the Parent-Teacher Organization, and many dedicated individuals, we always seem to find a way to get things done with volunteer help and donations.
One example is the school’s press box and concession stand at the sports field. The old structure was dilapidated, but there was no money in the budget to fix it, so Jerry Musall volunteered to build a new one, found companies to donate materials, and got it done at little expense to the school. There are so many examples of that kind of generosity and support that make our District special.