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From Barrels to Booze: The Story of the Barrel Factory

By: Kyle Wekenmann

The Corner of the Barrel Factory

Photo Credit: Kyle Wekenmann

A must-visit in Buffalo’s historic Old First Ward, the Barrel Factory is much more than just a restaurant; the 123-year-old building can boast of being home to a restaurant, event center, distillery, brewery, and kayak shop.

But the Factory is more than a building and a business; it is a monument of Buffalo’s time as a leader in industrial progress and business in the United States. It is palpable history, with a fascinating story behind how it got to be the hotspot that it is today.

In Buffalo’s time as an industrial powerhouse – specifically, in 1903 – Quaker City Cooperage Co. built a 3-story, 45,000 square-foot factory in the Old First Ward, known to the locals as, simply, the barrel factory.

This building was used to manufacture wooden slack barrels for grain, malt, flour, and fruit, amongst a host of other such products. At the peak of its performance, the factory and those who worked within could pump out 4,000 - 6,000 barrels per day. In fact, the Philidelphia-based Quaker City Cooperage was a 2-factory powerhouse, standing as the largest cooperage in North America for almost 40 years.

Notice the term: slack barrel.

The barrels produced by the cooperage weren’t the ones that are still used today – the liquid-tight barrels made of rich woods and bound by steel hoops to hold and add flavor to liquors.

Rather, they produced slack barrels, which were rather loose in comparison to their still-in-use cousins, and held by wooden hoops rather than steel. Essentially, they were the primary storage method before cardboard boxes or plastic bags to store and transport dry goods.

But, when better and more efficient means of containment gained traction, slack barrels fell into the abyss of irrelevancy, dragging the cooperage down with it.

After decades of standing unused, the former cooperage fell into disrepair. The outside was overgrown with plant life, and the inside was dark and filled with almost 3 inches of debris and rainwater.

"Before" photos of the Barrel Factory (exterior and interior)

Photo credit:

Despite looking like so, the building wasn’t an unowned reminder of Buffalo’s days in the spotlight on the stage of industry.

Someone owned it, and attempted to make use of it on several occasions; among them, bottling windshield washer fluid and melting wax for the railroad, though the building has seen many other endeavors. One side of the building was partially collapsed, and was sure to have a domino effect on the rest of it.

The overgrowth, the ruin, the interior…who in their right mind would see this and decide to spend the time, energy, and money to fix it up?

Enter, Steve and Andi Bystran.

Bystran was looking for a location to put a distillery, but he didn’t have his eyes on the former cooperage, or even the Old First Ward at first.

Rather, he had worked with a developer. “He blew me off, basically…so I was getting strung along, and I’ve been around long enough so I kinda knew, so I decided, ‘I gotta buy my own building.’”

Bystran happened upon the former cooperage by chance, when he and one of his friends – who belongs to an Irish band – went out for a drink at a popular Irish pub.

“We went to Gene McCarthy’s, and he wanted to go there to try to hit them up to book his band. I’ve never been there. I don’t think I was actually ever in the First Ward before that day.” Bystran said.

It wasn’t until he looked out the front window that he saw the run-down building. After asking the bartender who owned it and getting a bit more information, he found out that it wasn’t for sale.

So, he “chased” the person who owned it.

“I ended up calling his house – I didn’t know it was his house, I was just dialing, cause I knew the last name,” Bystran remembered. “I got his wife on the phone, and she said, ‘he will call you, in 5 minutes or less.’ He called me in like 5 seconds.”

With the purchase complete, the hard part began: the 3-year-long restoration, which was divided into 2 parts: Phase I and Phase II.

Phase I consisted of cleanup and maintenance of the grounds, obtaining the proper permits and approvals, as well as planning and preparing the site for Phase II.

Phase II was the process of turning the old building around: the installation of new and energy-efficient windows in addition to a well-insulated roof, restoring the natural brick facade, and other renovations. Reclaimed and recycled materials composed most of the renovations, with an emphasis on being environmentally-friendly and sustainable.

The Barrel Factory plays a large part in helping to keep the Old First Ward’s environmental footprint down some, as it has a considerable 6,200 gallon cistern that provides cooling water for the distillery. The water is recirculated, thereby saving thousands of gallons of water each day.

The Barrel Factory’s Commitment to Sustainability

Photo credit: Damian Spalla

Now a renowned multi-faceted facility that brings plenty of business to the Old First Ward, the Barrel Factory is home to numerous businesses and offers a banquet hall available to book for a variety of events.

The Event Center

Photo credit: Kyle Wekenmann

And, of course, the food and drink. The Barrel Factory offers an extensive menu and cocktail menu as well!

One of the Barrel Factory’s Menus

Photo credit: Kyle Wekenmann

The Barrel Factory is open:

Monday: –

Tuesday: –

Wednesday: 4:00 - 10:00 p.m.

Thursday: 4:00 - 10:00 p.m.

Friday: 4:00 - 10:00 p.m.

Saturday: 12:00 - 10:00 p.m.

Sunday: 12:00 - 6:00 p.m.

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