Ellsworth Milton Statler was born in 1863 near Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, the 10th of 11 children. His childhood
was spent in extraordinary poverty and at nine years old, he went to work in a glass factory in Bridgeport, Ohio, across the
river from Wheeling, West Virginia. At thirteen, he visited the McClure House Hotel in Wheeling every day asking for a job
until finally the manager allowed him to substitute for an absent bellboy. By age seventeen, Ellsworth was night
manager, bookkeeper, and lessee of the hotel's billiard room. Despite having quit school at the second grade, his natural ability
and single-minded determination to excel in management of the hotel brought him much respect and an excellent reputation
in Wheeling and among the traveling businessmen who frequented the McClure. These would serve him well as he
expanded his vision and purchased a failing bowling alley in Wheeling and developed it into a popular and profitable business
that included a billiards room, barber shop, cigar counter, eight bowling alleys, and a small eatery he called the "pie shop."
At every stop in his career, he found positions for his siblings and for the"New Musee" he hired his brother William.
Statler's congenial and modest personality won him many friends in Wheeling and, in the spring of 1896, he accompanied friends
on a fishing trip to Canada. On the way home, they stopped in Buffalo and Statler discovered the block-long Ellicott Square
Building, not yet complete. Upon inquiring, he learned that the large basement space was not yet leased and he determined
to lease it for a restaurant. As an outsider, he faced numerous obstacles in Buffalo, but finding investors was not among them.
He invested $10,000 of his own savings, borrowed $11,000 from a kitchenware manufacturer, $17,000 from a restaurant
equipment manufacturer, and a year's lease funds of $8,500 from George House, a credit store manager. He got married and
took his new wife with him to Buffalo to begin his venture as a restaurant operator.
Statler opened his restaurant on July 4, 1896, but few patrons visited it that day or the rest of the summer. Creditors
loomed and he was advised to go into bankruptcy. Determined to make a success, he convinced his backers and creditors
to wait a year for payment. Statler the businessman slashed expenses, even serving as purchasing steward, but saw little
progress attracting people. In 1897 Statler the promoter began to act, first by hiring boys to hand out circulars at the train and boat
terminals to attract GAR veterans coming for a 3-day national encampment. He advertised a full-course meal for twenty-five cents. To
prepare for crowds that could fill his 500-seat restaurant, Statler the manager set up a turnstile at the entrance where the
patron would pay his quarter, and set up the exit at the far end of the room to promote smooth traffic flow. Business was so
brisk that the cashier had to resort to depositing the quarters in wastebaskets around her feet. Statler made several thousand
dollars during that event and discovered the power of advertising.
From an envelope. Image source: private collection.
The first floor dining room, c. 1915
Statler then began to direct his advertising at Buffalo's business community, most of whom went home daily for lunch or,
if they were inclined to eat out, did not frequent the outsider's big new restaurant in Ellicott Square. Slowly, he won them
over and aimed for Sunday dinners. He developed premium merchandising for the restaurant, encasing $5 gold pieces in
servings of Sunday dinner ice cream. Weekday diners received raffle coupons for a drawing to be held on Sunday, the winner
having to be present to claim the prize. (Prizes included a grand piano one time, a live pony another). He succeeded in
making Statler's Restaurant a success and, by 1901, had $60,000 in savings. Buffalo did not claim Ellsworth Statler
as one of its own, but he won the respect of the locals for his abilty to learn from mistakes, work eighteen hours a day,
and promote his enterprise. Eventually, his brother William moved from Wheeling to manage the restaurant.
Restauranteur, Blaming Union, Plans to Close
Unable to meet scale, Statler asserts; says employees satisfied to work for less.
Buffalo Courier-Express, August 28, 1940
William J. Statler, operator of Statler's Restaurant in Ellicott Square, announced yesterday afternoon that he is going out of business because he is unable to pay his employees union wages and continue operation at a profit.
"I have been in business 44 years and once went through bankruptcy," Statler explained. "I have had 81 employees working in the restaurant, who were satisfied to work for less than the union scale.
"I told them that they were getting less than the union wage and that I was not proud of the fact that business conditions would not permit me to pay them more. Apparently they appreciated how business conditions were and said they were satisfied to work for small pay until business got better.
"A union attempted to organize the employees and, in my presence, officers of the union told the labor board they would take a vote among the employees about forming a union. Such a vote was never taken. But six former employees who were with the restaurant for a few weeks or a few months called a strike.
"Union officials told me that if I could not pay union wages, I did not deserve to stay in business. I cannot pay union wages, so I am quitting the business.
"It seems to me there is an American principle involved. That principle is whether persons have a right to work at low wages, if they are satisfied with them, or be thrown out of work entirely if they do not get union-scale wages."
Six pickets yesterday paraded with signs in front of the Swan Street entrance of the restaurant, as Statler announced his decision to go out of business.
In 2007, the basement of the Ellicott Square Building is used for storage, and well-worn marble steps
leading to the lower level are all that is left to remind us of Ellsworth Statler's first Buffalo success.
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