Belfast man's his 17-year American odyssey from trainee chef to manager of the most luxurious hotel in western New York.
A Belfast native who started out his hospitality sector career in his native city as a trainee chef now manages the most luxurious hotel in western New York.
And Conor Hawkins says his 17-year American odyssey which has culminated in his position as general manager of the recently-opened Curtiss Hotel has brought him back to the country he first visited when he was teamed up with a Protestant child from East Belfast and dispatched for a Project Children summer vacation to York, Pennsylvania.
“It’s been some journey,” says Conor who set course for Buffalo after sister Ellen first made the move to the border city. After a succession of jobs in kitchens in Belfast eateries, Conor made the switch to front-of-house when he arrived in America. “I had been recruited to work in the kitchen of an Irish bar in Buffalo but the owner said, ‘you’re Irish, I want you out front greeting the customers’."
The five-star boutique Curtiss Hotel represents a $25m investment in what was one of downtown Buffalo’s finest buildings when it first opened in 1913.
Boasting 68 rooms, the Curtiss revives the revolving bar which was once a feature of the famed Chez Ami Supper Club in Buffalo. The bar makes a 360 degree revolution every hour — bartenders taken short have to wait until the half-hour mark to step from behind the bar.
“Our goal is to bring guests in from western New York and further afield to show them the grandeur and glitz of Buffalo’s newest hotel,” says the loquacious Conor in an interview with WKBW-TV in Buffalo.
Hard work brings its own rewards, says the Belfast native. “It’s lots of unsociable hours, more than 60 per week and of course you give up your holidays, but the rewards are great. Every place I manage is extremely busy and I like to think I manage with a cool head and never let myself get stressed out. Hiring good people to help me has also been key.”
An avid user of Sype and Twitter, Conor keeps in touch with his family in North Belfast on an almost daily basis. “I also get back once a year and, in fact, this year I will get back twice.” He has his fingers crossed for a third visit if his beloved Cliftonville F.C. reach the final of the Irish Cup.
An esteemed figure in the Buffalo Irish American community, Conor is also a leading light in the Buffalo Fenians GAA club. The former Pearses GAA man coaches the under-18s, the majority of whom were born in the US. “The GAA is completely new to them so it’s a big challenge to compete with the teams in Boston and San Francisco but we’ll keep at it,” he says.
The question he’s asked most often about his decision to relocate to Buffalo is how he copes with the tough winters - there was still ice in the Buffalo River as recently as last week. 2017 closed in Buffalo with the coldest end to the year ever seen — in 146 years of record-keeping. On December 30, with fierce winds whipping in off Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, temperatures plummeted to -17 degrees.
"I'm not a skier nor an ice fisherman,” says Conor, "but I actually don't mind the harsh winters too much. The key is to have a good snow blower for the driveway and a good vehicle for the snow — fortunately I have a 4x4 truck which is perfect.”
As for coming home permanently, that’s not on Conor’s radar...yet. “America’s been good to me and while my heart will always be in Belfast, I see my future lying in my adopted city of Buffalo."