Kelly & Aaron Metras
Salena's Mexican Restaurant / Nox Cocktail Lounge
Interview No. 34
"It’s always amazing to me, the love that people have for this community. As much as you hear people complain about the area, the people who really live here love it."
Where did you grow up?
Kelly: We are both from the Rochester suburbs. I’m from Greece and he’s from East Irondequoit.
What is your favorite part about Rochester living?
Kelly: The diversity downtown. There are so many things you can do. I think people overlook it and complain about Rochester a lot, but there really is so much to do. I don’t think people take advantage of it; between what we can do with our kids, what we can do on a date night, what we can do with our friends. There’s always a variety of things.
Aaron: Probably that we are the largest, small city. Everybody has a connection to somebody. And, like Kelly said, there really is so much to do and so much more than people give the city credit for.
Kelly: And between the four of us, we probably each know six of the same people. The more you get to know somebody, the smaller Rochester gets.
How did you first get involved in the restaurant business?
Kelly: I started in the restaurant business because I wanted to make money, and it was a good job! I started at Salena’s 15 years ago.
Aaron: I started at Salena’s as a dishwasher. And Kelly started as a bartender/server…
Kelly: Or whatever they wanted me to do that day. It was a much smaller Salena’s back then, so whatever they needed us to do - we did it.
Did you meet working at Salena’s?
Aaron: We did, but not right away. I was a 17 year old dishwasher, and Kelly was a couple years older.
Kelly: Okay, I was 23 and way too cool for the dishwasher.
Aaron: She didn’t even notice that I worked there.
Kelly: Listen, I remember there was a teenager working here. I just don’t remember that I ever spoke to you! We didn’t actually work together that often. At the time, Salena’s had a small location on Monroe Ave (where Dogtown is now). So, between school and life and work, our paths didn’t cross very often until Salena’s expanded to this location. That’s when we met and started working together regularly.
Aaron: Then I was a prep cook, she was a server/bartender, and then we were more than that!
Kelly: We were always friends, but we never had the timing right. Then, all of a sudden, it worked out in our favor. A very happy ending.
How did you get to your position at Salena’s today?
Aaron: How much time do you have?
Kelly: I’ve always been back and forth at Salena’s. I pursued my Master’s in Education and came back to Salena’s full-time. I worked a couple nights a week for extra cash, and I was teaching, until he became...well, I’ll let you tell that part.
Aaron: So, I started back in high school as a dishwasher, in 2000. Then I worked at the Monroe Ave location for a while. When I graduated high school, I went to the University of Buffalo (UB) and came back to work during summers and breaks in the kitchen. I moved to Louisiana for a few years and when I returned to Rochester, I asked for a job at Salena’s because that’s what I knew and loved. At that point, I wanted to work the front of the house, so I was serving and then…
Kelly: We had a baby.
Aaron: Well, technically Kelly had the baby. Then, due to scheduling, I ended up becoming the janitor at Salena’s for a year. While I was doing all of that, I was working in human services and this was always a part-time job. I left after the janitor gig, and thought, “This is it. I won’t be working in the restaurant industry anymore.” I started at a really miserable job, in the human services field, that was so draining and terrible. The previous general manager at Salena’s left, and the former owner called me up and asked if I wanted to be the general manager. So, that was cool. I never thought that would happen. The previous owner wanted to get out of the restaurant business and we joked that he should sell Salena’s to us. We went home and thought, “Yeah, that will never work.” But, we figured out an arrangement and well, we bought the restaurant.
Kelly: It was one of those deals that you couldn’t pass up. Most of the people we worked with became family and we didn’t want someone new taking over our home. You have to take this opportunity and do whatever you can to make it work. We’re still surprised to this day.
Aaron: In two weeks, we’ll have owned the place for five years. In 2014, our former bar manager (James) was interested in pursuing a different position. Coincidentally, the space across the hall had just become empty. Again, we had to jump on the opportunity. Then, we opened up Nox. Nox is in one half of the space, and we had this other area that was used for storage.
Kelly: We wanted to keep Nox small; it was a cozier atmosphere.
Aaron: Then Kelly came home one night and had the idea to create a space where we teach kids how to run a restaurant. She said, “You’re gonna think this is the stupidest thing ever.” But I loved it. We reached out to people we knew in various school districts and there it was: RYCE.
Kelly: We never intended to get into the restaurant business. We both have degrees in other things.
What is the best part about being business owners in Rochester?
Kelly: Just the connection to Rochester. We do a lot with local Rochester charities and it’s fantastic to simply be apart of it.
Aaron: It’s a very active community, specifically in this neighborhood. The Neighborhood of the Arts (NOTA) is probably the best place you could possibly have a business right now. I’m also the President of the Business Association, so I may have a bias. But, there really are so many cool things around here. From artists, to music, to food. There are so many interesting things around here. You never know what might happen.
Kelly: You meet a lot of people. We’re in the customer service field, so it’s what you do! It’s always amazing to me, the love that people have for this community. As much as you hear people complain about the area, the people who really live here love it.
Aaron: There’s a huge dedication to Rochester, especially among our generation. I’m always amazed by people who have Rochester tattoos. Well, you wouldn’t do that if you didn’t love this city, you know? And in a city that does have it’s problems, there is definitely an optimistic vibe. It makes it fun to be a part of that creative community.
What challenges do you face in the restaurant business?
Aaron: We’ve had some stressful situations. We’ve had a couple of disasters. In August of 2014, there was a fire in the building.
Kelly: The infrastructure was so old that the pipes burst while they were putting the fire ou. So, the fire was not anywhere near us, but the main is above us. It emptied onto us, twice.
Aaron: We had to rebuild the entire restaurant. The entire place was gutted.
Kelly: Going back to what we love about Rochester, our staff is composed of Rochester natives. With their help, we had the place up and running in 21 days.
Aaron: The insurance companies didn’t think we could do it, but you’re looking around at your employees and most of them are living paycheck to paycheck. You can’t go months without work.
Kelly: So, we said if you want hours, they’re here. You don’t have to come, we understand if you don’t want to be apart of this. And we had, at least, ten people every single day.
Aaron: AND people would just show up. People that saw us on the news would say, “Hey, do you need anything?” That was the Rochester love.
Kelly: You have disasters without that, but with disaster comes light. I never left anything more changed than I did from that situation.
Aaron: 80-90% of the time, we say this is the best job ever. The other 10-20% we say, “Why did we do this to ourselves?” But I don’t think I could ever go back to 9-5.
People that saw us on the news would say, “Hey, do you need anything?” That was the Rochester love.
What advice do you have for up and coming entrepreneurs?
Aaron: Just doing it. No one is going to hand it to you. You can’t wait until everything is right and in line, when an opportunity presents itself: jump on it. It might not work, and that’s okay. Try something else. Keep on trying.
Kelly: If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you’re right.
Aaron: I think that people tend to believe that owners, or someone in politics, or famous people have something that makes them different from everyone else, but I don’t think that’s the case. You just have to try until something works for you.
Nobody is special and nobody knows all of the answers, it’s about hard work and perseverance. We had an opportunity, we jumped on it and moved with it.
What’s your favorite time of day to hang out in the city?
Aaron: Well, we have three daughters, so that skews our answers a bit. Most of our time is spent at the Strong Museum, RMSC (Rochester Museum and Science Center), the zoo, a lot of really cool family stuff. We don’t get out at night nearly as often as we would like to, but there’s so many things we love doing as a family.
Kelly: So, your favorite time of day, is the day?
Aaron: Okay, okay, it’s a realistic answer!
Kelly: I would say that I love walking around the city at night. It’s just so beautiful. I lived in the Swillburger neighborhood for over a decade and then I lived on Goodman for a little while. Now, we live in Irondequoit and it’s empowering knowing that I can successfully navigate both sides of the river.
Aaron: Yeah, I still like the daytime. I’m daytime, she’s nighttime. That’s why we get along so well! Okay, hear me out: there’s just so much scenery to look at it. You know, you can’t ride your bike on the Genny River at night.
Kelly: Well, you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. See, that’s the worst part of Rochester. We don’t take advantage of our waterways. It’s ridiculous! Like, how is everything on the river not gorgeous?
What is your take on Rochester weather?
Aaron: It used to bother me, which is why I moved to Louisiana, but after a while I missed it. I wanted to experience all four seasons and the mindset was incredibly different down South. The weather changing is awesome, actually. If you embrace it, it’s worth it.
Kelly: There is not a happier person on the planet than Rochesterians on the first 50 or 60 degree day.
If you could create the perfect Rochester day, what would it look like?
Kelly: 70 and sunny. And do something outside with the kids!
Aaron: Definitely outside. We’ve had a lot of really cool days in Rochester. In the summer, with all the festivals going on, the dream Rochester day actually takes place half the time. Anytime we can spend time wandering around, finding something unexpected. Something that we didn’t know we would be doing that morning. Sometimes that’s at the festivals, sometimes that’s just wandering around. Those are the best days.
Do you know of any secret Rochester spots?
Kelly: I don’t know, at our age, if anything is secret anymore. I feel like when I was growing up, you didn’t have accessibility to everything. You can pretty much Google search “unique places to go in Rochester”. Like, when I was a teenager I found out that Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas were buried here. AND the secret garden at Highland Park, was a secret. Now, people get married there!
Aaron: Honestly, I think the bike path next to the Genesee River is a secret. Nobody really knows about that! I stumbled upon it last summer and it is incredibly gorgeous.
Kelly: You can catch it at the zoo.
Aaron: Yeah and it takes you down the whole river! It’s stunning. It’s beautiful.
Kelly: Last summer we actually went down the river with some family friends on their boat. Usually you’ll dock at the bay or on the lake, but we decided to go down the river. And it was gorgeous! I was like, “Why aren’t there more people boating down the river?” My uncle takes the Erie Canal, he just boats the canal, and calls ahead to say “we’re coming in!” They change the locks for him! Why haven’t I done that?
Aaron: Now that I’m thinking about it, First Fridays down here, is not as well-known as it should be. The first time I walked into one of the buildings I was shocked. I had no idea how much stuff would be in there. It’s really underplayed. It’s the first Friday of every month, and all of the artists down here open up their studios. They have demonstrations and you can see what they’re working on. It’s not really well advertised, but it is really cool. I’m not sure if that qualifies as a secret? Some communities know about it more than others.
Kelly: Did you know that there is a secret room in the library? The “new” library. You can also walk underground between the new and old libraries. So, you go down to the basement, and you don’t think you’re underground, you have to remind yourself, because it’s just a hallway with art lining both sides. AND in the new library, in the children’s area, there’s a secret room. It’s hidden behind a bookshelf. I’m told there is a secret room in the old library...but I’m not sure anyone knows where it is.
If you’re looking for dinner or drinks after a show downtown, you’ve got to stop in to Salena’s Mexican Restaurant or Nox Cocktail Lounge. Check out more of their perspective on our Instagram, and shout out to Rochester’s dynamic entrepreneurial duo, Aaron & Kelly Metras for this stellar interview and tour of their restaurants.
Interview by: Taylor Wroblewski
Photos by: Uthman Samaai