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Pierogi by mail, with love


Buffalo ex-pats who can’t make it to the Broadway market this Easter will be happy to know they can get their Polish-American fix no matter where they are in the country. , an online retailer of Polish and Eastern European cuisine,  delivers Polish foods and prepared Polish dishes to your doorstep.

Based in the heart of Chicago’s Polish-American community, has been delivering Polish favorites such as pierogi, potato pancakes, Polish sausage, stuffed cabbage and rye bread for 15 years.

Prices range from 99-cent, imported Polish candies to ornate $50 cakes, with every manner of horseradish, borscht, kizka and pickle in between.

“We love nothing more than delivering top quality products that evoke childhood memories of a grandmother’s cooking or the tastes of home back in Poland,” said Michael Machnicki, Vice President of Polana.


---Samantha Maziarz Christmann

Mighty Taco's Putin ban goes viral

PutinParagon Advertising knew Vladimir Putin was never destined to dine at Mighty Taco when the restaurant banned him from its outlets in an ad last week. But it declared its Mexican fare off limits to the Russian president anyway.

Doing so has put the Buffalo fast food chain on the map. The ad went viral after being picked up by an Associated Press reporter in Albany, making international headlines and appearing everywhere from tiny news outlets in the south and Midwest to The Australian and Britain’s Daily Mail.

“By Friday, it was being translated into Polish, Russian, Ukrainian,” said James Gillan, president of Paragon Advertising, the agency behind the ad. “The Mighty Taco office was getting calls from Germany.”

The ad was published in just one publication--a 30-page guide to Dyngus Day Buffalo called, “From Polonia With Love,” and appeared on its Facebook page when it got picked up internationally. It was later posted in other publications, and an audio version aired on local radio stations.

The print ad bears a picture of Putin with “Mighty Taco Bans Putin!” in large, bold letters.

“You may be ordering around the Crimea, but you won’t be ordering a Super Mighty Taco around here anytime soon,” it reads. “No one likes a bully, so stop picking on people and maybe you will be welcomed back to Mighty Taco."

The ad warns that Putin is banned from all Mighty Taco locations, “All of them – even the one on Delaware and Hertel!”

The taco chain is known for its quirky ads, but none have generated this much play.

“It has been astounding how fast it moved. It just struck a nerve worldwide,” Gillan said. “I think because it was not threatening, it was just reminding the world that no one likes a bully and let’s all behave kindly.”


---Samantha Maziarz Christmann

Live chat: Panel of accountants answer your tax questions

WalletHub says New York is worst state to be a taxpayer

Stop us if you've heard this one already: New York residents have the highest tax burden in the country, according to a study conducted by the personal finance website WalletHub.

The state ranked 51st -- behind the other 49 states and the District of Columbia -- in WalletHub's analysis, which looked at average state and local taxes and compared each state's total to the national average.

New York taxpayers pay an average of $9,718 in sales, property and other taxes, about 40 percent more than the national average and more than four times as much as the $2,365 paid by residents of the lowest-taxed state, Wyoming.

New York ranks 51st in the list that is adjusted for cost of living, too.

Breaking down New York's rank further, the state is No. 2 for highest gas taxes, at 67.97 cents per gallon, No. 3 for highest local income tax, at 1.438 percent, seventh for highest state sales tax rates, at 8.48 percent, and 11th for highest alcohol tax, again at 8.48 percent.

--- Stephen T. Watson

Report: exchange brings competition to state's insurance market

The state insurance exchange established as part of the Affordable Care Act opened New York's insurance market for individuals to more competition, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported today.

The foundation found that the individual insurance market was divided up among more insurers in 2014, after the NY State of Health exchange was put in place, compared to 2012, before the exchange was introduced as part of federal health care reform efforts.

For example, in 2012, the top two insurers, Wellpoint (including Empire BlueCross BlueShield) and UnitedHealth owned 48 percent of New York's individual market. In 2014, preliminary exchange enrollment figures show that the top insurers, Wellpoint and a new company, Freelancers (including Health Republic Insurance), accounted for only 34 percent of the market.

Or, by another measure, in 2012, five insurers had 5 percent or more of the individual market, while in 2014 seven insurers had at least that much of the market.

The foundation points out that the individual insurance market historically hasn't been competitive. In 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, a single insurer had more than half the individual insurance market in 30 states.

New York was one of seven states whose individual insurance markets were studied by the foundation, and New York's was found to be the most competitive under the exchange.

The findings in the Kaiser Family Foundation report mirror the insurer exchange enrollment data released in January by the State Health Department.

And the foundation report also confirms The Buffalo News' prediction, in a December article, that the exchange would open up the local insurance market to competition from new insurers.

Now, the foundation report looks at statewide numbers and does not break down the New York individual insurance market by region. The Health Department has yet to release regional numbers for exchange enrollment by insurer.

It's important to keep in mind that people who buy individual coverage make up a small percentage of the overall insurance market. The vast majority of people get their health insurance through an employer or through a government program such as Medicaid or Medicare.

--- Stephen T. Watson


Titanfall for Xbox One midnight release party at Galleria



A much-anticipated video game release will have fans lining up at Walden Galleria for a midnight release party Monday.
Titanfall, a first-person shooter game, will be available for the Xbox One gaming system at the Microsoft Store. The critically-acclaimed game has won several awards and has been awaited by fans since its introduction at the Electronic Entertainment Expo press conference in June.
“Don’t remember the last time I was looking forward to anything as much as I am this,” wrote one eager fan on a Web page devoted to counting down the days until the game is available. “Getting so close.”
Fans will be allowed to begin lining up at 10 p.m.

---Samantha Maziarz Christmann

More about M&T, Cuba and the State Department

Cuba has (again) stopped providing consular services in Washington, D.C., and at its mission to the United Nations, saying it was unable to find a substitute for Buffalo-based M&T Bank, which is closing the Cubans' accounts as of March 1.

Noel C. Clay, a State Department spokesman, answered some questions The Buffalo News had about the Cubans' problem with finding a new bank. It's a story which came to light last November and has received some media attention in other cities, such as Miami. Clay said of the Cuban government's decision to suspend consular services:

"We are disappointed in this action, given that we had helped the Mission identify a workable solution to its consular fee processing needs with ample time for its implementation," Clay said. "That the Cuban Interests Section has not effectively pursued this option will result in hardship to Cuban and U.S. citizen travelers alike."

Clay did not specify what the "workable solution" was.

M&T has not commented on its banking relationship with the Cuban Interests Section or other diplomatic missions, or how it entered into that business to start with. But Clay offered this detail, without describing M&T by name:

"The decision to close its missions’ accounts was a business decision by its current bank, which we understand decided several years ago to discontinue banking diplomatic missions."

The idea that M&T had made its decision ending business with diplomatic missions as long as "several years ago" was not previously known.

"Cuba’s situation is not unique,"Clay said. "A number of banks have decided to cease providing banking services to diplomatic missions. These banks made the decision in light of multiple factors, and the U.S. government cannot compel a private bank to provide services to a diplomatic mission."

Clay said the State Department has helped the Cubans reach out to "numerous banks" -- some published reports have put the number at 50 -- and that M&T was cooperative in the effort. But it seems this is one customer no other U.S. bank is eager to claim.

-- Matt Glynn


Paula Deen addresses racism scandal during local appearance

PaulaYOLOEmbattled celebrity chef Paula Deen was in Williamsville this weekend, hosting a cooking demonstration for a near-capacity crowd of 1,100 enthusiastic fans at Samuel's Grande Manor. After entering to a standing ovation, Deen addressed the scandal that erupted last year when it came out that she had used racial slurs. The reaction left her with a cancelled Food Network TV show and caused several retailers such as Home Depot and Walmart to drop her line of cookware.

“I have so many friends here, so many people who believe in me. My partners who never quit believing in me, who knew who I was and were steadfast in your love for me. Thank y’all," Deen said.

At one point, Deen singled out Savino Nanula, the Tops Friendly Markets founder and a partner in her Paula Deen Foods venture, who was sitting in the front row.

"Isn't that right, Nino?" she said, before kissing the top of his head. The crowd laughed and applauded.

She went on to address the scandal directly:

“I had a rough year. My family had a rough year. My partners had a rough year. But we all learned a lot.

In June, when people were saying terrible things about me that were not true, it was heartbreaking. But I told my family, don’t ask me how I know this, but God’s arms are wrapped all around us. We’re gonna be all right. And we’re gonna be better than we ever were.

You’ve got to go down in the valley to enjoy the days when you’re on the peak of that mountain overlooking everything. You’ve got to have those days.

I said I’m not gonna talk about that. And what do I do? First thing I do is come out here and talk about it.

I just want you all to know I cannot ignore it and I can’t go without saying that we are not looking back anymore, we’re only looking to the future and with a family like the Nanulas that have loved me unconditionally and who have believed in me. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life and I’ve made so many new friends here in Buffalo."

Deen arrived in town Thursday afternoon, stopping in Rochester to visit a Wegmans store, then appearing at Dash's Markets to promote her Springer Mountain Farms chicken.

She also visited Landies Candies, the Buffalo company that makes her Paula Deen Foods sugar-free chocolate, handmaking a batch of chocolate herself. She cut the ribbon on her Paula Deen Foods retail showroom in Clarence Saturday before her appearance at Samuel's Grande Manor.


---Samantha Maziarz Christmann

Hamburg estate for sale: Only $1.75 million

For sale: 16,000 square feet of home on six acres of landscaped grounds, with almost every amenity imaginable.

One of the region's biggest estates -- known for being part of the biggest residential real estate deal in Erie County history -- is back on the market but for 40 percent less than the last time it sold.

That was when Michael Wilson, a disgraced former self-proclaimed financier from Cleveland, bought the estate from Sorrento Cheese heir John Russo for $3 million, and an adjacent 17,000-square-foot office property for another $3.3 million - $6.3 million in all.

Wilson, who is in his mid-20s now, was indicted for a scheme to defraud investors of more than $8 million through his New Frontier and Phantom Holdings companies. He lured investors into financial instruments with complex names that promised high returns but he actually spent the money on his homes, cars, artwork and other luxuries.

Wilson, who now faces criminal charges of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, financed the property purchases with a mortgage from Russo, who later foreclosed and reclaimed both properties.

The enormous Tudor-style mansion at 6523 Boston State Road in Hamburg features six bedrooms, seven full-bathrooms and four half-bathrooms, plus a dining room, family room, kitchen and living room. For pleasure, it also offers an indoor pool with a brick poolside bar, plus a hot tub and a solarium.

Outside, it's surrounded by manicured lawns, ponds, lush gardens and an abundance of trees, all on private grounds. The central pond is marked by a fountain in the center. Built in 1992, it's about a half-mile from the Village of Hamburg.

It's currently on the market for a meager $1.75 million -- reduced from more than $2 million. "It's a fabulous home at a good price," said George C. Hamberger of RealtyUSA, a commercial real estate broker who handled the listing for Russo, a friend, for a year, until the end of December. "John keeps the home in like-new condition so it blows people away when they see it."

Hamberger said Russo still wants to sell the home, but may wait until the spring to renew the listing. The adjacent office property is now home to the Hamburg Brewing Co., a new business venture by Russo and his son.

-- Jonathan D. Epstein

For Univera, and Excellus, it's deja vu all over again in news releases

Excellus BlueCross BlueShield has a consistent corporate message across its 39-county footprint in Upstate New York, where it does business in Western New York as Univera Healthcare and under the Blues' brand in Rochester, Syracuse, Utica and the Southern Tier.

How consistent? A news release sent out under the Univera name here --- and the Excellus name in Rochester, Syracuse and Utica --- was almost exactly the same in each community.

The release, and accompanying report, detailed the high rate of insurance coverage in Upstate New York --- one of the company's periodic, data-rich reports on topics related to health care and insurance.

Each community's release included the same sentences, word for word. The same data used in the same order. The same quotes from a company executive.

Why do we say "almost" identical? Because the company used the same quotes but attributed them to a different executive in each market.

Here's an example: “From a taxpayer’s perspective, job-based health insurance is preferable to government-based coverage, because it costs taxpayers less. We have 371,000 more upstate New Yorkers covered due to job-based benefits than we’d have if we were at the national rate for employer-based coverage.”

In Buffalo, Univera President Art Wingerter said that. In Rochester, the corporate headquarters, Excellus CEO Christopher Booth said it. In Utica, Excellus Regional President Eve Van de Wal made this observation. And in Syracuse, Dr. Arthur Vercillo, Excellus' regional president there, made the comment.

Now, they didn't all magically say the same thing to the public-relations rep who wrote the news release.

Excellus/Univera is far from the only company that puts a canned quote in a release.

So why does Excellus/Univera do that?

The Buffalo-area Univera spokesman, Peter Kates, said it's one company that does business under two names, and when it has news to announce it does so under the brand name that makes the most sense for each part of its coverage area.

As for the word-for-word quotes, Kates said, "It's a company statement attributed to the local leader to localize it," he said.

---Stephen T. Watson


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