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Unlike many who dive headfirst into the restaurant biz with a place of their own, Kevin Wisniewski is not a professional cook. That's not to say that the Emsworth native doesn't know his way around a commercial kitchen, especially when it comes to breakfast.
Having worked as a morning cook for a chain of family restaurants, Mr. Wisniewski can sling hash -- not to mention fry an egg or flip a pancake or, if you're more in the mood for lunch, grill a burger -- with the best of 'em. Just ask his family of five, for whom he's cooked hundreds of early-morning meals over the years.
A lifelong resident (and 1991 graduate) of the Avonworth School District, he also has his finger on the pulse of the North Boroughs' culinary scene. And what it was telling him and his wife, Rachel, an agent with Stonebridge Real Estate, was that people longed for a local place where they could eat a cooked-to-order breakfast.
Emsworth isn't exactly a desert when it comes to eating out -- you can find Chinese at House of Lee, wings at The Emsworth Inn and upscale Italian at Cafe Notte -- but its restaurants hardly cater to the breakfast crowd. Other than The Fire Escape coffee shop on Church Avenue in neighboring Ben Avon, where early risers can pair a bagel or pastry with a cup of La Prima coffee, "There's not any options for sit-down in the morning," he says of the tiny communities that line Route 65 between Sewickley and Bellevue.
An opportunity was there for the taking.
Still, Mr. Wisniewski admits he's taking something of a gamble in opening Chev & Rachel's Family Diner at 233 Center Ave. in Emsworth, the first eatery in recent borough history to crack open its doors at the crack of dawn (6:30 a.m. weekdays).
While he worked at Shannopin Country Club for 20 years after graduating high school, it always was as a front-of-the-house person. And his time behind the grill at King's Family Restaurant? It really only amounted to a few months of training, says Mr. Wisniewski, who took the job after a career change in 2011 with Norfolk Southern didn't go as expected.
"I was going to become a train conductor, but I hated it," he explains.
He and his wife had always harbored thoughts of opening their own small restaurant, though, so when he quit the railroad job a little over a year ago, he decided now was the time to take the chance.
It wasn't quite as crazy as it sounds: The windowed storefront the diner's tucked into actually belongs to his father, John, who had a barber shop there from 1972 to 2000 and was only too happy to have him take over the space.
"He was like, 'You know all the people there, and there's so many kids,'" Mr. Wisniewski says.
Besides, it's not like he's cutting his teeth on fancy, gourmet dishes that take years to perfect. Rather, the menu is a pretty basic one, offering standard breakfast fare ($6 or less) such as eggs, omelets, pancakes, homefries and French toast made with thick-cut Mancini Italian bread. For lunch, there's sandwiches and burgers ($7) served on top of croissants, with the cheese fried on the grill along with the meat "so it's crunchy."
The diner officially opened for business this past Saturday, and there's every indication people were hungrily awaiting its arrival: even during its "soft" opening early this month the restaurant drew large crowds on weekends, "and I can't tell you the number of high school kids who come in before school," he says.
You can either go old-school and sit at the counter, or take a seat at one of four tables.
Future plans include having guest cooks and chefs prepare favorite dishes for an hour or so on weekends. The couple also are planning on getting into ice cream this summer by offering sundaes and milkshakes.
"We're still learning," Mr. Wisniewski says of the business. "But everyone, including the borough, has been great with the idea.
"We know we won't get rich from this," he adds. "We just wanted to create a place where friends and families could come for a meal. We want this to be as much about community as possible."
Chev & Rachel's Family Diner, 233 Center Ave., Emsworth, is open 6:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri; 7 a.m to 1:30 p.m. Sat.; and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sun. (breakfast only). Phone: 412-496-3568.
Gretchen McKay: email@example.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published January 24, 2013 5:00 AM