Dine: Restaurateurs cooking up a new business model

Landmark restaurants shape their neighborhoods like the hills they're built on. When one of them closes, Pittsburghers think about the city's economy, values and their memories.

That's what it was like last week with the announcement of the closing of Minutello's, a white tablecloth landmark in Shadyside. Lou and Al Minutello opened Minutello's Meadow Grill in Larimer in 1960, then a few years later moved to a 5,000-square-foot space in Shadyside, where the restaurant has been serving food and hosting parties since. Minutello's will close today.

As icons close, smaller, more flexible restaurants are taking root. They have lower food costs, cheap rents in transitioning neighborhoods, fewer full-time employees and longer business hours.

New-breed eateries come in two forms. Fast casual places such as Quaker Steak & Lube or Five Guys encourage in-and-out fuel-ups. Even when they market healthful meals from sustainable sources, it's a less mindful way to dine.

Lou Minutello, founder Lou's son, will open a fast-casual Italian concept in Richland in March. "This is where the industry is going," he told the Post-Gazette last week.

Another type of restaurant features a tight menu with variations on a theme. They offer a scroll of drink choices. They're less gritty than a corner bar. Wi-Fi and tiered menus for lunch, dinner and late-night allow diners to visit whether it's 2 or 10 p.m. Customers come for a sense of community, for a place they can build a makeshift family -- online or live -- among fellow patrons from the neighborhood.

The third Franktuary location in Lawrenceville, which opened just after the new year, is that kind of place.

The hot dog shop from Megan Lindsey and Tim Tobitsch has seen steady growth since it debuted in Trinity Cathedral, Downtown, in 2004.

Talk about flexible restaurants. Franktuary expanded in 2010 as a member of the first wave of the area's food trucks. "It's fun, but the food truck is grueling work," Ms. Lindsey said.

The base of Franktuary's menu is Boar's Head all-beef dogs from New York and a grass-fed frank from New Zealand. A third locavore option comes from Crested Duck Charcuterie in Beechview. None offer a juicy dog with snap, charred on a grill like Ted's Hot Dogs in Buffalo or Hot Doug's in Chicago. The flavor is delivered through condiment combinations.

The menu includes the flagship's best-sellers such as the New Yorker, with sweet onion, kraut and brown mustard as well as the Chicago Impostor. This variation on a Chicago-style hot dog features tomato, onion, banana pepper, relish, pickles, yellow mustard, celery and poppy seeds. Why is it an impostor? A different hot dog and bun, for one. And, Ms. Lindsey said, "We wanted to eliminate chemicals from the traditional neon green relish."

The Lawrenceville location has expanded offerings to include salads, pierogies, meatballs, poutine and vegan-friendly desserts.

Mr. Tobitsch has a passion for meatballs and added them to the Franktuary menu. Poutine is featured on the food truck and at the Lawrenceville location because Mr. Tobitsch is a hockey enthusiast. "It's the link between hockey and Canada that brought poutine to the menu," Ms. Lindsey said. "That, and I love cheese curds."

Franktuary's menu echoes tight concepts around the country, whether the focus is mussels or salads or barbecue. The restaurateurs were inspired by this focus after visiting The Meatball Shop in New York, a bare-bones operation from Dan Holzman and Michael Chernow.

Such "limited-menu" restaurants also may end up with higher profit margins than full-service restaurants because food costs are lower and service is streamlined.

Take Sweetgreen, a salad-focused spot conceived by Georgetown graduates in Washington, D.C., in 2007. While traditional restaurants see an average profit margin of 10 percent, Sweetgreen earned closer to 20 percent in its first year. Sweetgreen has expanded to 16 locations in the Washington and Philadelphia areas and is in the process of expanding to New York City.

Liquid assets, too

Serving alcohol also boosts profits.

At Franktuary's Lawrenceville location, cocktails are key. That menu was created by Marie Frances Perriello, the bartender behind the original list at Meat & Potatoes, Downtown. Ms. Perriello is a rising star in the craft, having just completed a stage at Chicago's Aviary, the cocktail den from culinary luminary Grant Achatz. This summer she started a cocktail consulting company called Stir Society.

"I chose flavor profiles that mimic their menu," she said. She cited the Holy Cow, made with beef bouillon, Boyd & Blair vodka, pepper and capers as one signature drink. Another is the Ginzer with Wigle Ginever, lime cordial, Sriracha and red pepper. All cocktails are $10, more than any food item on the menu.

Franktuary also focuses on craft beer, with 10 taps and dozens of bottles priced between $4 and $13.

Alcohol accounts for more than 50 percent of a day's sales so far at the Lawrenceville location.

It's not just booze and cheap eats that lure customers. The Franktuary model attracts diners through community investment. This focus is emphasized by the restaurant's tagline: "Redeeming fast food, one frank at a time."

Franktuary donates a percentage of profits to charity. The owners are conscientious about food sourcing. And they're public about treating employees well. "That's one reason why poutine is not on the late-night menu," Ms. Lindsey said. "It's a lot for staff to clean up so late."

Modern, minimalist design is also a draw. Ms. Lindsey is responsible for the look of the 2,100-square-foot Lawrenceville location, which features subway tile, industrial lighting, exposed brick and copper accents. Twin garage doors will open to the street in warm weather. "I was able to exercise more creativity than I had in a long time," she said.

A base of regulars ensures that the new location will do well at the start. But it's also the restaurateurs' lives in the band Good Night, States that attracts an eclectic clientele.

Ms. Lindsey, keyboardist-singer, and her husband, Trevor Baker, bassist, are two of the five members. Drummer Dan Harding lives in Pittsburgh, while guitarist-singer-songwriter Steve Gretz lives in New Jersey. Instrumentalist Matt Grajcar lives in Nyack, N.Y. The band released its second full-length album last year.

The restaurant's only full-time employee also is a musician. Robert Harvey is a member of several bands, including White Wives.

In the case of Franktuary, restaurants don't hinder musical careers. "Being busier has made us more focused," said Ms. Lindsey.

The cult of personality plays a significant role in this restaurant model. It's seen in Roy Choi of the Los Angeles Kogi BBQ taco truck as well as Eddie Huang of New York's Baohaus, who has recently written a memoir, "Fresh off the Boat." It's a hipster variation on the Top Chef effect, when participants attract investors and customers because of their persona.

So while Franktuary's model provides a good hot dog or meatball, food is only one of many factors that ensures the restaurant will succeed.

A landmark of this sort may not dominate the landscape the way Minutello's has over half a century, yet in its own modest way, this little hot dog shop will help define a neighborhood.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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