Dine: Pittsburgh's new Public Market still needs work

In October, the group spearheading the Pittsburgh Public Market, Neighbors in the Strip, moved the market from a 10,000-square-foot space in the produce terminal it had occupied since 2010 into a 25,000-square-foot bunker at 2401 Penn Ave.

It is celebrating the move Friday through Sunday with live music, cooking demos and tastings.

Neighbors in the Strip has promoted economic development in the area since 1999. The group created a separate non-profit, the Market Council, to deal with matters specific to the Pittsburgh Public Market.

Despite hard work and good intentions, the new location for the Pittsburgh Public Market is far from ideal.

Like marketplaces in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the market should reflect cohesive design and planning with vendors that represent the city's dynamic businesses.

The design shows lack of planning, with an interior that looks like Wal-Mart meets a flea market. Vendors put up their own wall dividers made of reclaimed wood, burlap and pegboard.

One reason for the pop-up aesthetic is that the group secured too little money for such an ambitious project. The cost for the initial market in the produce terminal was $1.3 million. The cost for the move is just over $500,000, which the group secured in grants and loans.

The majority of the funds the group received this month are earmarked for infrastructure improvements such as garage doors and other construction.

"The key is to get the market up and running," said Becky Rodgers, executive director of Neighbors in the Strip. "You've got to start somewhere."

Vendors aren't yet making a profit, confirmed Eric Earnest of Ohio City Pasta. "I anticipated it would take awhile. It's a startup business which often doesn't make money in the first year," he said. "But these winter months are just a killer."

An anchor of the market, East End Brewing, is faring better. Owner Scott Smith said that foot traffic and sales are up from the produce terminal location, but he cannot yet attribute it to the new location, year-to-year growth or holiday sales.

Mayor Bill Peduto is exploring other options for the produce terminal, which could affect the new public market. The Post-Gazette reported last week that he will be working directly with the Buncher Co. to secure the fate of the produce terminal that Mr. Peduto confirmed he wants to turn into something akin to Pike Place Market in Seattle. The developer has agreed to put its original plans on hold as they explore this alternative. In the meantime, Ms. Rodgers said the group has been included in meetings with Mr. Peduto. She said Neighbors in the Strip intends to share its research for the public market should Mr. Peduto's vision move forward.

As the group planned the market, Neighbors in the Strip toured public markets in Cincinnati, Columbus and specifically Cleveland's West Side Market, a 101-year-old gem in a historic building. Yet even with consulting from key players in these markets, it has not helped the group to better align its ambitions and resources.

Neighbors in the Strip could have worked more creatively to recruit vendors, a necessity considering the Strip poses different challenges than Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood, which established restaurants, boutiques, a distillery and brewery around the market: businesses that do not compete with vendors. The Strip is already celebrated for its food purveyors, which include Pennsylvania Macaroni, Wholey's Fish Market, Enrico Biscotti, Primanti Brothers, Parma Sausage Products and La Prima Espresso.

That said, there are many outstanding vendors in the new market. They include anchors East End Brewing, Clarion River Organics and Crested Duck Charcuterie. Caffe D'Amore sells terrific coffee, and Eliza's Oven offers booze-infused baked goods. Cleveland-based Ohio City Pasta and Najat's Cuisine are both new to the market. The South Side's Pub Chip Shop is in the process of setting up a stand in the market.

But there aren't enough. It's a reflection of a market not being conceived as a place where it's a privilege to set up shop. Instead, there's an overlap of products and too many fly-by-night stands. East End Brewing owner Mr. Smith said empty stalls result in "missing teeth in the lineup," which is why his stall is by the entrance "to generate some energy."

A market of this scope should reflect the city's burgeoning food scene, filled with cooks, bakers and artisans who have made a name for themselves as well as fledgling food businesses with larger ambitions.

Although it may be in a better location now, as it stands the new Pittsburgh Public Market is an interim for an indoor marketplace that better suits the city.

Ms. Rodgers said that even though Buncher gave her the choice of staying and moving to a different part of the produce terminal, she didn't consider staying an option because the rent would go up and she'd have to pass it along to vendors.

"We don't know where the city is going in terms of development," said Ms. Rodgers, citing the exorbitant costs of fixing up the original location.

"Increased costs would have to be passed on to small businesses," she said.

Monthly rent in the new location runs just over $500 per business for 100 square feet.

Even in Washington, D.C., where retail rents can run as high as $90 per square foot, rents for public market vendors remain stable. Take, for example, its Union Market, which opened in 2012. Rather than gouging small businesses, a prominent developer formed partnerships with established purveyors and restaurateurs, setting terms that vendors did not have to pay rent the first year, followed by yearly rent that's 7 to 10 percent of sales.

Neighbors in the Strip was not able to be comprehensive in gathering information from food purveyors or potential vendors as to how a public market could succeed. Instead, the group relied on property owners on their own board and a focus group. Board members include the owners of Bar Marco, Wigle Whiskey and Pennsylvania Macaroni.

Although the fate of the market has been an agenda item during monthly meetings, many board members did not attend or expressed resignation because they disagreed with the plans for the market.

"We have a public market. It's the biggest public market in America, man, and it's called Penn Avenue," said Larry Lagattuta, owner of Enrico Biscotti. He had been on the board of Neighbors in the Strip but has since left because he did not agree with the direction of the public market.

He is an advocate of turning the produce terminal into a market for the hundreds of farmers within 150 miles of the city. "That's the only way Penn Avenue could get any better," he said.

"I worry that [Strip District business owners] don't share the same vision of what the marketplace should be right now," said Eric Meyer, founder of Wigle Whiskey and a board member for Neighbors in the Strip. He supports the new location because it expands the scope of the Strip.

Pittsburgh has a long history of devaluing its public markets. The Allegheny Market House on the North Side was destroyed in 1966 to make way for apartments and a mall. The 1893 South Side Market closed in 1943 and became the South Side Recreation Center. And the Diamond Market was razed in 1961 after operating in what's now Market Square since 1914.

If the new administration has its way, the fate of the new location for the public market may be in question. For the time being, here are some suggestions for how Neighbors in the Strip can proceed:

• It should establish a more open dialogue with Strip District food businesses to facilitate use of the space and how it can benefit the neighborhood.

• It should be more aggressive in securing partnerships with corporations and the new administration as well as additional funds from those who are passionate about the development of a public market.

Ms. Rodgers said the group has received donations from individuals and corporate sponsors, although she could not name names or amounts. Perhaps the new fundraising arm will help. Friends of the Market has its first event opening weekend. A ticket for the Friends of the Market tasting is $25 and also buys a membership.

• Neighbors in the Strip should seek advice from artists, architects and groups that care about design. After a fire in 2007, D.C.'s oldest public market, Eastern Market, was provided gratis with a shed with air conditioning and plumbing as well as design flourishes such as doors in the style of the 1873 market building, designed by Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America. People will be more willing to lend services to a public market when it has a more comprehensive plan.

• Neighbors in the Strip should court restaurateurs, cooks and food artisans with brick-and-mortar locations to set up stands in the market. And it should invite those with influence in food, design and real estate to participate in decision-making.

A public market deserves wider public input. By allowing visionaries to shape its development, perhaps the city will get the Pittsburgh Public Market it deserves.

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


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