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Richard Stern has been shaping the culture of Pittsburgh for decades. A third-generation business owner, he has helped define how residents spend their leisure time and money.
As customers' tastes change, so have his business choices. The mid-'80s through the 2000s marked his decisions to close nightclubs Heaven and Les Nuages, Downtown, along with independent movie theaters, which included seven Downtown theaters, Bellevue Theater, the Squirrel Hill Theatre and Denis Theatre in Mt. Lebanon. Their demises paralleled the closing of big nightclubs and locally owned theaters in cities around the country.
Now Mr. Stern is focused on a different set of investments, with chef and partner Brian Pekarcik, 39. Together they've formed S+P Restaurant Group, defined by Spoon, BRGR in East Liberty and Cranberry and Grit & Grace, Downtown. He's also added a BRGR food truck and a PNC Park location.
Last week, Willow joined the restaurant group. That's the Ohio Township eatery that Mr. Stern, 60, started with other partners back in 2004.
With BRGR to open in the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon by October, S+P Restaurant Group will direct seven restaurants by the fall, positioning it as a feisty underdog among locally owned companies such as Eat'n Park and Big Burrito.
As it expands, S+P Restaurant Group is fulfilling cravings for comfort food such as burgers. Yet it also quells appetites for fine dining and coastal-city trends in renditions the partners hope will resonate with Pittsburghers.
This approach is helping to revitalize neighborhoods such as East Liberty, as well as the Liberty Avenue stretch of Downtown that's on an upswing.
Willow, on Camp Horne Road, has stood as an example of well-regarded, suburban fine-dining for a decade. Originally co-owned by chef Michael Rudman, who went on to open and close Luma in Mt. Lebanon, Willow gave Mr. Stern a taste for running restaurants.
But lately, Willow has been taxed by partner changes and a faded concept. S+P will close Willow for several weeks for renovation and rebranding.
"We want to make it more casual and more social," Mr. Stern said.
Through the transition, the kitchen is run by John Mottinger, a former sous chef under Mr. Pekarcik at BRGR in Cranberry.
East Liberty's Spoon is the flagship of the group. It's the result of Mr. Stern's appreciation of Mr. Pekarcik's cooking, which crystallized following a 10-course tasting menu in 2008 when he was executive chef at Steelhead Brasserie & Wine Bar in the Pittsburgh Marriott City Center, Uptown.
Mr. Pekarcik, who grew up in Monroeville, had just returned to town after a decade in California, where he had cooked at Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe and at Restaurant Gary Danko in San Francisco.
"I have to open a restaurant for this guy," Mr. Stern said.
Two years later, Spoon opened in the former Red Room Cafe. A few months later BRGR opened next door. Their corner anchor at Highland and Centre avenues has helped in the redevelopment of East Liberty as it transitions into a destination neighborhood replete with restaurants, bars, apartments and, soon, hotels.
As Downtown also evolves into a dining destination, Mr. Stern had been looking for a spot to open a BRGR location. He loved the former Taste of Dahntahn space, but after discussion, he and Mr. Pekarcik decided that the dining room was too narrow for that purpose, so they created a new concept. The result is the American dim sum restaurant, Grit & Grace, which opened in December.
"I thought there was a niche to fill," he said.
Just before Grit & Grace opened, the group was approached by the Pittsburgh Pirates about opening BRGR in partnership with Aramark.
Located in the main concourse of PNC Park, it debuted on opening day. "It was a very quick turnaround," Mr. Stern said.
The new location does very high-volume sales. To maintain quality and customer service, "we are staffed to the gills," Mr. Pekarcik said.
S+P Restaurant Group was conceived about a year ago at the suggestion of a national marketing and PR group during a meeting in Chicago.
Mr. Pekarcik hopes the group will help Pittsburgh build a national reputation as a dining destination.
Starting a restaurant group offers other benefits, too.
Like Eat'n Park's Parkhurst and Big Burrito, S+P will have increased buying power that will help in securing prime locations. It also helps in purchasing staple items in bulk.
Forming a restaurant group has helped with staff development, allowing employees to move up the ranks and among locations and concepts. Many cooks, for example, start at BRGR and move to Spoon or Grit & Grace. And it's staff development that partners attribute to the expansion of the group.
"We are investing in people's careers," Mr. Pekarcik said, citing employees who have worked with him since Spoon has opened. "And we are hoping that people will stay with us."
More restaurants also mean the group has leverage attracting staff from other cities such as San Francisco and Portland, Ore.
For example, the group last year landed sommelier and Spoon general manager, John Wabeck, from Alexandria, Va. Mr. Wabeck came from a stint with James Beard-nominated chef, Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve.
Native Pittsburgher, Curtis Gamble, chef de cuisine at Grit & Grace, had been in Chicago as executive chef at Bread & Wine for nearly two years and was enticed to return by the S+P partners. Before that, he worked at Six Penn Kitchen, Downtown.
In addition to restaurants, today, Mr. Stern also owns Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill. The theater underwent a $500,000 renovation in 2012 that added a small bar to the back lobby, relocated the concession stand and expanded the food menu. The concept is starting to draw younger patrons.
Mr. Stern is hoping to combine interests with future concepts, such as a dinner theater he plans to open Downtown.
It's not yet determined as to whether such a concept would be tied to the restaurant group, since "the restaurant business is a different pace than theaters," Mr. Stern said.
As the family business, theaters mean something different to Mr. Stern than to Mr. Pekarcik. When he was young and living in Squirrel Hill, Mr. Stern was involved in programming and film buying with his father. His daughter Alexa Stern, a licensed therapist, also worked at the Manor Theatre.
Yet he believes theaters and restaurants share some similarities.
"They're both entertainment so to speak. They bring people out of reality for a time," he said. "And with hope, they deliver happiness and joy."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart