CMU merges art with reality TV and fresh waffles


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It was supposed to be a two-semester community artistic social experiment for a Carnegie Mellon University art class, videotaping hip late-night crowds discussing what was on their minds while they ate waffles.

But the combination of homemade treats and homegrown reality show has proven to be an unusual recipe for success since Waffle Shop opened its doors last fall in East Liberty. School is out, but the doors are staying open, weekend brunch hours have been added and the menu has expanded.

The artistic concepts behind it have evolved, too. Now its founders are exploring the possibility of the shop becoming an ongoing venture in a neighborhood that also is forging a new identity.

"The idea has progressed quite a bit and become clearer and stronger," said Jon Rubin, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon's School of Art who teaches the course that created the Waffle Shop/reality show concept.

And, he added, "the waffles are a lot better."

Anchoring the corner of Baum Boulevard and Highland Avenue, near the lively Eastside retail development, the shop serves up fluffy waffles made from scratch with a variety of toppings, including strawberries and chocolate, and the popular Savory Waffle -- a concoction in which turkey bacon is cooked in the waffle batter, with egg and cheese baked on top.

Part restaurant, part art happening, Waffle Shop: A Reality Show opened in October. Students aimed to document the community and what its residents were thinking about through a series of video interviews. It was open for a few hours late at night on weekends, drawing crowds from nearby performance spaces Shadow Lounge and AVA.

Fueled by carbs and caffeine, Waffle Shop customers chat about whatever's on their minds -- politics, society, culture -- and become the stars of a live late-night reality video show.

It's part of an advanced undergraduate art course at Carnegie Mellon called the Storefront Project, in which students develop a concept and take it out into the community to see how people react and interact. The course will be offered again this fall.

Mr. Rubin's classes have conducted other storefront art and public art experiments in recent years, but Waffle Shop has taken on a life of its own, he said.

In January, when the shop reopened after winter break, the model for the project became more ambitious. The students constructed a talk show set. Now guests are filmed on the stage and videos are more cohesive.

The shop also became more than a night-owl hangout drawing a generally young, hip and vocal crowd. It's now open for brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, making it a stop for early birds, too, including many families, people from the neighborhood and curious passers-by.

"It's a whole different vibe during the day," Mr. Rubin said.

Many patrons on a recent weekend morning had never been there before, but were driving or walking by and were lured in by the offer of brunch: The reality show part of the experience was just icing on the waffle, so to speak.

Melanie and Tim Peterson of West Mifflin stopped with their children Hannah, 5, and Lucas, 4. They were on their way to the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, and were looking for a place for a Father's Day meal.

"It's the best waffle I've ever had," Mrs. Peterson said.

For the brunch set, students in the project decided to do something other than a talk show.

Last week, Waffle Shop manager Dawn Weleski sat on the talk show set, listening to Internet news feeds on headphones and repeating what was being said so that everyone could hear -- Mr. Rubin called it a "human jukebox" version of reading the Sunday newspaper. The news feeds were constantly switched -- Fox News, radio talk shows, international and religious broadcasts, sports and more.

The restaurant side of the business is generating enough income to help pay for some work-study students to be servers, and crowds have increased from a handful of people to full capacity on some nights.

Mr. Rubin has been talking to East Liberty Development Inc. about ways to keep the Waffle Shop project going. They're looking at several models, he said: hiring a manager and running it as a for-profit venture; or establishing it as an independent nonprofit operation, with the money it brings in going to support the artistic activities. The space then would be eligible to apply for grant money.

Either way, it would be, as he puts it, "an unusual model for how an art space could function."

Waffle Shop currently operates as a nonprofit under the Carnegie Mellon umbrella. The university has been paying the rent for space in the historic Werner Building in East Liberty, where the landlords, a partnership that includes real estate developer Eve Picker of No Wall Productions, have given the project a discount.

Waffle Shop yesterday began streaming the news reader videos live online on its Web site at waffleshop.org. The site, which was redesigned by programmer Ryan Hickman, will allow users to sign in to Facebook and Twitter feeds and talk back to the talk shows.

It will continue to draw on the "hyper-local" East End community, Mr. Rubin said. "We want an avenue for people to engage in it remotely" as well as in person, he said.

Ms. Picker said she had been looking for the right tenant for the vacant storefront in the building in addition to Shadow Lounge and AVA, a braiding salon and a recording studio. Ms. Picker said she found the Waffle Shop idea intriguing when Mr. Rubin approached her, and is happy with its progress.

"It's a great community of people who are all artists and work together," she said. "It's really a community project. They've pulled in the community in a way that's rare."


Adrian McCoy can be reached at amccoy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.


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