In Western Pa., locally owned eateries holding their own in competition with big chains

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It’s 7:05 on a recent Saturday morning and the Kountry Kitchen on Main Street in Zelienople is a cacophony of sounds emanating from a sizzling griddle combined with the din of a dozen muted conversations punctuated with instructions like “over-easy” and “crisp” and “deli rye, thanks.” They’re a backdrop to the savory smell of crisping bacon mixed with the aroma of frying onions and potatoes.

“Good morning, Hon!” shouts Angeline Bucci of Harmony, a waitress at the tiny borough mainstay for 35 years. She greets three men tucked in one of 11 blue booths in a galley-style dining room longer than it is wide with two expansive counters of worn Formica. In all, there are some 50 seats and within an hour or so, every one is filled and a line is out the door.

About the same time, a half-dozen miles south on Route 19, a stone’s throw from the intersection of three interstate highways in Cranberry, parking lots are bustling at the big-business chain restaurants that have pockets deep enough for advertising budgets and mass marketing strategies.

In a languid economy where restaurants are competing for dollars stretched thin, the independently owned places are bringing their distinct flavor to the marketplace and are holding their own in the competition — and then some.

Take J.T.’s on Brownsville in Brentwood, about 35 miles south of the Kountry Kitchen.

It’s a Thursday, mid-morning, and about every table in this hole-in-the-wall eatery is set with at least one large plate with potato pancakes hanging over the edge.

Thin, crisp and just the right shade of brown, they’re on the menu Thursday through Sunday — to keep them special, said waitress Diane Shockey of Baldwin Borough. If you come in after noon the weekend, don’t expect to get any.

They’re house specialties, put on the menu at the request of patrons, said Fred Bergia of Dormont, who cooks and runs the restaurant for his nephew, Joe Tewell of Bethel Park. “That’s what we do here — what the customer wants,” Mr. Bergia said.

It’s about 10:30 a.m., so breakfast is over and the lunch crew hasn’t yet arrived. Still, there’s a steady stream of customers keeping Ms. Shockey busy every minute of the eight hours she’ll work between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the restaurant closes. The hours are the same every day of the week. She’s the only waitress on duty any weekday, and she says it's the “funnest job” she’s ever had. “We’re like family here,” she said. “You can go anywhere for eggs. You can cook an egg at home. But you’re getting something more than a good breakfast when you come here. You’re getting camaraderie with quality food.”'

Keith Gascorowski of Brentwood was on a break from his job in heating and air conditioning, and he and his boss stopped in for a bite. “It reminds me of somebody cooking in your own home. It’s a treat, like your great-grandma who knows how to cook real good,” he said.

Many of the customers Ms. Shockey greets by name or pet name. “What do you want, darlin’?” she asks one female customer. “You’re welcome, honey,” she says to a man who thanks her for the Thursday special: potato pancakes topped with slices of ham topped with provolone cheese topped with eggs and served with a side of toast.

Sandwiched at one end of Brownsville between an attorney's office and a nail salon, J.T.’s has been in business nine years despite nearby competition. Mr. Bergia, a former cement finisher, said the secret to the success is food made “from scratch, from the bottom up” and “gettin’ to know the people. I give ’em what they want. The big places can’t do that.”

How do places like the Kountry Kitchen and J.T.’s on Brownsville compete, without special deals or coupons?

It’s no mystery to Ed Grunnagle, a regular at the Zelienople restaurant. The 62-year-old spends a lot of Saturday mornings at the Kountry Kitchen. This week, he’s with his son, Brian, 36, and buddy Denny Dambaugh, 75, all of Zelienople.

“The food is good and it’s reasonable. But the best part of it is that it’s like an old-time barbershop where you can go in and gab. You can harass the waitresses — and they can give it back good — and everybody just has fun,” Mr. Grunnagle said. Mr. Dambaugh added: “They know you by name.”

An industrywide picture

Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with market researchers NPD Group of Port Washington, N.Y., said that despite the odds, independently owned full-service restaurants have nibbled away at their chain counterparts’ market share in two segments of the restaurant industry.

Although big restaurant chains dominate the fast-food segment, independents outperform the chains or hold their own in two other areas: family-style and casual dining.

“Independents on the full-service side of the industry are competing well,” Ms. Riggs said from her office in Rosemont, Ill., where the food service division of NPD is located.

When visits to all types of restaurants are counted, the big chains come out on top. In 2013, when Americans made 61 billion visits to restaurants, major chains claimed 63 percent of those visits, independent restaurants on the whole claimed about 26 percent of the total market, and small chains — those with at least three locations — claimed 11 percent. In 2009, big chains had 60 percent, independents had 28 percent, and small chains had 12 percent.

But when it comes to family-style dining — Ms. Riggs described this battleground as a Denny's or Bob Evans versus the corner diner — 67 percent of all visits in 2013 were to independent restaurants. “They dominate that area,” Ms. Riggs said of the independents. Major chains claimed 23 percent of that market, while small chains claimed 10 percent.

“When we get into family-style dining, the independents have a bigger share of the market than the chains. Then, in casual dining [such as Applebee's and Olive Garden], the independents have held their own,” she said.

In casual dining in 2013, independents claimed 51 percent of the market versus 36 percent for major chains and 13 percent for small chains.

The weak area for independent operators is the fast-food segment of the restaurant market. “When it comes to the fast-food arena, there’s a lot of big chains with marketing clout that can do a lot of discounting,” she said.

The big reason for the independents’ robust performance in the other two segments is loyalty, Ms. Riggs said.

While, historically, the biggest users of restaurants had been those age 18 to 34, that consumer segment has cut back on eating out. Not so for the “boomers and beyond,” she said. “They’ve increased their usage of restaurants and they’re a loyal consumer and the heaviest users of independent restaurants.''

She surveyed the market recently, asking this age group what it is looking for in a restaurant experience, and some of the answers were predictable: “Comfortable seating, good lighting, menus that they could read that weren’t so overwhelming like a lot of the chains’ menus. They don’t like a lot of noise because they want to sit and carry on a conversation, and they want quality food at affordable prices,” Ms. Riggs said.

A more overlooked component: “They want to be recognized by the bartender or the waitress. The independents do that better,”' Ms. Riggs said.

‘A real personal touch’

Karen Abramson of Jackson sums it up as “a kind of magic.” Manager of the Kountry Kitchen, which has been in business more than 25 years and is owned by her brother-in-law Kevin Adams of Ellwood City, Ms. Abramson said, “We make this place a home away from home for people.”

Debee Werntz of Penn Hills, a hostess at the Wooden Nickel, a Monroeville tradition since the 1950s, gives this description of what keeps customers coming to the casual dining restaurant that seats 215: “Excellent food in a lovely setting with a staff that puts the customer first.”

Many of those customers have familiar faces. One is Tom Gorman of Monroeville. “I’ve been coming here for years,” said the 52-year-old, in the restaurant for a late lunch on a Saturday afternoon. “I love the food — the menu is so varied. They have a great night life. But I think the best thing is that the people who work here are so friendly. It’s common to see the owner come out and talk to the customers. There’s a real personal touch.”

As though he’s been summoned, into the dining room walks Joe Bello, the general manager, executive chef and co-owner. When told about the comments of one his customers, he said the effort to interact with the patrons in the dining area is intentional. “I’m out here all the time. It’s one of the ways we stay on top of what the customer wants,”' Mr. Bello said.

He doesn’t want to slam the “corporates,” Mr. Bello said, but he makes an intentional effort to set the Wooden Nickel apart from them. “Everything we prepare, we prepare on the premises. This isn’t batch cooking. This isn’t reading a bag for heating instructions.”

With its stone facade on the outside and its white-tablecloth elegance on the inside, the restaurant has withstood the pressure of popular chains for decades, offering lunch and dinner selections such as “Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf” — a huge slice of meatloaf atop bread, mounded with mashed potatoes, onion rings and barbecue sauce.

Mr. Bello, of Harrison City, said he and his father-in-law, Jeff Ross of North Huntingdon, bought the restaurant about three years ago and immediately began a nine-month renovation. Now, the pair are opening a location in Norwin Town Center in North Huntingdon, attached to a Shop’n Save store that Mr. Ross owns.

Mr. Bello makes it his mission to know his customers. “If I have a customer who comes in every Saturday and drinks a certain wine, I make sure it's on the wine list,” he said.

It’s the only way to do business in an arena that is as competitive as the restaurant industry, said 71-year-old Alex Sebastian of Beaver, owner of the Wooden Angel in Beaver. The restaurant has been in its present location since 1968 and has built a reputation for its wine cellar as well as its elegance and “casual but upscale” food. Mr. Sebastian has been the sole owner.

“For the first 10 years, we didn’t even have a sign outside. It was word of mouth,” Mr. Sebastian said. “We built our success on someone from the family always being somewhere in the building, bringing our personal touch to everything.” His brother, David, owns the Wooden Indian, the more casual of the attached restaurants.

The pair said they learned at the knee of their father, Bert, who opened Bert’s Barbecue in 1948, just down the road.

Inside the Wooden Angel, diners sit at tables beneath cathedral ceilings and peruse options that include lamb-stuffed grape leaves as an appetizer and oven-roasted, pecan-crusted salmon salad for an entree. The choices are appealing to a regular foursome who are out for lunch and to plan the calendar for their gourmet dinner group, which includes their husbands. Kathy Adelman of Sewickley, Linda Baska of Beaver, Norma Cheek of Chippewa and Terry Rafalko of Sewickley agreed that the Wooden Angel is the perfect setting for deciding the details of the elaborate dinners they cook. The group visits the Wooden Angel dozens of times in a year.

“We love the food. We know the owner. The ambiance is perfect. We feel very comfortable,” said Ms. Adelman, who held her wedding dinner at the restaurant. “There’s no chain place that can compete.”

Correction, posted March 5, 2014: Nails by Sang, a nail salon next to J.T.'s on Brownsville Road in Brentwood, is open for business. Its status was described incorrectly last Thursday.

Karen Kane: or at 724-772-9180. First Published February 27, 2014 12:00 AM

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