David Templeton's Seldom Seen: Beleaguered Pike Inn vows to feed fans again

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The announcement should include trumpet fanfare, fireworks and ticker tape: Gregg and Shelley McElhaney will reopen Shelley's Pike Inn in Houston.

   
Seldom Seem, David Templeton's whimsical perspective on life and times in and around Washington County, appears weekly in Washington Sunday.
  

But the popular red brick restaurant, damaged by September floodwaters then fire, will be demolished so the McElhaneys can build a new restaurant on higher ground at the rear of the property.

The new building will add to curb appeal and clear space for additional parking.

The decision was difficult, considering the McElhaneys' string of bad luck, which ran the gamut of plagues, plunder, pillage and PennDOT.

In September, they were struggling to survive the state Department of Transportation's intersection reconstruction project in Houston when the Sept. 17 flood filled the Pike Inn with four feet of water, followed two days later by a major fire.

Afterward, Gregg McElhaney still had hopes of reopening.

But then he encountered problems as rancorous as roadwork, formidable as floodwaters and confounding as the conflagration.

McElhaney has had to deal with insurance issues, preventing him from immediately remodeling the damaged building. That allowed mold to take hold and dictate the building's fate.

"Mold is the reason why I have to knock this [building] down," McElhaney said, pointing to the building on Pike Street surrounded by a yellow police ribbon. It could have been restored, he said, if he'd been able to start cleanup immediately.

That setback left McElhaney feeling like a modern-day Job. His business and livelihood were gone. So he found himself at wit's end with anger, frustration and depression.

Standing inside the restaurant, he indicated with sweeping arms how "everything is gone." And what does remain "is pretty ugly."

Which ushered in the next problem: Plague.

"That's why I went into a depression for a couple of weeks," he said. "I didn't know what depression was until I went through this, looking around and seeing all the money gone. It was almost too much to bear."

All of which left hungry customers wondering: Will the McElhaneys ever reopen the popular Pike Inn?

Swallowing hard, McElhaney said he will rebuild.

"The support from local people has been fantastic and I feel a desire to be back in local business," he said. "I'm ready with or without the insurance."

So those who enjoyed the lunch and dinner specials along with the pies and soups -- not to mention McElhaney's penchant for holding court at the counter where regular customers discussed hunting, politics, fishing, sports and hunting -- can take delight.

"The counter guys want to design the counter," he said, noting a desire for a round counter or half moon. "They're telling me how they want the counter to look."

Actually McElhaney, 54, of Chartiers, is a rugged character. He once operated a trucking company until he lost his only customer, then became a heavy equipment operator before he and his wife, Shelley, took over the restaurant in 1986 from his parents, aunt and uncle.

An avid outdoorsman, he was busy hunting geese last week. So he understands the challenge of being lost in the woods, and how to get out of the woods under trying circumstances.

That's to say, it takes more than construction tie-ups, natural disasters, fires, insurance issues and depression to keep him down.

The McElhaneys, who already have a bank loan, and have hired an architect. Nello Construction Co. of North Strabane, likely will build the restaurant with plans to have it open as early as May, McElhaney said.

But what ultimately persuaded them to rebuild wasn't the lasting desire to be restaurateurs. Former customers were key. McElhaney said people had begged them to reopen. Friends and customers even worked to help salvage restaurant equipment and supplies. Other customers have shown up at the door to ask when it would reopen.

Their most loyal customers remain at a loss for a place to eat and hang out, as they once did at Pike Inn, providing another incentive to rebuild.

"People are missing the food," McElhaney said. "The reason I'm coming back is because everyone wants me back. I've gotten phone calls and cards saying they miss me. It was a hangout for everyone, and I didn't realize how big it was until this happened.

"I hope I can still make a living at it."

The old restaurant building, originally the Reed Lumber Co. office, was transformed into Rocky's Restaurant in the late 1970s. Rocky Vulcano, of Houston, sold it to McElhaney's parents, aunt and uncle in the early 1980s. In 1986, Gregg and Shelley, for whom the restaurant is named, bought it and operated it until the conspiracy of road construction, floodwater, flames and insurance adjusters left them in the lurch.

For now, McElhaney is working as a heavy equipment operator, not because he's hurting financially but to ease depression. He's a member of Local 66 Operating Engineers and plans to continue working construction as a way to keep busy and pay building expenses.

"It keeps my mind occupied," he said. "It's rough on the mind when you lose your livelihood."

Shelley and their daughter, Holly, will operate the restaurant once it's rebuilt with eventual plans for Holly to run it.

"I don't know how I'm going to do it," McElhaney said, "I must have an iron heart."

Efforts by Shorty's Restaurant in Washington to remain open despite being displaced by a redevelopment project, and public support for Shorty's, gives McElhaney hope that independent restaurants can withstand corporate-owned restaurants and new development.

But the anticipated influx of chain restaurants once slot machines arrive at The Meadows in North Strabane poses another concern.

"At least it took Mother Nature to knock me on my [butt]," he said. "But it didn't have to do it this well."

Then, voicing the sentiments of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Martha Stewart after her conviction, The Beatles' hit song and Arnold Schwarzenegger in his 1984 movie, "The Terminator," McElhaney made a vow that should make his customers' mouths water once again.

"I'll be back."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8652.


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