The Waffle Shop, an East Liberty-based public art space that serves food and invites patrons to take part in video talk shows, will close July 29.
Waffle Shop: A Reality Show opened in October 2008 on the corner of Baum Boulevard and Highland Avenue. It was supposed to be a one-semester project for a Carnegie Mellon University art class taught by associate professor Jon Rubin, but it quickly took on a life of its own.
He never expected it to last this long. "I think we kind of followed the momentum and the wave. We're really fortunate to have a lot of people come on board to support it."
Buoyed by financial support from the East Liberty Development Corp., and discounted rent from building owner Eve Picker, along with support from Carnegie Mellon, Waffle Shop became a unique weekend destination for night owls and weekend brunch patrons. It became the largest work study employer at Carnegie Mellon, employing more than 450 students from a wide range of disciplines.
The customers also played a role in Waffle Shop's longevity. "The fact that people kept coming in and were willing to participate and get on stage and be part of the talk show -- the restaurant has always been secondary to the talk show for the Waffle Shop," Mr. Rubin said.
In 2010, they launched a new experiment -- Conflict Kitchen, a small storefront that serves takeout food from countries the U.S. has been in conflict with, including Iran, Afghanistan, Venezuela and Cuba.
They also constructed a billboard on the roof of the historic Werner Building, which houses both restaurants. The billboard space displays a changing series of thought-provoking messages.
Waffle Shop's lease ends in July, but other factors led to the decision to close. "We've been here for four years. Creatively it's achieved quite a bit. I feel like we're at the end of that period and I want to leave while things are still going well," Mr. Rubin said. "I don't want to get into a position where we're just repeating ourselves."
The economy is another factor. "It's a tough operation to maintain a restaurant, let alone a talk show, in the current economy. It's a lot of staffing, a lot of production, a lot of overhead."
Finally, the focus is shifting to Conflict Kitchen and its impending move Downtown. They're in early negotiations with the Urban Redevelopment Authority to move Conflict Kitchen to the former Wendy's on Fifth Avenue. Its lease ends Aug. 15, and it will close at its current location the first week of August.
Special events are planned for Waffle Shop's closing weekend on July 28 and 29. "We're going to have a cavalcade of stars -- invite everyone who's ever been on stage for our last weekend," Mr. Rubin said. "We're going to try to go nonstop and invite everyone to show up. We're hoping the last weekend will be a big blast."
But the Waffle Shop concept will live on. More than 10,000 people appeared on the talk shows, and there are countless hours of recorded video. Mr. Rubin said they hope to create a permanent archive online.
And they're looking for funding to keep the billboard project going. "That would allow us to keep a presence in the neighborhood.
"But it's sad to go. I love this neighborhood, this corner. I think it's one of the most interesting corners in the city, in terms of the diversity -- economically and racially and age-wise -- of the folks who come by here. I still feel a deep connection to East Liberty."
Adrian McCoy: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1865. First Published June 22, 2012 4:00 AM