Northside Still Going Strong Despite PandemicOct 29, 2020 07:02PM ● By Vanessa Orr
Mike’s Beer Bar
One of the most iconic areas of Pittsburgh is its Northside, home to 18 neighborhoods, two stadiums, numerous museums and hundreds of small businesses. From Randyland to the historic Mexican War Streets to the Carnegie Science Center to the restaurants along the North Shore, this area is filled with attractions for visitors as well as those living in its neighborhoods.
“There are so many reasons to love the Northside; one of the first things that people notice when they open a business here is its prime location, right across the river from downtown. It’s easily accessible from a lot of different highways. Its population also makes up 15 percent of the entire city and the neighborhoods are really diverse,” said Gina Grone, executive director of the Northside/Shore Chamber of Commerce.
“Once businesses become more established, they realize its second-tier benefits,” she continued. “This is a really tight-knit community where people support each other. It’s not too small or so big you feel lost; you feel like you’re part of the whole.”
According to Grone, roughly 85 percent of the businesses in the area are considered small businesses, spread out through the area’s three zip codes. “Most have 20 or fewer employees, and they range from mom-and-pop shops, to small bookkeeping and catering companies, to local restaurants,” she said.
Before the pandemic hit, the area was seeing a steady increase in new businesses, keeping with its steady growth over the past 15 years. Since COVID, some businesses have had a much tougher time, especially those on the North Shore where regulations against large crowds have affected the number of people coming to the area.
“So many businesses here are dependent on foot or driving traffic, including all of those people who come down to the stadium for a game, or to attend a concert or visit a museum; there are a lot of cultural assets around the Northside that bring in people from all over region,” Grone explained. “The pandemic has hit us particularly hard, creating an unfortunate situation for restaurants and hospitality businesses across the board.”
The good news is that things are beginning to start back up, with hospitality, restaurant and retail businesses once again opening their doors. “We’re seeing a return to regular hours, and businesses are eager to get people in,” said Grone.
Mike Sukitch, owner of Mike’s Beer Bar and the North Shore Tavern, decided to start a business on the Northside two years ago after retiring from a 33-year corporate career. Originally from Spring Hill, he opened Mike’s Beer Bar in a space that had previously held a bar, and last year, when another business on the same street became available, he bought it and created the North Shore Tavern.
“I bought it six weeks before the pandemic closed things, but we’ve since used the opportunity to completely renovate the space,” he said. “Ironically, once things normalize, we’ll be able to put our best foot forward and showcase a beautiful place.”
As a former resident of the area, Sukitch was attracted to the diverse community.
“There’s a really good mix of young professionals as well as families that have been here for a couple of generations,” he said. “The area itself has seen continual improvement over the last 10 to 15 years, especially on the North Shore, where there’s access to residential and office space in addition to the stadiums.
“I like that I can have a neighborhood bar for those who live here, as well as a unique destination to come for beer or ‘steak on a stone’ for the business crowd or those coming to a baseball or football game,” he added.
With roughly 75 percent of sales normally made between April and October, Sukitch says that there’s no doubt that COVID has made things more difficult. “On the positive side, it made us really take a look at our cost structure and focus on the areas that are need to have vs. areas that are nice to have,” he said. “The staff went to work and completely renovated the North Shore Tavern and cut out unnecessary operating costs, which gave us the opportunity to become structurally strong, so we’ll be even better coming out of it.”
Sukitch is looking at bringing music to the tavern, as well as starting an open mic comedy night. “We’re also looking at options to put together some sort of tent structure that will still allow outdoor dining for guests who prefer that to being indoors,” he said.
Penn Brewery opened in the Northside in 1986 and added its restaurant in 1989. Co-owner and Director of Marketing Linda Nyman and partners bought it in 2009 and have run the Deutschtown-area brewery since.
“The location chose us,” said Nyman. “It was originally built as a brewery in the 1800s, and when Tom Pastorius decided that he wanted to open a German brewery back in the 80s, the space at 800 Vinial Street made all the sense in the world.”
Today the brewery looks out over an area growing in popularity, both for visitors and for those who want to live near the city. “The Northside has a lot to offer in addition to its two key sports venues,” said Nyman. “There are a ton of restaurants and retail stores, and there’s a lot of rejuvenation going on in the residential sector.
“There’s a new hotel going up right down the street from us, and the area is really booming,” she added. “We’re hoping to become the next Lawrenceville.”
During the pandemic, the brewery had to close, but it reopened in mid-October. “It definitely had an impact on our business, so the first order of business is to get word out that we have reopened,” said Nyman, who launched a social media campaign to invite guests back. “We have an outdoor beer garden, so as long as weather permits, we can continue to serve patrons outside as long as they want to dine there.” Penn Brewery also offers dine-in seating and take-out, and is currently open Wednesday-Sunday.
“There’s such a diversity of things to do in the Northside, from its sports venues to the Children’s Museum, to the National Aviary, to Randyland, the Mattress Factory, and the Warhol Museum, to house tours of the Mexican War Streets,” she added of reasons to visit the area. “There’s so much to do here, you could spend days and days and not get to everything.”