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North Hills Monthly

Small Businesses Pivot to Open During Pandemic

Oct 29, 2020 07:13PM ● By Erica Cebzanov

Pups Playhouse

A group of Pittsburgh entrepreneurs knew that they would encounter unforeseen challenges when opening their new businesses—but they didn’t expect to contend with a global pandemic.

Grace Affeltranger opened Aspinwall-based Botanical Vegan Café & Market on March 2—a week prior to the start of the state government’s coronavirus stay-at-home order. She was so focused on opening her café that she was unaware of the virus’s increasing impact. 

“We opened and had a fabulous profitable first week, and by the next week, there was nobody! I thought everyone hated our products and that we had failed miserably,” she said facetiously. “Turns out it was just a global pandemic.” 

The COVID-19 outbreak caused Affeltranger to modify Botanical’s design concept from its original lunch and evening lounge space idea. She postponed construction of a bar and emphasized grab-and-go items and produce and pantry staples instead.

The owner/operator had already purchased Botanical’s inventory of local, non-GMO produce and inventory devoid of major allergens for the café’s menu of juices, smoothies, tea, espresso, frozen bowls, salads, soups and seasonal specialties. Rather than waste the food and lose more money, she kept the café open and worked alone from March until August, relying heavily on online orders.

“The beauty of my business plan is that everything is prepped and stored for quick assembly. We are almost all raw, so I don't have to have multiple cooks or workers to keep my doors open. That makes my financial costs much less than other established sit-down cafes,” she explained.

Now that Pittsburgh has reopened, Botanical has five employees, with plans to add more, and Affeltranger aims to expand throughout Pittsburgh and beyond.

Three years, seven months and 24 days passed between the time Fig & Ash chef and co-owner Cory Hughes and his team finalized a property deal on the long-vacant 514 E. Ohio St. building and received the restaurant’s occupancy placard. The fully renovated North Side space now contains a dining room, bar, kitchen, outdoor courtyard and its “heart”—a custom wood-fire oven from Temper and Grit.

“Our elevator pitch is ‘refined comfort food cooked over a wood fire hearth,’’’ said Hughes, who has spent nearly two decades in the restaurant industry at Café at the Frick, Spoon, Eleven, Six Penn and Google via Parkhurst Dining. He co-owns Fig & Ash with brother-in-law Alex Feltovich.

The pandemic hit after Hughes had already dealt with construction and permitting setbacks. “It was just another obstacle that we had to face. You get some acceptance and move on,” he said. “It gave us an opportunity to visit other restaurants and see what we thought they were doing smartly and learn from their mistakes as well.”

Fig & Ash opened with a small staff for lunch in September and added dinner service in October. “We will stay small and resourceful until the pandemic has passed. We would love to be open six nights a week (Sundays are for family), but the more nights a restaurant is open, the more staff, utilities, overhead, etc.,” Hughes explained. 

“Start small, and then watch your bottom line,” he advised of opening a new business. “And make sure you're set up for unexpected hurdles.” 

Lunch offerings at Fig & Ash include the wood-fired cheesesteak, Cuban, and smoked chicken salad sandwiches, and ember-roasted root vegetable salad. Dinner choices include swordfish, prime flat iron steak, foraged mushroom and roasted parsnip ragout, and short rib and pork belly meatloaf.

Judy Cipriani left her BNY Mellon job of 20 years to open Pups Playhouse doggy daycare, boarding and grooming facility in Wexford. Her inspirations include her puggle, Daisy, as well as the desire to give back to the community and create fun enterprises. For three years, she networked at an annual doggy daycare convention, researched the best materials to utilize at her facility and learned how to pass the county dog warden’s rigorous inspection.

Then, COVID-19 happened.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” she said, adding that construction crews had to halt their renovation work on her building due to the government’s stay-at-home orders. “The process of building a business, it takes time, energy and investment. So, you can't stop. You just have to keep moving ahead.”

Pups Playhouse opened in July, with 5,500 sq. ft. of bedroom and playroom areas for pups to relax in when they’re away from home. A special filtration system recycles air from the two climate-controlled buildings so that they lack that familiar “doggy” odor, according to Cipriani. Another standout feature is the expansive self-draining and easy-to-clean turf play yard. Dogs also have the option of playing on pea gravel, and a canopy provides protection from the elements.

Inside, Pups Playhouse has cushioned rubber floors, similar to a gym surface, which are easy on canines’ joints. This dog activity center also contains treadmills, agility equipment and a giant ring and ball toy. Dog daycare and lodging guests have all-inclusive access to Pups Playhouse’s amenities.

Pups Playhouse’s lodging program offers individual and family bedrooms, and surveillance cameras  ensure pets’ safety overnight. Full-service grooming is also available. 

Molly Singer considers opening her Blawnox boutique and studio, Molly Singer Design, a “natural extension of the brand” that she has developed from years of serving design clients and flipping properties. Previously, Singer worked from various home offices and frequently relocated; she most recently based her studio at her Fox Chapel residence.

“I’ve wanted to open a store since I was a child; I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, from lemonade stands to organizing neighborhood yard sales to small shops I set up in my mother's basement,” she explained. 

She said that there was no turning back when the pandemic hit, as she was already planning the studio and shop’s launch. Molly Singer Designs will sell a mix of high-end custom furniture, art, pillows, lighting and coffee table books. 

“I am grateful that all of the time people have spent in their homes over the last six months has generated even more interest in design,” she said. “I have not experienced a slow down on the design side, and I am hoping that the same will hold true for the retail end.”

Her new space is approximately 1,200 sq. ft., divided between the shop and studio. “My vision was to set it up less like a standard retail experience, instead to create a feeling of walking and shopping through a home,” she said. “I chose not to build in retail displays; I am using the furniture to display merchandise so that basically everything you see in the store can be bought and taken home.” 

While no business would choose to open during a pandemic, these businesses show a resilience that bodes well for their future success.