Iron Born's white pie

When local chef Pete Tolman set out to build his first sit-down location for Iron Born pizza, he faced a problem familiar to many small-scale restaurateurs: access to capital.

“Even though we had a good track record,” Tolman recalls,“that isn’t always enough for a traditional bank.”

Starting any new business is a daunting task, but entrepreneurs in the hospitality sector (restaurants, bakeries, breweries) have an especially hard time finding initial support in the private sector.

“Businesses in the hospitality space are considered more risky,” says Jennifer Wilhelm, assistant director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (URA). “Oftentimes restaurateurs have more trouble getting start-up capital from traditional lenders.”

And yet despite the riskier economics, Wilhelm says, supporting a vibrant foodie culture has a wide array of benefits for public life.

“A lot of those types of businesses,” she says, “are the reason that individuals want to live in a particular community.”

Now, Tolman’s popular pizza business is set to open its first eat-in restaurant thanks to a $130,500 loan from the URA.

In addition to the loan, the staff hooked Tolman up with additional financing through Honeycomb Credit, a local crowdfunding service specially designed for small business loans.

Located at 1806 Smallman Street, the new eatery is something of a full-circle moment for the locally-grown business.

Speaking to NEXTpittsburgh, Tolman recalls launching his business at a counter within the nearby Smallman Galley restaurant incubator in 2017.

Since then, Iron Born has sold 23,000 pizzas. Along with their successful pop-up that ran until it closed in June, Iron Born also operates a takeout location in Millvale.

Chef Pete Tolman of Iron Born. Photo by Tom O’Connor.
Chef Pete Tolman of Iron Born. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

“We’re lucky enough to find a space that’s three blocks down from where people tried Iron Born the first time,” says Tolman.

By Wilhelm’s estimate, hospitality business represents more than 50 percent of the URA’s direct loans. “We’re filling a real need for financing in the marketplace, but also we recognize that these types of businesses are the foundation of what makes Pittsburgh neighborhoods so great.”

Though Tolman came to the URA with a loyal following and a history of success, Wilhelm stresses that the organization stands ready to assist small entrepreneurs at any stage of development.

“We help small businesses of any size,” says Wilhelm. “We have multiple programs that lend across all levels of business.”

For his new Smallman Street spot, Tolman says he’s collaborating with several of the local makers and artists who helped design his Millvale location.

Metalworker Tyler Dietz is once again building a custom sign and countertop, and local artist Randi Stewart will create another mural for the space.

How soon will hungry diners in the Strip be able to satisfy their craving for Iron Born pizza? While Tolman is wary of stating an exact date for the grand opening, he’s willing to estimate that the restaurant will open sometime in October.

“Everybody who goes into an incubator wants to open a big box restaurant,” says Tolman. “This is my chance to do that.”

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.