It’s only been a month since St. Clair Social opened its doors, but the Friendship bar has a steady stream of regulars who pop in for a socially-distanced beer, a bite and a sense of normalcy.
It’s why the owners, Cecil Usher and Cat Cannon, decided to open in the middle of the pandemic. Longtime veterans of the service industry, the duo wants what’s best for their fellow workers and for Friendship, a historically residential area with no walkable business district.
Located at 302 South St. Clair Street in the old Sharp Edge Beer Emporium space, the bar is a spacious. classic neighborhood spot with upscale food and beverage offerings. Patrons can enjoy 50-cent wings and a Miller High Life on Mondays (wing night) or order a grilled portabella sandwich and a martini.
“There’s something for everyone,” says Usher, who, along with Cannon, came up with the St. Clair Social concept.
Chef Will Randall, who’s helmed kitchens at The Abbey on Butler Street and Meat & Potatoes, is churning out gourmet comfort food, from smoked gouda macaroni and cheese and short rib poutine to lamb burgers, triple-decker pimento grilled cheese sandwiches and tacos. The menu will evolve based on the availability of seasonal produce and other ingredients.
The meals complement the booze offerings, which include a curated selection of local craft beer, wine and signature drinks.
The bar just opened for dine-in service last week, while food, six-packs, growlers and to-go cocktails have been available for takeout and delivery during the last month.
The gastropub is large, with plenty of socially distanced tables and high-backed booths, plus a separate room with a pool table.
Before the pandemic hit, the duo was busy organizing nightlife events and designing bar programs and restaurant menus through their consulting firm, Mindful Hospitality Group. They were also mixing cocktails at East Liberty’s Commerce Bar — one of their ongoing projects currently on hiatus — when Gov. Wolf ordered businesses to close.
Instead of panicking, they planned.
They knew their fellow workers would be greatly impacted so they got to work connecting laid-off bartenders, cooks and waitstaff with open positions and providing information on financial aid.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, we have to figure this out.’ We spent the first two weeks gathering resources for the community,” Cannon says. They continue to lobby for change.
Cannon and Usher represent Pennsylvania in The Hospitality Industry Reimagined Security Trust, or T.H.I.R.S.T., an initiative dedicated to the survival of the bar and restaurant industry through commonsense reforms.
Many independent bar and restaurant owners have been paying for Business Interruption Insurance as part of their policies and insurance companies are denying their claims due to the pandemic. There is currently a bill circulating in Harrisburg that, if passed, will help hold these insurance companies accountable.
Business owners continue to reach out to Mindful Hospitality Group for advice on navigating the constantly changing rules and regulations.
Members of the industry are used to rolling with the punches, whether it’s dealing with social distancing mandates or dealing with an unexpected equipment malfunction in the kitchen.
“Restaurant owners have been really resilient through this whole thing,” Cannon says. “They had to adapt and get creative with their business models. From our standpoint, it’s been inspiring to watch the businesses and people we love take a bad situation and make the most of it.”