Apteka owners Tomasz Skowronski and Kate Lasky. Photo by Christine Armbruster courtesy of Apteka.

Over the past seven years, Kate Lasky and Tomasz Skowronski, chefs at Apteka, have grown what began as pierogi pop-up nights into one of Pittsburgh’s best-loved and most honored vegan restaurants. Now, they’re James Beard Award finalists for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.

“We’re thrilled, of course,” Lasky says. “We have an absolutely amazing group of people right now who are a part of this and are committed to doing a great job every day and keeping this a happy and healthy environment where we’re all really supportive of each other.

“So when something like this happens, it’s amazing. It’s a little unfortunate that it’s just our names, but it really feels special to get to represent Pittsburgh, which is the city that we both grew up in.”

Apteka opened on the Bloomfield-Lawrencville border in 2016, with a custom bar that the pair built themselves. With a plant-based menu that features Eastern European-inspired dishes (including pierogies, of course), the duo has stuck with what works for them — and outlasted a lot of other vegan restaurants.

I asked Lasky about the challenges of keeping a restaurant — especially a vegan one — running in the Steel City, what more Pittsburgh could do to support local restaurants, and what takeaways the Apteka crew has from the adjustments they made during the pandemic lockdown.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: Over the past year or so, some of Pittsburgh’s more popular vegan restaurants have closed; B52 in Lawrenceville ended operations in 2022 and Onion Maiden in Allentown just closed at the end of March. Is there something about Pittsburgh or about vegan restaurants that isn’t quite clicking here? Do you think it’s harder to run a vegan restaurant in Pittsburgh than maybe in another city?

A: I think what’s really hard is running a small business. You run into things like who’s going to cover a shift if there’s a call-off; for us it’s usually me or Tomasz covering, and those things really add up, just physically and emotionally when you’re working crazy hours.

Pittsburgh has been incredibly supportive of us and all of our friends who have these vegan spots. I think people really show up for them and are, I think, willing to cast aside their doubts and try out something new. That’s not something that happens in every city.

It’s actually kind of special here that all of us [vegan restaurants] have been really successful and also really busy. Onion Maiden had so many people who were diehards for them, and that wasn’t just people who are vegan.

Kolin Smith reaches for a bottle of Stávek Divý Ryšák. Apteka focuses its wine program on organic wines with minimal intervention, with many from Central and Eastern Europe. Photo by Christine Armbruster courtesy of Apteka.

The real challenge is when you’re six years in and you’re still working 14-hour days. How much longer can you actually maintain that lifestyle? Some places have that figured out, where they have different models, but most of us are working those 14-hour days, and that’s so much of a drain. That was part of the reason we went to three days a week during the pandemic.

The first year we were open, Tomasz and I had four days off the entire year, which is insane. But I was 27, and was like OK this isn’t such a huge deal. But these are 90-hour workweeks for years, and so many holidays missed, and at some point it just really wears on you.

I think a lot of people are just faced with that crossroads of well “I’m trying to move on to the next stage of my life. How do I actually find that balance?” I’ve been looking for it for so long, and there’s not a great answer for that question.

Kate Lasky & Tomasz Skowronski
Lasky and Skowronski when they first opened Apteka in 2016. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Q: What more do you think could be done to support local restaurants?

A: I think one challenge for Pittsburgh is that we used to have a number of culinary schools, and now I think there are two; the Bidwell one and the other one is, I think a program through CCAC. I did an event in Columbus recently, and they just have this amazing culinary school with really awesome equipment and it seems like it’s trying to create a career path for people who are interested in culinary and that’s such a huge asset for a city with like a booming restaurant scene.

Apteka’s dining room. Photo by Christine Armbruster courtesy of Apteka.

Another challenge is just trying to figure out how do you actually make this industry something that somebody can do as a career. It really beats people up, and to have something that’s more sustainable is an uphill battle, especially when a lot of times that comes with higher costs at your restaurant.

We’re kind of a funny model just because we basically try to charge as little as possible and we just make up for it in volume. So we’re packed all the time, but that’s what works for us. We were able to take on [providing] health insurance and our employees work 40-hour weeks, things that should be givens in this industry but they’re usually not. But we’re small and we can’t do everything — it took years for us to be able to take on health insurance because it’s such a huge cost.

The ecosystem is a challenging one. I think for a lot of people the answer is “Well, people have to be more accepting of a higher price tag for dinner.” But that also feels really exclusive. So I think for us, we’ve tried to strike a balance with that. But it’s really a challenge.

Pirozhok z Brukwia at Apteka. Photo by Jennifer Baron.

Q: What are the things that Apteka did during the pandemic, and immediately after when things started to open back up, when you said, “Hey, this actually worked” or maybe “We could try doing that differently?”

A: A big thing for us was changing hours, going from five days to three days. Since we struck this balance when we reopened for dining, and not doing late nights, now we have to find a new equilibrium of how to do a little bit more on the days we are open.

We did our last — hopefully — renovation right before we reopened for dining. There’s always that tug-of-war between projects that we had to get to, so we were able to check things off that list during the slowdown period. But the change in hours — I think for a lot of people — has meant we’re able to be a lot more focused. We can change the menu a lot more without it being a stress or a burden last-minute; we’re able to spend a lot more time sourcing better.

We still have a stockpile of projects, and it’s always hard to find time but now it’s not like “OK I’m just going to stay up until 4 a.m. to get everything done.”

Kim LyonsRestaurant Editor

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor always on the lookout for a great story. Her experience includes writing about business, politics, and local news, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh.