When she opened Square Cafe 20 years ago, Sherree Goldstein admits she didn’t know anything about running a restaurant.
“Some friends and I thought it would be cool to open up a cafe where your friends could hang out, we’d have great music, great coffee, great desserts,” she says.
The idea stuck with her for several years, until Goldstein found the space in Regent Square that would become Square Cafe’s first home. She hired a chef who taught her how to cook in a restaurant — very different from cooking at home — and Goldstein says the cafe took shape quickly.
“When we opened we had eight employees, and by week two we had 21 employees, so we tripled our expectations and our financial plans and our projections,” she says. “It was just amazing; the neighborhood loved us up, and it was fun.”
That was in 2003. Now, Square Cafe is preparing to celebrate its 20th anniversary — practically an eon in restaurant years — with prizes for patrons through the end of the month, and a party on Saturday, May 20, at its new home in East Liberty.
Goldstein eagerly shares how Square Cafe has not only survived but thrived over the past two decades, a few things she learned during the height of the pandemic, and her perspective on running a small business as a part of its community.
“The egg flipping and the french fry making brings our income in, but that’s not what our world is focused on — we’re really about support and health,” she says. “And we have a ‘what we do for one, we do for everybody’ kind of mentality,” which applies not only to customers but to her staff as well, she adds.
“One of my biggest soapboxes is about creating fair wages — we have had a huge disparity with the front of the house and the back of the house for years in the restaurant industry and I’m trying to close that gap.”
Goldstein says she’s provided paid time off and benefits for Square Cafe employees for years and was able to do so without making compromises elsewhere in the business.
Keeping things simple, like having only one location, and only being open for breakfast and lunch, has helped.
Customers keep coming back for the signature Square Breakfast (two eggs with choice of breakfast protein; choice of home fries and toast OR one buttermilk pancake) and breakfast burritos, which have never left the menu the entire time they’ve been open, Goldstein notes.
“I’ve learned this over the years: focus on what you’re really good at and try not to do everything,” she says. “So breakfast and lunch is our thing; people would love us to be open for dinner, but we’re really good at breakfast and lunch.”
Square Cafe does a fair amount of catering in the evenings and makes its space available for events, but Goldstein has enjoyed having her evenings free, she says, since it’s allowed her to balance the demands of running a restaurant with having a life outside of work.
“Work is not the end-all-be-all, right? This is just a means to other things in our lives,” Goldstein says. “I’ve gotten the chance to be at home with my son, raising him, because I was done with work at 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I didn’t work at night.”
The road to the 20-year mark hasn’t been without bumps, however; in September 2020, Square Cafe relocated from Regent Square to East Liberty after disagreements with Edgewood Borough over the cafe’s outdoor seating.
“We were there for almost 18 years and all of a sudden it became a big issue,” Goldstein says. “We just weren’t feeling welcome, or comfortable there anymore.”
She adds that the constraints of the smaller space in Regent Square and the unexpected demands of the pandemic helped convince her to make the move to East Liberty. But Square Cafe’s current space is four times larger than its old one, and Goldstein says they had to add staff, going to close to 50 people on staff.
“We’ve taken on a lot more, and we still have a lot I want to move forward with,” Goldstein says. That includes some renovations to the kitchen. “We’re going to move to all induction cooking, move away from gas.” She notes that it will be an expensive upgrade but worth it for the impact on the environment and the health of her employees. And will mean not having to cool a roasting hot kitchen with constantly running air conditioning units.
“I have people that have been with me for years; I want them to be happy and healthy and enjoy coming to work,” she says.
On tables at Square Cafe, little signs encourage donations to Pittsburgh Action Against Rape and The Midwife Center; Goldstein says being a good community member is as important to her as being a business owner. Since its inception, Square Cafe has donated nearly $3 million to charities and its team has put in more than 100,000 hours volunteering. Goldstein received a City of Pittsburgh proclamation in 2018 for her charitable work.
“Whatever our customers are involved with, we want to be involved with,” she says. The groups she and the cafe have worked with include the Jewish Community Center and POWER (PA Organization for Women in Early Recovery) — a women’s halfway house located in Swissvale not far from Square Cafe’s first home.
“I’ve been on the board a long time, and I’m also sober; I got sober in 1989 and was volunteering and involved in that community. Since they were our neighbors, we got really involved; it was a good fit,” she says. “It’s a tragic disease, addiction, and the death rates are unfortunately continuing to rise. So anything we can do that offsets that is a bonus.”
For the party on May 20 — a portion of the proceeds will benefit POWER — the cafe will be open during its regular business hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., with festivities getting underway around 9 a.m. DJ Cake will provide music, diners will be able to take photos in a photo booth, and Mike the Balloon Guy will be on hand to provide balloon art.
Throughout the rest of May, stickers featuring a Baron Batch custom unicorn design will be hidden around the cafe, and patrons who find them will be eligible for prizes ranging from gift cards and Square Cafe merch to meals on the house.
As for the next phase for Square Cafe, Goldstein is planning more of the same that got the restaurant to its 20-year mark.
“We just want to keep making high-quality food; we pride ourselves on our high-quality workers and we have great customers,” she says. “They’re looking for quality and for comfort, and whatever this vibe is we’ve created? It’s really good.”