The bar canopy at the Brick Shop at Tryp Hotel in Lawrenceville, designed by Temper and Grit. Photo by Mackenzie O'Connor.

As Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene booms, it’s creating a host of downstream economic activity for local cooks, farmers and … blacksmiths?

“With the growth and development of the restaurant and bar scene in Pittsburgh, you end up with the growth and development of a number of other industries,” says Nick Volpe, a metalworker and designer at Temper and Grit. “And we’re rising to the occasion.”

Working out of his shop in 7800 Susquehanna Street, Volpe has created fixtures for a number of notable eateries in the last several years, including movable metalworks for Superior Motors and the TRYP Hotel. And he’s far from alone.

Thanks to a robust network of support and a burgeoning arts and crafts sector, makers and restaurateurs across the city are teaming up.

“Restaurants and breweries are natural partners for makers,” says Adam Kenney, director of the craft business accelerator at Bridgeway Capital. “They want interesting fixtures and finishes to make their venues truly unique destinations.”

The custom cooking hearth at Superior Motors. Photo courtesy of Temper and Grit.

For some long-time Pittsburgh artisans, the growing local interest in their work comes as a pleasant surprise.

Potter Francis DeFabo has been contacted by restaurants outside the area for many years. But “in the last two years, it seems to be really taking off in the Pittsburgh area,” says DeFabo, a full-time potter since 2011. “It’s remarkable.”

Riverside Design Group, based in East Pittsburgh, opened in 1996. Mary Irwin-Scott, the company’s president, recalls spending years making their artisanal dishes for clients far outside of Western Pennsylvania.

“It made me laugh years ago when we would make product here and ship it to China or to England,” she says. “While I do believe our product is unique and beautiful, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t somebody in a Hong Kong neighborhood who couldn’t provide a similar product.”

Of course, a handful of local restaurants were ahead of the curve. The big Burrito restaurant group, which includes long-established favorites like Casbah and Mad Mex, has always included work by local artists and makers at their locations. “Since the inception of big Burrito that has been a piece of our mission,” says Bill Fuller, big Burrito’s corporate chef.

Local artist Rich Bach‘s paintings figure prominently in every Mad Max location and Casbah is currently collaborating with Garrett Smith of the claySmith studio on a new line of dishes.

Photo of dishes courtesy of Riverside Design Group.

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, several different crafters and restaurateurs say the shift in Pittsburgh is just one part of a broader change in consumer tastes.

“At this point and time, almost every restaurant is trying to tie some local people to the concept,” says Joey Hilty, co-owner of The Vandal in Lawrenceville. “Not only is it practical, it’s also on-trend to work within your community as much as you can, whether that’s sourcing food from farmers or getting a local creator to make your dining room seating.”

They also say Pittsburgh, in particular, is well-suited to capitalize on the trend.

“It depends on what your resources are in the area,” says Chris Clark, general manager of Superior Motors in Braddock. “It just so happens that Pittsburgh is an extremely rich resource for artists.”

Irwin-Scott credits Bridgeway Capital and their MONMADE exhibitions for creating a network and laying the foundation for a vibrant maker economy.

In her view, the opening of the TRYP Hotel in Lawrenceville was a watershed moment for the Pittsburgh crafter economy. “It’s the first time in my memory of any of the restaurants and hotels that we’ve done where there’s been such a huge commitment to showcasing local work,” she says.

Beyond the joy of depositing paychecks, several makers say creating work for restaurants and bars is an especially valuable way to hone their creative skills.

“The beautiful thing about the restaurant and bar scene is that these are incredibly creative people who are working to manifest their imagination in a similar fashion to a writer, a poet or a designer,” says Volpe. “They have an image in their head, or I guess if they’re chefs they have a taste in their head.”

For Volpe, the projects are much more collaborations than contracts.

“It becomes this sort of dance, and that exercise is what ultimately makes me stronger as a designer,” he says.

Hilty heartily agrees, saying The Vandal prizes close partnerships with its various designers.

“As opposed to shopping it out to some entity that’s not from town, you’re able to have a lot more one-on-one meetings, and really ensure that the products being created are the idealized version for both parties,” he says, adding that guests often inquire about the source of their plates and cutlery.

For artists, Hilty says, “it’s almost like a showroom.”

While bespoke, crafted products will always be more costly than buying wholesale, they can offer businesses more intangible benefits.

At Casbah, they use beautiful plates and bowls like these from claySmith studio.

“It’s much more expensive to purchase that kind of product, but it’s also making a commitment to the neighborhood and the community,” says Irwin-Scott.

At Superiors Motors, some of their hardware is sourced directly from the neighborhood. For presenting wine, they use tiles created at Braddock Tiles, a socially-conscious shop operating out of the local library.

“If you went to Amazon or Restoration Hardware or something like that, you might not get such a unique artistic vision that is also steeped in the Mon Valley and its traditions,” says Clark.

In addition to creative and practical concerns, keeping business local is also a win for the planet. DeFabo, for example, makes sure to source his clay from Standard Ceramic in Carnegie.

A sample of Francis DeFabo’s work. Photo courtesy of FD Pottery.
A sample of Francis DeFabo’s work. Photo courtesy of FD Pottery.

“From an environmental standpoint, it’s sort of cool that we’re using local stuff, and it’s being used in local restaurants,” he says.

Several crafters describe their restaurant work as a kind of virtuous circle, where one project will lead them to a larger network of like-minded entrepreneurs.

“In a city like Pittsburgh, it’s easy to have very few degrees of separation between everybody,” says Hilty.

Still, Bridgeway Capital and other sponsors continue to nudge the community along. Chris Clark notes that it was a MONMADE event several years ago at the Ace Hotel that introduced him to many of his favorite makers, including the team at KerfCase, who designed Superior Motors’ check holders.

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