Low-Tech Superstars

These local entrepreneurs are getting their start-ups in the black the old-fashioned way: with their bare hands.

Pittsburgh is home to plenty of startup companies that are building iPhone apps and programming robots to solve our problems. But this is still a great place for a regular ol’ small businesses, too. Even with those two dreaded words—“this economy”—hanging overhead, creative Pittsburghers are making things happen without the help of computer algorithms.

Take Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski, co-creators of Conflict Kitchen in East Liberty. They had already made waves with their innovative breakfast spot/TV studio The Waffle Shop, but found themselves with an unused take-out window. So they created a to-go business that only sells food from nations that the U.S. is in conflict with. First it was Iranian grub at Kubideh Kitchen, now it’s Afghani meals at Bolani Pazi, and next it’ll be North Korea or Venezuela.

In Dormont, Jamie Grassman turned a mostly forgotten bargain book shop into Beyond Bedtime Books, a neighborhood bookstore that sells treasures you can’t find in Barnes & Noble, like Grassman’s specialty—vintage children’s books dating back nearly a century.

The multi-talented Angie Fec launched her own original clothing line, Sew Addicted. The ladies-only (for now) line is a staple of ‘Burgh fashion shows and local celebs, and Angie makes every garment by hand, completely customized for the wearer, from a studio in her house in Etna.

And in a little shop in Edgewood, Rosemary Steiner and Suzann Miriello are working on creating Verde Art Space, set for an April opening. The two lifelong friends, both artists, wanted a neighborhood spot to showcase their own work (Rosemary is a painter, Suzann a painter, jewelry maker and glass artist) and those of neighbors, friends, and interested artists.

PM quizzed the entrepreneurs on the challenges, resources, and goals of their businesses:

Biggest Challenge So Far

Sew Addicted: Making clothes more suitable for wearing on “a normal day” while still “portraying my style.”
Verde Art Space: “How to bring people in.” They’re off the beaten path in Edgewood, so foot traffic is light.
Conflict Kitchen: Turning a profit. “We haven’t fully figured out the business model yet.”
Beyond Bedtime Books: Renovating without breaking the bank. “I did it with just my parents and I, 10 hours a day.”

Amount of Start-Up Capital on Day One

Sew Addicted: None.
Verde Art Space: $10,000, which went into renovating and preparing the building.
Conflict Kitchen: $4,000 grant from The Sprout Fund.
Beyond Bedtime Books: Under $25,000.

Additional Funding

Sew Addicted: None at all. “It’s been 100 percent me. I don’t want to be owned.”
Verde Art Space: A year of rent forgiveness from the owners of the building.
Conflict Kitchen: Support from Carnegie Mellon University, a campaign on Kickstarter.com, help from East Liberty Development, RK Mellon, and a rent reduction from We Do Property.
Beyond Bedtime Books: None.

Short-Term Goals

Sew Addicted: Planning to open a storefront by the end of 2011.
Verde Art Space: Starting art and jewelry making classes. “It would be nice for people to get an idea of what work goes into the pieces we have.”
Conflict Kitchen: Opening Kitchens in other cities. “The national and international attention we’ve received has been really remarkable.”
Beyond Bedtime Books: Helping out those who can’t make it in to the store. “I’m going to try a delivery service for older people in the community. We need to get the books to them.”

Categories: Community Feature, From the Magazine