The Boom in New Business is Fueling a Comeback in Ambridge
Located along the Ohio River, Ambridge is a community on the rise with two breweries, a cozy coffee shop and lots of history.
On a recent summer Saturday, the 900 block of Merchant Street was teeming with activity.
Fermata Brewing Company was hosting one of its four “Summer Jams.” Outdoors, under tents from the neighborhood’s stalwart hardware store Do It Best, scores of people were enjoying a brew or a sandwich from the Bridge City Brinery food truck parked out front. Customers milled about the inviting coffee shop next door, Merchant Coffee Co., which opened in 2020. The inside of Fermata, which opened in 2022, was bustling with families with dogs or babies and couples playing Guess Who? at a high-top table. Three live bands were on the schedule for later in the day.
It’s a far cry from Merchant Street three years ago, when small mom-and-pop shops on the street struggled and most storefronts were empty.
“The potential is crazy, and we’re starting to see it with the amount of new businesses,” says Chris Bendick, who owns Fermata with three partners and is a member of the Ambridge Chamber of Commerce.
Bendick, who’s from Burgettstown, and co-owner Alan Gore started home-brewing during the coronavirus pandemic and saw the potential in the Fermata space with its concrete floors, high ceilings and parking options. The 100-year-old two-story structure previously housed a car dealership and a duckpin bowling alley but was more recently a storage site. The friends decided to take a chance and open a brewery. Bendick, 30, bought a home nearby a few months after.
“I love it,” he says of the town. “It’s got a good community.”
The four Summer Jams lead up to their main community event, JamBridge, now in its second year. A lengthy stretch of Merchant Street will close to traffic; seven food vendors, live bands and five breweries will fill the space.
“Four to five thousand people came for it [last year], and it was awesome, so we’re doing it again,” Bendick says.
Fermata isn’t the only brewery to pop up in town in recent years — Altered Genius Brewing in the 400 block of Merchant Street opened in 2020 in a space that used to hold a hot dog shop and barber school. Each spring, they hold their own annual festival: SaisonFest, offering samples of the region’s Saisons beers, food and live music.
In between the breweries is Sweetwater Bikes, previously Ambridge Bike Shop. Laura McKee and her husband, Don, in 2016 began renovating it into the sleek space it is today with bikes and gear of all kinds and a repair shop in the back. They plan to add a cafe soon.
Laura notes the borough applied for grants to improve the streetscape with new electricity and the Ambridge Rotary Club has been working to improve the parks.
“I really feel like the neighborhood is so invested in Ambridge to make it something,” she says.
Located just along the Ohio River, Ambridge got its name from the American Bridge Company. Within its borders, Old Economy Village, a National Historic Landmark site founded by the Harmony Society, has a robust schedule of tours and classes in everything from Introduction to Blacksmithing to Parent and Child Rigid Heddle Weaving Class.
Other must-visit spots include The Maple, a community staple since 1963 that serves diner favorites (a sign outside proclaims, “Welcome to hot beef country”) and Pizza House, better known as Police Station Pizza, which serves Ohio Valley-style pizza topped with cold cheese. It opened in the 1950s.
Hardware store Do It Best has been operating for decades; it sells everything from mulch to paint to Steelers paraphernalia, and you might find a food truck parked outside.
A newcomer not to be missed is Iron Horse Community Theater. Since opening in 2016, they’ve developed a robust programming schedule — their 2023 season included five standup comedy shows, five concerts, three plays and a musical.
You may find you enjoy the town so much you’ll want to stay overnight. Head to the Epochary Inn in Ambridge’s historic district; the owners operate the first vegan eatery in town.
Did You Know?
The American Bridge company worked on famous spans such as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, as well as New York City’s Chrysler and Empire State buildings.