Mixtape shut down in 2020, seemingly a victim of the early, panicked days of COVID-19. Since then, the space under the giant cassette tape sign has sat empty.
Now, under new ownership, Mixtape will continue with its signature sign and name intact.
Today, Mixtape officially returns in full after a month of ticketed soft opening events. Under the ownership of operations manager Grace Emmerling and her partner, local DJ Jeff VanFossan, the space will be open from Wednesday through Sunday with a regular schedule of weekend dance parties and weekday “chill nights,” according to an announcement on Instagram.
The space also features a full bar, a generous selection of board games, and a pinball machine.
Emmerling tells Pittsburgh City Paper that the idea to reopen Mixtape first came up in 2021 during one of the First Friday Unblurred gallery crawls on Penn Avenue, where Mixtape is located. At the time, she had already bought and was in the process of converting another Garfield property, the former Most Wanted Fine Art gallery, and hesitated to embark on another project.
Still, she recalls looking at the vacant space and thinking the avenue was “just thirsty” for a place like Mixtape. Out of curiosity, she called one of the previous owners, Katie Molchan, who opened the business with her then-partner Elaina Holko.
“I remember calling Katie and saying, maybe, hypothetically, if perhaps we thought about potentially buying it, what might that look like? And it just kind of took off from there,” says Emmerling, who, along with VanFossan, had previously owned and run a record store/music venue/coffee shop in downtown State College, Pa.
She says Molchan and Holko agreed to sell the entity Mixtape LLC to her and VanFossan, meaning they could keep the identity of the once-popular spot along Penn Avenue’s arts and business district. They also acquired other aspects of the entity, including the cocktail recipes.
Emmerling says they changed little since acquiring the business, adding that the previous owners kept it in “impeccable” shape.
Throughout January, the new Mixtape has welcomed crowds for events ranging from Babeways, an inclusive, all-femme DJ dance party and fundraiser for the abortion nonprofit, Western PA Fund for Choice, to a ball celebrating the late David Bowie’s birthday. The focus makes sense given that VanFossan has, for years, run the popular local dance party, Strangways.
Emmerling says they turned to family members and out-of-state investors – who she calls “minority shareholders" – to help them buy the property. However, Emmerling stresses that she and VanFossan are in total control of the operations.
“I just felt so thankful that we went this way to finance it because it's offered so much freedom for us to do exactly what we want to do,” she adds. “We have people who trust us and who we trust, who love us and say, go for it.”
“Mixtape was originally my idea, and I always did want it to be a little more DJ, a little more dance night, but we just could never really get those to take off or get people to pay a cover,” says Holko. “But they have so much experience with that, with Jeff’s Strangeways project and everything, that I was like, wow, you guys are the exact people that should have opened this in the first place.”
Holko reflects on some of the decisions she and Molchan made for Mixtape that, at the time, distinguished them from other venues in the city. This included the creation of a full mocktail menu for sober patrons, and doing away with a tipping system for bartenders, who were instead paid a fair wage. Any tips given were instead donated to local organizations like Pittsburgh Action Against Rape.
Looking back, Holko believes they tried to do too much, too fast, including trying to implement a food program. That and some personal issues made the business more vulnerable when the pandemic hit.
“The pandemic, that was a lot to just recover from, being a business that was less than five years old,” says Holko. “We were on that no-tipping model, and we were coming to the realization that was just not sustainable. It took two of us working full-time off payroll for years and years and years, and we just couldn't catch our breath. So, you know, if we were going to reopen, we probably would have had to kind of do a rework anyhow and get out of that model, because we were just drowning in payroll taxes and expenses … We couldn't give the staff what they deserved.”
She believes Emmerling and VanFossan will continue what made Mixtape a destination for many people, including the mocktail menu.
“They've told me, especially knowing now that, you know, I'm sober, ‘Come back, we'll have a mocktail ready for you,’” she laughs. “As far as I know, they seem like they definitely want to keep that.”
Mixtape. 4907 Penn Ave., Garfield. mixtapepgh.com