Pittsburgh restaurants defy odds by opening during pandemic | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh restaurants defy odds by opening during pandemic

click to enlarge Empanadas at Mi Empanada in Lawrenceville - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Empanadas at Mi Empanada in Lawrenceville
On Fri., March 13, pop-up shop Mi Empanada opened its brick-and-mortar location in Lawrenceville. The following Tuesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all restaurants to close their dining rooms.

“It’s a disaster,” says Ivan Gil-Silva, co-owner of the Argentinian eatery. “I’m opening in the middle of chaos.”

Mi Empanada started as a low-key, friend-to-friend business. But, eventually, “the empanadas just took over.” The pop-up and catering-only business became a full-time job, and in 2017, Gil-Silva and his girlfriend Rachel Jenkins turned the business official. Two years later, in July of 2019, they locked in a Lawrenceville storefront and announced a permanent grab-n-go spot to be coming soon.


“Opening up has been hell in the city of Pittsburgh,” says Gil-Silva. “We barely scraped by to open up.”

“We started in a crisis,” he says. “Every day, it’s been like, ‘Are we going to be shut down tomorrow? Is anyone going to come tomorrow? Is everyone going to be healthy tomorrow?’ We take it day-by-day.”

click to enlarge Galen Moorer, Jr., owner of Happy Day Dessert Factory, puts together an ice cream order for a customer in the North Side on Sun., March 22. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Galen Moorer, Jr., owner of Happy Day Dessert Factory, puts together an ice cream order for a customer in the North Side on Sun., March 22.
On the North Side, Galen Moorer Jr. has been waiting two years to open his ice cream shop, Happy Day Dessert Factory. (His father is the former owner of a Rita’s Italian Ice location on the North Side.) The shop’s soft opening was scheduled for March 16 with a grand opening to follow soon after.

“I am just happy to say that we are open,” said 20-year-old Moorer Jr. After Gov. Wolf placed restrictions on restaurants and bars last week, Moorer Jr. pushed the grand opening date back.


Jason Taylor, owner of popular food truck Pita My Shawarma, has found himself in a similar situation.

In late February, the truck owner announced plans to open a fixed location for his Mediterranean mobile eatery in Lawrenceville. Soon after, Taylor moved all operations to the Butler Street location (formerly Pastisio), using the space as a prep kitchen until his restaurant was ready to open in late spring and early summer.

click to enlarge Pita My Shawarma - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Pita My Shawarma
“It’s a catch-22,” Taylor explains. “It's been a struggle getting a hold of city offices to see how to still pursue the next steps since now most [businesses] are closed and only some working from home. At the same time, it's not in my control, so I'm accepting what the situation is and being thankful for the support I already have.”

Compared to other food businesses in the city, Mi Empanada and Pita My Shawarma are lucky. Both have been around long enough to rely on strong fan bases, people willing to travel long distances and brave bad weather to eat their food. Gil-Silva says service, even in the middle of a pandemic, has been steady. Not great, but steady.

Taylor, regardless of whether Pita My Shawarma’s new location is ready to open, can serve food from his already-operational food truck. The move has even proved to be somewhat serendipitous; now, though events are canceled, he has a place to park and sell with a prep kitchen attached.


Gil-Silva and Jenkins are used to operating with unknowns. Operating as a pop-up for two years has taught them how to run a restaurant under any conditions. “We play by different rules,” says Gil-Silva. “Mi Empanada works well in chaos.”

The duo is planning for the best and the worst, stocking non-perishable goods in their store in case Italian imports become scarce. Sourcing has been Gil-Silva’s biggest issue — meat has been practically jumping off shelves — and the restaurant still isn’t stocked with everything they need. Gil-Silva calls this state “warfare.” He doesn’t know, one day to the next, if he’ll be able to find bread, produce, or cheese.
click to enlarge Mi Empanada - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Mi Empanada
But as a takeout eatery without a dining room, they’ve been fortunate enough to hire five employees, all who have been laid off by other restaurants.

“We’re swimming, and we’re swimming strong,” says Gil-Silva. “You get frustrated, you have a bad day, and you think, ‘Hey man, I’m moving forward. Did I pass the finish line? No, but we’re taking it one day at a time.’”

The opening of Happy Day Dessert Factory is different: Moorer Jr. isn’t backed by a sea of supporters or come with years of experience. He’s launched a completely new eatery – and his first solo business — in the middle of a pandemic. And despite these circumstances, the young entrepreneur says the future of Happy Day is looking “extremely bright.”

click to enlarge Galen Moorer, Jr., owner of Happy Day Dessert Factory, hands off ice cream cones to a customer. - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Galen Moorer, Jr., owner of Happy Day Dessert Factory, hands off ice cream cones to a customer.
All of his products are made on-site daily. As long as he can source ingredients, Happy Day can remain open. Moorer Jr. is currently working on pint production and making his treats available through a variety of delivery apps.

“We have had customers come in and tell us that they couldn’t wait for us to open,” he said. “We are doing extremely well. There hasn’t been a slow period down here yet.”

Unless ordered to by the government, none of the three eateries plan to close, they’ll just keep adapting. As Gil-Silva plainly puts it, “People need to eat.”

Taylor, in addition to his truck takeout, is working to add delivery through third-party apps. Gil-Silva and Jenkins have added curbside takeout to their menu. Moorer Jr. hopes to open his dining room the second restrictions are lifted and in the meantime, is continuing to offer discounts through social media so Pittsburghers can “quarantine and chill” with his treats.

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