Quiet Storm, a local mainstay, unplugs music | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Quiet Storm, a local mainstay, unplugs music

For five years, the evening ritual at Friendship restaurant The Quiet Storm has been predictable as clockwork. Patrons are immersed in conversation or the comforting glow of a laptop, enjoying vegetarian meals. Then a van pulls up. Road-weary band members load in equipment and sit down to eat. Around 9 p.m., the homebodies file out and hipsters stride in, the beer bottles clink, and the milkshake machine's jarring whir occasionally eclipses a folksinger's passionate delivery.

But no more will the Cubano sandwich and the gyro burrito live in harmony with rock 'n' roll. Earlier this month, The Quiet Storm's Web site announced that music performances would cease at the end of the year. The reason? Renovations to three apartments attached to the rear of the venue.

This end was inevitable, set in motion at the very beginning -- when Friendship Development Associates purchased the property six years ago. "The previous owner approached us because he had been on the nuisance-bar list and wanted to get out," recalls the FDA's current executive director, Jeffrey Dorsey. Then-director Becky Mingo "was thinking it could be offices," he says. "The idea was to develop those three burned-out apartments in the back, which fit our mission of renovating the kind of places other people wouldn't touch."

In walked Ian Lipsky with a vision of opening a community coffee shop, which became The Quiet Storm. And because several other local music venues had closed down, Lipsky offered friends a place to perform. "Just to be honest to my predecessor, the day we heard Ian was going to start music, we knew it was good, but it wasn't going to be permanent," Dorsey explains.

Enter budding caterer Jill MacDowell, who in 2002 shifted The Quiet Storm's emphasis to restaurant service. As Lipsky's interest waned, MacDowell's waxed, and in 2005 she bought the business from him outright. "I created a menu, hired staff and equipped the kitchen," MacDowell says. "And since I took over, we've expanded to have breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, and we have more seating."

A longtime music fan (and former editor of the now-defunct In Pittsburgh), MacDowell renewed Lipsky's commitment to evening performances, but soon cut back the schedule to mostly weekend events. "There was a stylistic shift when I took over the booking, because I had my own taste. Many weeknight shows had poor turnouts," she explains. The Storm's reputation flourished as indie icons like Ian MacKaye and Ted Leo packed it. The venue hosted theater and comedy, hip hop and bellydancing, banjos and punk rock.

All this music proved a loss leader. "There was no legitimate reason business-wise to continue with music," says MacDowell. "Audiences weren't buying anything, so we'd be open with no sales from 10 p.m. on, except for the corkage fee," she says. "We also had a heavy insurance premium because of having a stage and a dance floor, so there's another two thousand dollars a year strictly going towards covering the music. I didn't so much care about making money, though. I just wanted people to be at the shows for the sake of the bands."

Then, the long-overdue renovation of the back apartments finally went into overdrive. For MacDowell, the "For Rent" signs were the writing on the wall. "When they were renovating, the hammer sounded as if it was right next to me, so it stood to reason that in those apartments, if there was a rock band playing, it was going to be real loud," says MacDowell. "I brought the whole thing up, because I didn't want them to come to me suddenly and say, 'You have to stop the music.'

"I realized that they were renting for quite a bit of money," she says of the apartments. She cites $650,000 in upgrades by the FDA, including central air and hardwood floors. "They're not going to college students who'd be cool with the music. I didn't feel [the FDA] were going to say to me, 'You were here first, let's just keep doing it.'"

MacDowell's plans for the rear of The Quiet Storm include a lounge area, as she continues to focus on the restaurant's growth. Last week, MacDowell and her landlords negotiated a new five-year lease. "We see them as a neighborhood-serving business, and we're trying to give her the best deal we can," Dorsey assures.

It's ironic that, just after celebrating the Storm's half-decade anniversary with four days of music in which every band included current or former QS employees, they'll be terminating the tuneage with one final bash on Dec. 30. But MacDowell sees the big picture. "I don't think it's going to hurt us to not have music. Now there are a lot more East End venues, whereas when Ian started, there weren't. It's a hard thing to shut the door on, but it's reality, and I'm OK with it."

Visit www.quietstormcoffee.com for a full schedule of the venue's final shows.

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