PITTSBURGH (AP) - The saxophone guy, the one that plays theme songs from 1970s TV shows for loose change as fans squeeze past on the Roberto Clemente Bridge on their way to and from PNC Park, is gone. The line to take selfies next to Willie Stargell’s statue outside the left-field entrance to the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates is, too.
Other than the lights and the occasional - very occasional - fireworks display following a Pirates victory, the streets around one of Major League Baseball’s crown jewels are desolate.
This isn’t what Mike Sukitch envisioned when he returned to the North Side neighborhood he grew up in following three-plus decades in the corporate world.
As retirement loomed, Sukitch felt an urge to get back to his family’s roots. Three previous generations of Sukitches worked in the bar/restaurant business, one of the reasons he opened Mike’s Beer Tavern on Federal Street - typically the heart of pre- and postgame activities at the park - in 2018.
The success of the watering hole where patrons can choose from 500 beers led Sukitch to purchase the spot next door in January and christen it the North Shore Tavern. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He bought low and devised a plan that would allow him to turn a modest profit regardless of interest in the home team. The math made sense.
“Whether the Pirates draw 4,000 or 40,000,” Sukitch said, “I just need 150 in my place and I’m doing well.”
Then the coronavirus hit in mid-March, just three weeks away from opening day. The crush of traffic Sukitch expected never materialized. Turns out, the math never accounted for how to run a restaurant during a pandemic. Rather than panic, he pushed forward. The three-month shutdown gave him a chance to renovate the space and turn it heavily Pirates-centric.
“It’s made Year 1 a challenge for me personally, but over the long term it will be a blessing in disguise,” Sukitch said. “I had to do a complete renovation of what was a tired restaurant. Wouldn’t have been able to do that if there was baseball.”
He restructured his staff in an effort to avoid cutting people during the leanest of seasons.
“In essence I went and took my half-timers and gave them all hours as we were going through (the shutdown),” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to pay you a salary instead of a wage, but you’re going to work your butt off in the summer because I don’t want to lay off people in September.”
Things have gone a little better than expected. The outdoor dining option has allowed the North Shore Tavern to operate at 50% capacity. The new decor and an updated menu have drawn in new customers, and the die-hards occasionally trickle in during Pirates home games.
Yet Sukitch is well aware there’s another factor at play. His two adjoining spots are the only ones currently open on the Federal Street side of the ballpark.
“Those (people) that are here, have me as their oasis in the desert,” he said. “I won’t lie. If we were all open trying to grab that small piece of the pie, it would be very difficult.”
It’s a fight Rico Lunardi considered waging. The owner of Slice on Broadway opened his franchise’s fourth store underneath the left-field bleachers in 2016. His lease technically expired last year, but the team granted him an extension as they negotiated terms for a new deal.
When the shutdown began, Lunardi attempted to stay open. The shop had a street-front entrance on Federal Street. But the double whammy of no baseball combined with the decision by many offices in the immediate vicinity to allow employees to work remotely meant the lunchtime crowd dipped, too.
By the middle of June, with no fans allowed inside PNC Park for the truncated 2020 regular season, attendance for events at nearby Heinz Field uncertain and government’s restrictions on capacity in indoor spaces - be they restaurants or office buildings - in place indefinitely, Lunardi finally gave up. He found landing spots for 13 of the 15 full-time employees at the ballpark location and wouldn’t rule out a potential return one day.
“If this didn’t happen, I would have signed a lease for another 10 years,” he said. “It was fun. It was exciting to say we’re a part of it. We did grow a nice business there. When you lose two revenue sources, it’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet.”
The Pirates are attempting to give the ones that have stuck it out a boost. They launched the “Family Forever” campaign in late July, working with the North Side Chamber of Commerce and the African American Chamber of Commerce of Western PA to select six small businesses to highlight during separate nine-day windows during the regular season.
The package includes free 30-second commercials for each business paid for and produced by the club, on-air “drop-ins” on the businesses during telecasts and signage promoting the business inside the park. The list includes everything from the North Shore Tavern to Wagsburgh (a pet supply store) to the New Courier Times, a newspaper dedicated to serving the Black community.
Sukitch was able to throw out the first pitch during the season-opening homestand. And his phone blew up when a digital sign for his restaurant happened to be visible on the right-field wall during a highlight of an opposing team’s home run was featured prominently on “SportsCenter.”
Every little bit helps, particularly while attempting to start a business in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. Yet for all his optimism, Sukitch is also a realist. He probably can make it through 2020. After that, who knows?
“If we have to go through this a second year and there’s no sports, it’ll be a disaster,” he said. “There are a lot of people who will just have to give up and run.”
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