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Fire puts Pickle Barrel out, for now

By Zach Brendza
On March 30, 2011

  • After Pittsburgh firefighter extinguished the March 22 fire, local residents visited the scene. Tony Pimpinella
  • The Pickle Barrel, in its current state, is boarded up and currently closed for business. Tony Pimpinella

Boarded-up windows, remnants of ash and unsatisfied customers are all that remain of a Pittsburgh institution, for now.

The Pickle Barrel restaurant, located at 13th and East Carson streets in the South Side, caught on fire March 22, in a three-alarm fire that spread smoke across the neighborhood and rekindled the next morning. The cause is believed to be electrical, according to owner Scott Davis, although the fire department has officially determined the reason.

The restaurant, which originally opened in 1966, suffered estimated damages of $180,000 to equipment alone, and $300,000-400,000 to the building, which according to Davis, will be covered by his landlord's insurance.

The damage to The Pickle Barrel itself will not be covered by insurance, as The Pickle Barrel was dropped from its insurance provider 6 or 7 months ago due to age of the building and its not being up to code, said Davis, who has owned The Pickle Barrel for the past nine years.

Jonathan Nupp, a 45-year-old hairdresser and former South Side resident now living in Lawrenceville, stared up at the boarded storefront Friday shaking his head. He ate there a few weeks before the fire.

"Of all places to close … They have been here forever," Nupp said.

Nupp lived on the South Side for 15 years, and would often order breakfast during the morning hours from the Pickle Barrel and "they would run breakfast out to me" at his home on 14th and Sarah Streets — despite the fact that the restaurant does not officially deliver.

However, Davis won't close for good. Jim Garvey, Davis's landlord will "gut" and "renovate" the Pickle Barrel. The goal is to reopen in a year.

"Once the insides and front is done, I can be in there in three months," Davis said. "A lot of rewiring to do, renovation work. Just a ton of work to do."

Greg Marcinko, 28, also a South Side resident, said he ate at the Pickle Barrel weekly or at least every other weekend.

"We had gotten to know everyone from eating there so much," said Marcinko, whose normal order was a Rise n' Shine sandwich on a bagel with a side of mozzarella sticks.

Davis was "personal" with his customers.

"I would cook on the grill and yell your name and ask you if you was having the usual. I knew if your mom was sick, [if] your dad had cancer. I took the time to know my customers. Coming in was like coming into my home," Davis said. "I always wanted to be there that's why I worked seven days a week."

Marcinko said the Pickle Barrel would be open for breakfast and lunch, and then would usually reopen at 10 p.m. for the bar crowd. The hungry, drunken customers would cram into the restaurant, and the workers would often need extra help to keep up with the crowd, so he would lend a helping hand.

"I would jump behind counter and help him [Davis]," Marcinko said.

As soon as he found out about the fire, Marcinko ran to the restaurant.

"[I] couldn't see too much, saw smoke from apartments [above]," Marcinko said, and described the sight of the Pickle Barrel as sad and disheartening.

Davis described seeing his business on fire like going into shock.

"You go into this little coma. You just lost everything; you just sit there and stare at it. Just shell-shocked," Davis said "It's a huge part of my life, it's like losing your own home."

Bill Casey, 64, an accountant and North Side resident, said he ate at the restaurant occasionally for the past 15 years, and usually ordered a chilidog and a Coke.

"[The food was] always good, people always nice," Casey said. "A lot of folks at work grab food and keep on moving," Casey said. "It was easy."

Casey said the fire was unfortunate, and theorized that the building's old age might have made it more prone to fire.  

"It's sad, but it's how a lot of old places go. A lot of them go by flame," he said.

Nupp also thought the age of the building might have played a role in the fire.

"They may have been one of those places that got grandfathered in," he said.

South Side resident Eric Rumfelt, 33, who works as a tattoo artist at East Carson Street's Flying Monkey Tattoo, described the situation as a "total bummer."

Flying Monkey was located next door to the Pickle Barrel for six years, before moving two weeks ago to its new location three doors down, at 1309 E. Carson St. Rumfelt was one of the last customers to eat at the Pickle Barrel the night before it caught fire, ordering a foot-long chili cheese dog and an iced tea.

Although Rumfelt hasn't seen the inside of the restaurant in its current state, he does not feel hopeful for its recovery.

"I guess the Pickle Barrel would be no more," he said.

Rumfelt felt bad for owner Davis, and complimented him as a neighboring businessman.

"I knew Scotty for awhile," Rumfelt said. "[He's a] really good guy, a shame it happened."

Mike "Tex" Flores, 41, owner of Flying Monkey and South Side resident, said the Pickle Barrel provided a good, cheap lunch for South Side residents.

Flores expressed interest for "wanting to do a benefit" for Davis and the restaurant, but didn't have definitive plans.

"After Scotty knows someone for a little bit, he'd kick you something extra," Rumfelt said of Davis's generosity.

Davis would sometimes "hand-over" fries, mozzarella sticks or pierogies for free to Marcinko and his friends. Davis also let Marcinko and his friends use the restaurant while it was closed, once for Marcinko's birthday party, where Davis prepared food for them.

In the mean-time, Davis has partnered up with Hot Metal Diner owner Wendy Betten, and will run that restaurant three to four times a week during its normal 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. business hours. Davis will also open up for the late crowd from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday at the West Mifflin restaurant on 1025 Lebanon Rd.

"She's giving me an opportunity to make some money, and sell my Pickle Barrel products," Davis said. "She's trying to help me stay afloat"

If all goes according to plan, Davis will re-open the Pickle Barrel at its old home on 13th and East

Carson streets.

"Me and Wendy are gonna try to refab it once we get the go ahead, and make it the Pickle Barrel in South Side once again," Davis said.

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