Pittsburgh's artistic chalk signs can change with business owners' moods
For many of us, our associations with chalk begin and end with nervously scribbled answers on a high-school blackboard — and maybe coughing on chalk dust clapped out of erasers behind the school.
But if you're running a business that relies on communicating information quickly — especially if it changes often, like a special menu or beer list — a piece of chalk can be your best friend.
Signs are expensive and difficult to change. Chalk is pretty cheap. Put a picture of the chalkboard on social media, and the promotion is announced to the world.
“The chalkboards change often and do create a reason to look up, read and learn about what we are offering,” says Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Beer & Grill in North Fayette. “They are temporary and technically free signs. They show creative thinking and fun to the customer ... as well as keeping things interesting to the employees, too. It gives them a creative outlet and a sense of worth, especially when they are successful as sales tools.”
Chalkboards are a way to enliven and personalize a coffee shop, bar or restaurant. Commonplace Coffee in Squirrel Hill, for instance, is well known for its chalk-art mural.
The eye-catching, but complex, drawing, says Commonplace barista Brooke Gwin, is “espresso machine parts that are kind of dissected and taken apart, to see inside them, and the parts that go into them,”
Bartender Sarah Lageham is the resident chalk artist for Bocktown.
“I do mostly pop art and try to incorporate craft beer,” she says. “We have a draft board and, right now, we have the Grinch on it. We do a beer infusion every week. So, I drew Beaker and Professor Honeydew (of ‘The Muppets') for it.”
Dilla adds a photo to the bar's Facebook page “to tell folks that our grass-fed beef is back in stock. It is an old board that doesn't exist anymore, but this shows another effective use of the boards, for sure.”
Valerie McKeehan wrote “The Complete Book of Chalk Lettering” ($19.95, Workman Publishing), which teaches techniques and basic letter forms to aspiring chalk artists. She made a “McKeehan's Cafe” chalkboard for her kitchen out of an old picture frame and fell in love with the idea. She began selling her chalk art on Etsy.com in 2012 and quickly became inundated with orders. She works from her home studio in Shadyside and sells at several local stores, including lilyandval.com.
“I was drawn to that rustic, cozy look,” McKeehan says. “I also think that is what makes it perfect for small businesses, especially food-related businesses. ... I taught myself lettering by studying computer-generated fonts. This helped me learn the basic lettering shapes, and as I became more comfortable with the shapes of letters, I was able to take liberties with them and develop a unique style.
“I'm really drawn to modern calligraphy lettering styles. Modern calligraphy is so flowing and whimsical with minimal rules. My favorite lettering style in the book is the ‘ribbon' style because the chalk gives it a great dimension. I use some takes on modern calligraphy in most of the designs I produce for my company, Lily & Val.”
Rachael Pisarcik, barista at Cup-Ka-Joe's on the South Side, found a nice gig on the side, when her skills as a chalk artist became apparent. She's made chalk signs for Olive or Twist, Downtown; Gluuteny, a gluten-free bakery in Squirrel Hill; and Delanie's Coffee and Cupka's II on the South Side.
Finding the right look is a matter of adjusting your style to each place. Delanie's Coffee, for instance, seemed to require a different style than Cup-Ka-Joe's.
“It's very elegant. I did cursive, a different typography. You get to play around with what you have to work with, depending on the atmosphere,” Pisarcik says. “At Cup-Ka-Joe's, it's more of a relaxed, modern, more like something (fit for) any age group. It's always a different scene. At Delanie's, it's pretty quiet and reserved. Cupa-Ka-Joe's is louder, upbeat — so I use a sans serif type, not serious, playful.”
Sometimes, the chalkboard is the perfect medium for reinventing the entire look of a place.
Ernie Vallozzi used it to update his family's long-established restaurant in Greensburg.
“We redid the whole front dining room in chalkboards, multiple walls,” Vallozzi says. “When we started, it was fairly heavy with original artwork. The main dining room, we were trying to get a slightly younger feel for the room. To me, it's more fun, more casual, more approachable. We kept looking at different things, and I really became interested in what they call ‘restaurant graffiti art.' It's become quite a way to make an interesting impact and give yourself a different look.”
Entire walls in the dining room are covered in chalkboards, with scenes of, say, the pots, pans and hanging meats and cheeses of a rustic Italian kitchen.
“I've always been kind of fascinated with a chalkboard look,” Vallozzi says. “Ours is, for the most part, permanent. We did the chalkboards first, about a two- or three-step process. Built up the wall with a slate like feel to it. We applied it in chalk, and then made it permanent — it was a spray, a sealant-type substance.”
Another not-to-be-overlooked aspect is that it's fun, which has hard-to-measure, but likely positive, effect on business.
“The thing I love about it is that I was given the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do,” says Pisarcik, 21, who's a student at California University of Pennsylvania. “They gave me the creative freedom to do whatever I wanted. I learned how to brand and market the coffee shop . I think the chalkboard is a big part of what the coffee shop is about.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.