Daddy Rabbit's cafe, market proposed at former Natrona funeral home
Once a place of mourning, a former funeral home in Harrison's blighted Natrona neighborhood soon could see signs of life if township commissioners help a Winfield man's dream of opening a market and coffee shop come true.
Chase Slepak's idea hinges on whether the commissioners approve a conditional use request for his plans Sept. 25.
Because the property is zoned "village," Slepak needs a conditional use permit to sell food and drinks there. The designation limits approved uses to things like funeral homes, parks and low-impact home businesses. Retail stores and eating and drinking places require conditional use approval.
"I am really looking forward to the public meeting and having the opportunity to explain the plans," said Slepak, 27. "I do believe the commissioners will approve my conditional use request."
Slepak bought 32-34 River Road, the site of the former Bacha Funeral Home, in April 2016 for $50,000.
That's where he wants to put Daddy Rabbit's Cafe and Market — named after his late grandfather, Raymond Slepak of West Deer.
Slepak said "Daddy Rabbit" was a nickname his grandfather got in the Army.
"I guess at the time (it) was a cool way to say the guy in charge — he's a big shot, he's got it all together," Slepak said. "That was something we thought would be kind of fun."
The property has two downstairs funeral parlors and two upstairs apartments. Slepak also owns an adjacent parking lot.
The cafe and market will be in one of the old parlors; the other will be a meeting space for local nonprofits — who Slepak said can use it for free.
The market will sell affordable food staples such as produce, milk and eggs, and the cafe will serve foods such as sandwiches and salads as well as coffee drinks, Slepak said.
He plans to rehab and rent out the apartments.
"It's safe, it's nice, it's affordable, but it's not Section 8 and it's far from luxury," Slepak said.
The building was the first purchase for Slepak Enterprises, Slepak's real estate company, of which he is president and CEO. Slepak said he and his father founded the company in April 2016 to invest in real estate throughout the Allegheny Valley.
Slepak said Daddy Rabbit's is the "anchor" of his investment in Natrona, where he plans to focus his efforts.
He eventually wants to buy and revamp more properties there.
"Looking at Natrona, there's obviously huge opportunities," Slepak said. "Property's cheap.
"The little bit of money I have can make an impact in that neighborhood. I couldn't make much of a dent in Lawrenceville or Cranberry or more affluent neighborhoods."
Filling a need
He said his business will be good for Natrona, which has its share of blighted buildings, and hopes it will serve as a catalyst for further development there.
"As you look through that neighborhood, there's ... really nowhere to go and hang out that's safe and positive," he said. "I think a coffee shop is needed."
Some township officials already are behind the idea.
Zoning Supervisor Lindsay Fraser said the business would have an immediate impact on residents' quality of life and public health.
"The Daddy Rabbit's Café model of development of combining physical, economic, and networking assets, when applied strategically over a larger area, is a research-proven method that creates an ecosystem for innovation and community engagement," Fraser said. "I'm looking forward to seeing more of these larger, architecturally interesting buildings being refurbished as 'mixed-use' structures, combining residential use and commercial or community use."
Township Commissioner Chuck Dizard said the idea is one that is "long overdue."
He said the business would help residents who don't have easy access to food — people who live in Natrona often walk up Springhill Road to get to stores in Natrona Heights.
"Mr. Slepak's (business) will provide an option for residents in the community," Dizard said.
There are some "corner stores" in Natrona, Fraser said. One is Floyd's Confectionery, also along River Road. Another is The Natrona Market at 87 Garfield St. Floyd's is up for sale, Fraser said.
In addition to his real estate company, Slepak is vice president of sales at Boylan Bottling Co., based in New York City. He does most of his work remotely.
Slepak said his real estate company will operate the cafe and market, where he plans to employ local residents. He would like to see it up and running by next spring or summer, pending approvals.
"There's something kind of true and gritty about Pittsburgh in general, but even more so about the Valley," said Slepak, who grew up in Fawn and West Deer. "Some parts of the Valley need a hand up a little bit, and we'll do what we can."
Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702, email@example.com, or on Twitter @maddyczebstrib.