New Mexican War Streets grocer connects with North Side neighborhood
Rob Collins believes he has the formula to reanimate a piece of lost history in the Mexican War Streets.
Collins is owner of the Allegheny City Market, a corner grocer that opened in Pittsburgh's North Side last month in space formerly occupied by Doug's Market.
Doug's went out of business in January because of years of declining sales. Collins, however, envisions a more successful outcome.
“There's no reason this place shouldn't be a gold mine,” Collins said recently from behind the counter of his Arch Street shop. “It started off really slow, but it's picking up. The last two days have been really busy.”
Collins, 46, of Manchester has worked in the grocery business for more than two decades. In 2010, he opened Bryant Street Market in Highland Park, which, he said, “is crushing it.”
A key ingredient to his success is sandwiches.
“We make a thousand of them a month at the other store,” Collins said. “Sandwiches pay the rent; they pay the bills. ... This neighborhood is just blowing up. Give the people what they want, and they'll come.”
War Streets residents hope he's right.
Dave Shlapak, chairman of the Allegheny City Central Association's development committee, said small businesses such as Doug's and Allegheny City Market help make city life appealing.
“One of the joys of urban living is you don't have to go to a monocultural superstore to do all your shopping at once,” Shlapak said. “If you're not taking advantage of the things you can walk to, you're kind of missing out on what makes living in a city great.”
The War Streets is a tricky market. Once a poor neighborhood, remodeled townhouses transformed the area, bringing in residents. Home values rose, and consumer tastes shifted, residents said.
Doug Nimmo, who ran Doug's Market, said he tried to cater to everyone in the neighborhood. After 18 years, that approach proved unsustainable.
“But I'm very happy with the way (Allegheny City Market) is going,” he said. “I was so impressed with the way his other store was set up, I thought, ‘Boy, that would be a nice concept here.' I think the neighborhood will really support him.”
Collins plans to tap into growing demand for locally grown and organic foods. That's why fresh bread is delivered daily from Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill; La Prima in Chateau supplies coffee; and produce is hand-selected in the predawn hours from Strip District distributors.
“Look at how popular the (North Side) farmer's market is,” Collins said, referring to the seasonal, Friday afternoon food sale in nearby Allegheny Commons. “This is what the neighborhood wants.”
He connects with neighbors through social media marketing — he posts specials daily on Facebook — and by getting creative with sandwich names.
The No. 1 on the menu, for example, is the “Randyland Reuben,” named for artist Randy Gilson, whose multicolored home at the corner of Arch and Jacksonia streets draws curious onlookers. The No. 2 is “Frank's Special,” a turkey and Swiss sandwich named for Frank Cartieri, vice president and chief operating officer of Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, who is a regular at Collins' Highland Park market.
“They make my sandwich perfectly, and every time I order it, so I find myself going there three to five times a week,” Cartieri said. “I look forward to it.”
Nimmo is rooting for Collins. The property that Nimmo still owns, and rents to Collins, has housed a grocery store since 1895, Nimmo said. He didn't want that to change.
Though Collins would not discuss the rental agreement, he said Nimmo gave him a reasonable rate. Nimmo left equipment from the old store, free of charge. And he helped pay for cosmetic improvements, such as the new wood floor.
“At the other store, I had to pay a fortune just to walk in the door,” Collins said. “Doug has been great. ... I love this neighborhood. It's old, and it's got a lot of charm. It's a great location.”
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380- 5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.