Pittsburgh food truck owner buys, re-brands Wilkinsburg diner
When Jordan Robarge visited Nancy’s East End Diner in Wilkinsburg last spring, he knew it was the place he had been searching for.
The 25-year-old founder of Pittsburgh food truck Revival Chili had been criss-crossing the city, looking for a spot to set up a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
But despite a new name, a few repairs and some additions to the menu, the new owners of the Wilkinsburg institution, founded in 1976, plan to do everything they can to preserve the spirit of Nancy’s. Don’t worry, the crepe-style pancakes and Havarti and apple sandwiches aren’t going anywhere, they promise.
Robarge, who now lives in Shadyside, landed in Pittsburgh about three years ago for a Venture for America fellowship — the two-year program helps young entrepreneurs learn how to start a business. He founded Revival Chili, a food truck serving chili around the city with a mission to employ people who face barriers to employment, including the homeless or those with a criminal record.
The mission was inspired in part by Robarge’s own job-hunting experience, when he was rejected from a post-college dream job after an arrest for underage drinking showed up on a background check, according to the Revival Chili website. After college, he started catering events using a chili recipe he tested on college classmates.
“I just really enjoyed the smile I saw on people’s faces,” Robarge said.
His childhood friend, David McAlpin, 25, of Bloomfield, joined him in Pittsburgh about a year ago to put his own experience in the food service industry to use. The pair met in elementary school while growing up in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Falls Church, Virginia.
“We’re still learning about Nancy’s,” McAlpin said.
He talks about the restaurant like a new friend or co-worker he’s still getting to know.
“I feel more like caretakers of something, rather than the owners,” he said.
They took over the Wilkinsburg establishment about three months ago, closing only to give the restaurant a deep clean in late December. They buffed the floors and gave the walls a fresh coat of paint; otherwise, everything from the intricate, illustrated paneling behind the counter to the photo collages of customers dating back decades, which hang above the booths, is pretty much just how they found it.
“We understand that it’s something precious to the community,” McAlpin said of the space. But preserving the warm, homey vibe goes beyond keeping up the aesthetic. It’s about making sure Nancy’s can continue to serve the community as a hub and a gathering place, he said.
“A lot of people in the community just come here to meet up and talk,”said employee Jess Nicholas, of Swissvale, who has worked at Nancy’s for the past three and a half years.
She recently set up a canned food drive to donate to Wilkinsburg Community Ministry on Wood Street, and said she looks forward to hosting other causes to support the community at Nancy’s in the future.
“This extends beyond the food we’re serving,” McAlpin said.
That’s not to say that the food isn’t important.
Robarge and McAlpin re-vamped the breakfast and lunch menus, simplifying them to make room for additions like chili and waffles, featuring a corn bread waffle, and a fish sandwich. Also on offer is the Revival Chili Bowl, a giant bowl of the food truck chili that started it all.
They’ve also partnered with other local businesses to source supplies and ingredients, including Seibel’s Family Farm eggs, Mancini’s bread, KLVN coffee, Turner’s juice, Leona’s ice cream and other ingredients from Goodness Grows Farm.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .