'Dry' no more: Wilkinsburg, Bellevue restaurant owners expect to benefit
Restaurant owners in Wilkinsburg and Bellevue are moving to take advantage of Tuesday's vote to allow liquor licenses in the “dry” communities, hoping that they'll attract more business and boost their communities by adding alcohol to their menus.
But the businesses involved acknowledge that any economic benefits will occur gradually, not overnight,
“We're not going to rush into it,” said Sal Di Pasquale, co-owner of Salvatore's Pizza House in Wilkinsburg who hopes to purchase a liquor license for the restaurant within the next few months. “We want to do it right.”
He said he plans to remodel part of the restaurant to accommodate beer and wine service without losing the family-restaurant atmosphere. The 30-year-old pizza and wing restaurant is busiest during lunch, and Di Pasquale said he expects serving beer and wine will draw more dinner customers.
Di Pasquale said he's anticipating revitalization along Wilkinsburg's Penn Avenue, lined with stretches of boarded-up buildings, as restaurants choose to move in, bringing boutiques and coffee shops with them.
“I don't know how long it will take, but it will help,” he said. “We just need to take it one step at a time.”
Since Prohibition, neighborhood restaurants in the two Allegheny County communities were prevented from serving wine or beer; residents in the municipalities voted to change that in the election.
But, with a limited number of liquor licenses available in Allegheny County and licenses taking months to secure, any resurgence will take time.
The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corps., an organization dedicated to the neighborhood's community and business district growth, campaigned for the liquor license referendum, going door-to-door to educate concerned residents and gather signatures, said Marlee Gallagher, the organization's communications and outreach coordinator.
The group pushed for a liquor license referendum on the 2011 ballot that failed; Gallagher said she didn't think the community was ready. This year, a campaign to educate residents and address common misconceptions — especially about bars moving in — helped ease residents' worries.
WCDC expects allowing restaurants to serve drinks will attract businesses and increase the dinner crowds at establishments, Gallagher said.
“There isn't much open after five,” she said.
Since the referendum's passage, Gallagher said two Wilkinsburg restaurants expressed interest in acquiring liquor licenses, but it will be “a couple months” before either is ready to apply.
The liquor license application process isn't quick or cheap, said R.J. O'Hara, partner at Downtown law firm Flaherty and O'Hara, which specializes in liquor law and licensing. The application process usually takes about six months, and licenses in Allegheny County cost anywhere from $70,000 to $80,000.
“The restaurant industry is doing well in the city, so licenses will be more expensive there,” he said.
Businesses looking to purchase liquor licenses usually don't have a problem finding someone looking to sell, with the market changing on a daily basis, O'Hara said. Most of the establishments in Wilkinsburg and Bellevue will probably look to purchase restaurant-category licenses, which are available to businesses that primarily serve food, he said.
There are 1,617 restaurant liquor licenses among Allegheny County's state allotment, according to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's website.
With the referendum's passage, Bellevue is eligible for two restaurant-category liquor licenses, and Wilkinsburg is eligible for five.
Grille 565 in Bellevue applied for its liquor license hours after the referendum passed, said building owner Mark Helbling, who runs the building's downstairs music venue, 565Live.
Helbling said the music venue will share the liquor license with the restaurant upstairs, eventually serving craft beer, wine and specialty mixed drinks.
Before Grille 565 can start serving alcohol, it will remodel to install a bar upstairs and taps in the basement, he said.
“We'd like to be a model of how this can work well,” he said.
Jennifer Cirlingione, who co-owns Grille 565, said she hopes the ability to serve alcohol will entice restaurants to move in, ushering in a resurgence such as Lawrenceville's or Sewickley's, establishing a business district that “draws people from other places.”
Sharon Donaldson, 54, of Wilkinsburg said she has frequented Salvatore's for about 10 years, and is looking forward to being able to enjoy a cold beer with her lunch.
“Everybody wants some beer with their pizza,” she said.
Katherine Schaeffer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.