Category: Entertainment

Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro

The day I visited Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro, the weather in Erie felt far from Southern.

But inside, the warmth of the restaurant made it easy to forget the snowstorm brewing outside.

The welcoming space and friendly staff are as important to the restaurant’s success as its delectable menu – and maintaining that warm atmosphere is a priority for everyone on staff, from the owners on down, says Karen Thomas.

Karen co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Matt (an Erie radiologist), and her sister and brother-in-law, Adrienne and Jean Paul. Karen and Adrienne have hospitality backgrounds, and Jean is a chef.

The sisters named the restaurant after their father, whose nickname was Eddie and who ran a catering company in Brooklyn. The women had always wanted to have their own business, and the death of their father in 2008 was the catalyst to them acting on that dream, Karen says.

That dream came to fruition with Pineapple Eddie, which opened in spring 2012.

By that time, both women, who were raised in New York City, had made their homes in Erie – Karen and her husband were here first, and then Karen persuaded her sister’s family to move to the city. They had been active in the Erie community and gained a sense for what would work here and what wouldn’t, and that knowledge informed their strategy for their restaurant.

Today, Pineapple Eddie is a thriving spot for lunch and dinner, known for its flavorful fusion of Haitian and Southern cuisines – a tribute to Jean’s Haitian heritage and the Southern roots of the sisters’ parents.

It’s a winning combination that complements the cozy atmosphere – much like Southern culture itself, Karen says.

“That combination of the hospitality and the food, that’s what has been drawing people in here,” Karen says.

About Pineapple Eddie Southern Bistro: Pineapple Eddie, which has 12 to 15 employees, is truly a family business – Adrienne and Karen greet guests out front, and Jean is the creative force in the kitchen. Karen also creates the array of heavenly desserts at the restaurant, though she is training her nephew to take over those responsibilities. The restaurant’s location on West 10th Street means it is not part of the downtown footprint that is getting attention for revitalization plans – but, as Karen points out, the restaurant is close enough to still be a draw. In fact, she says, the restaurant always knows what events are happening by the weekend crowd. For example, they see a surge in customers who are attending a show at the Erie Playhouse. The restaurant also sees customers from other cities, like Pittsburgh or Cleveland, who have heard about the restaurant. “I try to make it my business to walk the dining room, and I find out who’s here and what brought them in,” Karen says.

Why Erie County: To the restaurant’s owners, Erie County is just the right size. It has a small-town feel but still offers amenities like the arts, shopping and convenience. Karen says that she her husband, a Pittsburgh native, are both from larger cities, and they didn’t want to live in one. That small-city feel of Erie also has proved helpful in launching Pineapple Eddie, Karen says. “The wonderful thing about Erie is the power of word of mouth,” she says. “No matter what, if something is good or bad, people are going to talk about it.”

Challenges of Erie County: Some of the challenges that Pineapple Eddie faces come down to one thing – balance. Much like the menu offers a thoughtful balance of Haitian and Southern cuisines, the restaurant overall has had to find a balance in its identity. For instance, Karen says, the restaurant has had to find middle ground in providing an interesting and attractive dining experience for higher-income customers while also remaining affordable enough for those for who only dine out occasionally. A similar challenge comes in terms of the restaurant’s theme – which is unique without being unapproachable. “We can’t go too far off the map,” Karen says. “This is different but still relatable.”

Fun fact: The pineapple is the international symbol of hospitality.

Address: 1420 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16502 or www.pineappleeddie.com

Luminary Distilling

I’ve been visiting a lot of Erie County entrepreneurs lately, and Luminary Distilling continues that pattern.

This time, the business started with a hobby – specifically, brewing beer at home.

Joel Normand and his wife, Maria DiSanza, branched out from there, touring distilleries in Pittsburgh and New York state – and became intrigued by the potential for a distillery business in Erie County.

“We said, ‘Why don’t we give it a shot?’” Maria says.

Now they have lots of shots – all from the bottles of house-made spirits lining the bar in their Summit Township storefront.

Luminary Distilling has been open since March, but the process of getting the business going – and learning about distilling – has been several years in the making.

Distilling is a technical process, but there’s also a craft to it, the owners say.

“You can understand the science pretty quickly. It takes time to get the art,” Joel says. “There’s a certain taste and feel to it.”

Joel speaks knowledgably about the distilling process, explaining everything from the first grains of wheat to the smooth finished product. He details the chemistry, the origins, and the varieties – including how different flavors are formed depending on whether it is wheat or wine that is distilled.

Like their products, Joel and Maria each bring different flavors to their company. While Joel’s domain is the distillery, Maria runs the front of the house, managing the day-to-day business.

And that business is popular, drawing customers to sit, sip and socialize. Luminary doesn’t serve food, but customers are welcome to bring their own – or take advantage of visiting food trucks. Board games are available as well.

“It’s a nice little atmosphere,” Maria says, looking around the tasting room, which is warmed by the glow of mini luminaries crisscrossing the ceiling.

Other personal touches enhance the décor, including the bar, which was crafted by a local high school shop teacher, and a wall hanging that was made by one of Joel’s former students.

The decorations aren’t the only thing that’s local – so are the products that they use for distilling. Wheat comes from Troyer’s, wine comes from North East vineyards, and cider comes from Fuhrman’s Cider Mill, Bakery & General Store, right next door.

“We want to be known as Erie’s distillery. We want to be known as something that is truly Erie,” Joel says.

About Luminary Distilling: When the business opened in March, it was the first modern-day craft distillery in the county – thought it was joined soon after by another, this one in Washington Township. Owners Joel Normand and Maria DiSanza take on the bulk of the work at Luminary, though they have both have other jobs – Joel is a teacher in Sharpsville, and Maria works part time as a physical therapist assistant – as well as three kids at home. Someday, they hope Luminary will be successful enough that they can make it their full-time jobs. They started with  just a few spirits and are steadily adding more, including the popular Apple Pie Moonshine. More varieties of gin, whiskey and moonshine are coming out in December.

Why Erie County: The couple lives in Erie, and were looking to open their distillery in the city. However, they found their perfect home in Summit Township, and are thrilled with the location, and their neighbors. People who live in the area have been very supportive, Maria says – that that’s one of the best things about their business. “People stop in as first timers, then they keep coming back. We get to know them and their families,” she says. “We’ve made a lot of friends here.” Luminary also has found benefits in a relationship with VisitErie, which has helped to promote the business.

Challenges of Erie County: As Joel and Maria started their business, they first had to navigate the ins and outs of state and federal regulations in order to get licensed. Once the business began, they were faced with keeping up with production to meet demand. They also have other challenges common to new businesses, including finding money for advertising. Luckily, they have had luck promoting the business on social media – which is both affordable and convenient, they say – and by word of mouth.

Fun fact: Moonshine is just a general term for any distilled and unaged spirit, Joel says. It gets its name from distillers who made their product illegally, often at night by the light of the moon.

Address: 8270 Peach St., Suite 300, Erie, PA 16509 or www.luminarydistilling.com

Lake Erie Speedway

If there’s one thing A.J. Moore wants you to know about Lake Erie Speedway, it’s this: “We’re still here.”

After the Greenfield Township facility stopped offering weekly racing in 2015, some people thought the business closed, Moore says. But that’s not the case: It merely shifted gears and changed its business model.

Now, Lake Erie Speedway operates as a special-events venue, offering a broader array of entertainment options – yes, including some auto racing.

The past few seasons have included successful ventures like Crash-A-Rama and Monster Truck events, as well as the recent Nitro Circus and Lantern Fest events.

The decision to take the racetrack in a different direction proved to be a good one, Moore says – both for the business and for the overall community.

The numbers alone bear that out:

During Crash-A-Rama and Monster Truck events, only about 60 percent of Lake Erie Speedway’s patrons come from Pennsylvania, Moore says – the rest come from neighboring states to spend their entertainment dollars here.

The Nitro Circus event in August filled the grandstand with 4,000 fans. Last weekend’s Lantern Fest drew 5,000 visitors – some driving seven or eight hours to get here.

Many of those visitors end up supporting other local businesses, including restaurants and hotels, Moore points out. Last year’s Lantern Fest, which drew 3,000 fans, used about 600 hotel rooms, he says.

It’s part of Lake Erie Speedway’s goal to become a destination in the broader community.

“We try to bring in events that help the economy and help keep people employed,” he says.

Though the 2017 season is wrapping up, there are still a few big events coming up.

On Sept. 9, the National Fireworks Association will take a break from their annual expo (held at the Bayfront Convention Center) to offer a two-hour public fireworks display, set to music, at Lake Erie Speedway.

And on Sept. 29-30, the season will close with the 67th annual Race of Champions, which features 100 to 125 cars in a weekend of racing. The race – the second longest consecutive auto-racing event in North America, second only to the Indy 500 – promises to bring yet another crowd to the grandstand at Lake Erie Speedway.

With events like that, it should be increasingly clear that Lake Erie Speedway is still in business. “We’re alive and well,” Moore says. “We’re still doing our best to bring big events to the community.”

About Lake Erie Speedway: As the name implies, the Speedway got its start in auto racing, holding weekly races on its 3/8-mile asphalt track. On an event day, the facility employs about 50 people part-time. Moore, as the operations manager, is the only full-time employee. As an outdoor venue, Lake Erie Speedway closes for the winter, leaving its operations to the summer season. “We only have 90 days to do what we want to do,” Moore says.

Why Erie County: Lake Erie Speedway has found valuable support from the Erie County community, particularly from the Erie Sports Commission, Moore says. The Commission has helped Lake Erie Speedway not just bring in events, but to bring in a variety of events that help to diversify the pool of patrons.

Challenges of Erie County: The weather is a notable challenge for the outdoor venue. But another challenge – competition – is almost a good thing, Moore says. Lake Erie Speedway doesn’t schedule events that would compete with other area festivals, including Roar on the Shore and Discover Presque Isle. But, as Moore says, “Erie’s not a place that doesn’t have stuff to do.” In the summertime, that means Lake Erie Speedway is competing for entertainment dollars with church festivals, beaches, free concerts, fairs and more. “There’s a lot to do. There’s plenty to go around, as long as people go out and do it,” Moore says.

Fun fact: Lake Erie Speedway has 1,396 parking spaces, with more room to park in surrounding fields.

Address: 10700 Delmas Drive, North East, PA 16428 or www.lakeeriespeedway.com

Escape Game Erie

Escape Game Erie’s new Millcreek location is in a historic house – built in 1825 – that once was an inn, a tavern, a post office, a general store and a stage coach stop, among other things. It’s fitting, then, that the building’s new use is not just unique but diverse.

Downstairs, a room has been transformed into a ship captain’s quarters, circa 1813. Upstairs, a “crime scene” tape stretches across a room that contains “Da Vinci’s Secret.” Other rooms in the building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, stand ready to become new puzzle rooms.

Owners Jennifer and David Wedzik, who bought Escape Game Erie in June 2016, opened the Millcreek location to expand their options for games. The original location, in downtown Erie’s Meiser Building on West 10th Street, is still going strong with its current two games – “Abducted” and “Forgotten Laboratory.”

The Wedziks bought the business in June 2016 from the original owners, who were from Pittsburgh. The Wedziks had played escape games with their family in other cities and were hooked on the concept.

They see it as an opportunity to offer a unique experience not just for Erie residents, but for tourists as well.

Tourism currently accounts for about 30 percent of Escape Game Erie’s business. The Wedziks are looking forward to the summer travel season, to see if they get a boost in business. They’ve made strides in promoting the game to tourists, working with VisitErie and cultivating a reputation on TripAdvisor.com.

“It’s something that’s fun and different,” Jennifer Wedzik says of Escape Game Erie. “This is something that big cities have. It’s nice to be able to bring that to Erie.”

On a recent rainy Friday evening, my staff and I, along with a few friends, found ourselves locked inside the “Escape the Niagara” room. The local flavor of the story – we had to outwit our captors and escape in time to warn Oliver Hazard Perry about the British – proved too tempting for us to resist.

I won’t give away any secrets of the game, but I will say that we made it out just under the wire – with four minutes left on the clock. As Jennifer Wedzik had predicted, each team member brought something unique to the puzzle-solving process.

For me, underlying the fun of this particular game was a sense of pride in the history of Erie County – and that’s part of the draw for Jennifer Wedzik, a self-proclaimed history buff, as well.

“‘Escape the Niagara’ was a natural connection with Erie,” she said. “It just made so much sense. It brings that connection home.”

About Escape Game Erie: Escape games started as mobile apps in Japan, and then took off as in-person experiences, Jennifer Wedzik says. The trend made its way to the United States several years ago, and various escape games began popping up in larger cities. Escape Game Erie opened in 2015. The Wedziks, who hire a professional game designer to create their puzzle rooms, are currently working on adding new games. The business appeals to a wide range of people – from kids’ birthday parties to grandparents, Jennifer Wedzik says. Companies use it for corporate team building, but it’s also a fun option for couples looking to socialize or spend a special night out, she says.

Why Erie County: For the Wedziks, Erie County is home. The family has lived in other locations around the country but was happy to return to their roots. In addition, the Wedziks are pleased to be able to bring something unique to the community – something that they see as supplementing the already strong tourism draws of Erie County.

Challenges of Erie County: Jennifer Wedzik says part of the biggest challenge for the business is getting the word out to the public – and also educating the public about what to expect when they play the game. It’s not scary at all, she says – instead, it’s about finding clues, solving puzzles and working as a team. The owners also found themselves frustrated by some municipal “red tape” as they worked to move into their new location.

Fun fact: Escape Game Erie donates $2 of every ticket for the “Escape the Niagara” game to the Flagship Niagara League.

Address: 4838 W. Ridge Road, Erie, PA 16506 and 23 W. 10th St., Erie, PA 16501 or www.escaperoomerie.com.

 

Coming up next week: We visit Great Lakes Automation Services in McKean Township.

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