Inside of the dining room of Bistro To Go. Photo credit: Neil Strebig
Owner, Nikki Heckman uses culinary program to empower local residents and strengthen community.
By: Neil Strebig
Bistro To Go manager, Brandon Jackson pauses himself mid-sentence, excuses himself from the interview and casually walks towards a homeless man who just stepped through the doors of his restaurant.
He doesn’t question the man nor shoos him away, instead, he politely gestures him towards the soda machine asking if the man would like anything. Jackson offers the man a glass of water and kindly walks with the man towards the exit, shaking his hand before he leaves. Jackson then sits back down and removes the bookmark he had previously placed in the interview session.
Jackson talks about his role at Bistro with a heavier sense of purpose than just the typical managerial duties bestowed upon him. He speaks highly of his team, the restaurant, and its customers; he is continually reiterating the idea that Bistro has a “family feel” behind it. An idea that he immediately credits to his boss – Bistro To Go owner, Nikki Heckman.
“In between trying to serve great food and running a business – that is hopefully successful – the mission underneath it is, is really about being a community development mission and being a good neighbor,” Heckman said.
Bisto To Go opened in 2007 during a tumultuous time on E. Ohio Street. Foot traffic on the street was down despite a number of operating businesses. According to executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference (NSLC) Mark Fatla, a previously conducted survey by the NSLC stated that 65 percent of local residents visited the E. Ohio business district less than once a month or had never been there.*
“I think what she did was bring people to the street again. Because she was offering a quality in the product that people wanted,” Fatla said.
Falta attested that The Priory and the Sweet Time General Store were present at the time, but Bistro was, “the first thing to kind of break that log jam.”
“It wasn’t easy on this street,” owner of Sweet Time General Store, Barbara Burns said. “Practically no one else was doing it on this street.”
Prior to Bistro To Go’s opening, Heckman recalls the cultural and racial divides that plagued a number of businesses on E. Ohio St.
“There were businesses but they were black and white there weren’t businesses where there was a mix of people,” Heckman said. “When I opened ten years ago we did not have a place on the Northside where people could gather, where everyone was welcomed. There was a lot of division in our community.”
Heckman is quick to denounce herself as a catalyst. Albeit she admits her “mission is this street” her sense of understanding and community is well derived from a multi-cultural upbringing and experiencing a number of different environments and hardships.
Heckman originally wanted to be an artist (her work is currently hanging in the restaurant’s dining room) before the craving to cook struck her. She began working in cafés then began managing fast food chains (she helped open 17 Wendy franchises in the Pittsburgh area) before finding herself in the position of manager at a local TGI Fridays. During her time at TGI Fridays, she became aware that if she’d want to evolve in the restaurant industry she was going to have to work with the back-of-house staff.
“If you didn’t know how to cook the kitchen people ate you alive,” she said.
From there that she moved onto the Culinary Institute of America to finish her training. Eventually traveling overseas working in various locations throughout Europe before finding her way back to Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC). It was at the ACAC that she began realizing her larger goal to help improve the community that raised her Manchester soul.
“Her passion has always been mentoring,” Ken Turnbull, pastor at ACAC said. According to Turnbull, Heckman began helping at ACAC through Urban Impact before offering to help with catering programs at the church. It was during her time at ACAC that she began to groom the young members there, offering them guidance where it was needed regardless of their personal or ethnic backgrounds.
“She always sees the hope [in people],” said Turnbull. It was an ideology adopted by Bistro To Go, a place where Turnbull believes she “was able to grow that model.”
Both Heckman and Jackson explained that Bistro hires a number of young workers and the company purposely hires potential employees with diverse backgrounds. They believe that it not only helps create a better understanding within the workforce but it also empowers them. For Jackson, a large part of it still is contributed to Heckman’s ability to welcome everyone and allow them to be themselves regardless of their heritage – something that ultimately boils over into Bistro’s cuisine.
“Nikki still gives us the freedom to have our own minds with the food,” said Jackson. “She lets us live freely through our food.”
It is a two-fold system. That sense of compassion has helped bring Jackson and his co-workers together and that culinary practice has allowed Bistro to expand its outreach past the E. Ohio St. business district. Jackson goes on to note that they now cater to a number of businesses (via Bistro To Go Catering Company) outside of the Northside including the Pittsburgh Cultural Arts Trust, U.S. Steel, Duquesne Light Co., Allegheny General Hospital and even the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That success has helped make Bistro into a brand of sorts. To Jackson, Bistro has become a representative for the Northside. Its presence on the E. Ohio St. business district has helped prove to potential new businesses that they too can be profitable despite the negative reputation associated with the district in years past.
“[It] shines a light on E. Ohio. It has had its issues and problems before but I think the new businesses will drive a lot of negative out [of the neighborhood].”
“You can see the progress that follows,” said Fatla. “If she hadn’t made that start, things like Rita’s Italian Ice wouldn’t be there. The flower shop wouldn’t be there. Arnold’s Tea wouldn’t be there.”
Yet, if you ask Nikki she believes that it is all part of a larger message. She doesn’t shy from discussing the history and the negative perceptions that have plagued the Northside. In fact, she embraces them citing that the Northside is a melting pot with a rich, diverse population, one that can lead to a number of social breakthroughs. But she is also aware of the existing socioeconomic problems the eclectic community has faced for generations.
“If everyone can’t play together you’re going to end up with a lot of chaos instead of moving forward. It is going to get stymied. And I think our community has been like that for a long time. I think we haven’t been able to move forward past all these issues because we all stay in our own little silos of thinking,” she said.
Her empathy is built around the belief that everyone in the community needs to collaboratively work together as one Northside.
“The stumbling block will be if we can’t play together,” Heckman said. “This can be a great party and an amazing destination. I think we can be on the map for a lot of reasons if we can unite all of our ideas.”
Bistro will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary in October and Heckman credits it more to her staff and the neighborhood than she does herself. She speaks with conviction when she explains how important all of this is to her. Her purpose was never to be just a restaurant. Instead, she wanted to use food as a means to open up multilateral communication.
“When we talk with one another in a comfortable way when we’re eating a meal together, things change,” Heckman said.
She throws out a number of names and organizations that have invested in her and her business. She immediately pays homage to them as if they’re part of a team – her Bistro team – because in her mind they are, they are all Northsiders.
Perhaps that is why her dream is to one day close E. Ohio Street – just for one day. Heckman wishes that in the near future a Sunday supper – as she calls it – can be held. The supper would extend from the one corner of East Ohio and Cedar to the intersection at East St., where every Northside business owner would bring a plate of food and sit down at a series of tables, lined with white linens with their neighbors for a community-wide dinner.
“That is my dream to close the street, just for one Sunday night dinner where we can eat together as a community.”
Bistro To Go is located at 415 E. Ohio St. and is opened Mon. thru Fri. 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sat. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
*Note survey was conducted in the early 2000s prior to Mark Falta’s confirmation as NSLC executive director and the opening of Bistro To Go.