Surviving the early stages of the pandemic was a ‘balancing act on a razor blade’ for Owner Nick Mastros, but his restaurant—a cornerstone of the Allegheny West community—has kept customers coming back for homestyle meals since 1981.
By Sylvan Lebrun
Photo: A frequent haunt of Northside politicians, Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe in Allegheny West started 40 years ago with just three staff members and a menu of classic sandwiches including Reubens and Dagwoods. Over the years, Founder and Owner Nick Mastros has embraced a spirit of experimentation and continues to bring ‘fresh talent’ into the kitchen. By Lauren Stauffer
After weathering the first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening early this year, the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe is back in full swing as they ring in 40 years of business on the Northside. Founder and owner Nick Mastros still works in the place every day, side by side with his 93-year-old mother Helen.
When he was just 23, Mastros bought and rehabilitated the building at 822 Western Ave—previously an electrical repair shop—in order to create his own restaurant inside, which opened just a year later. His only prior experience was washing and bussing dishes at a few of Pittsburgh’s high-end restaurants, but he felt that the time was right to make a bold move. With this, Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe was born—and as Mastros describes it, it was “pretty smooth sailing” until the pandemic hit.
Starting with just three staff members, the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe expanded in time to reach a peak of about 30 employees. While at the helm of the restaurant, Mastros was able to hone his skills as a businessman and meet local celebrities and fellow restaurateurs who helped “propel [him] to the next level.” Mastros, who also operates an event parking business on the Northside, said that at one point, he was running four other restaurants throughout Pittsburgh, all through local government contracts.
He has since reduced his workload back down to one other location—a restaurant located in the Allegheny County Family Division government office, which is, at the time of printing, still closed due to COVID-19. He has a staff of nine at the main restaurant on Western Avenue, which is currently open Tuesday through Saturday, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
A resident and a business owner in the historic Allegheny West district, Mastros spoke proudly of the growth of the area over the past 40 years.
“Now, this is kind of like ‘the place’ to live!” he remarked.
The Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe’s location has made it a frequent haunt of Northside politicians and executives alike, who often use the casual spot as a site for meetings. Notable guests include the Rooney family and former Mayor Tom Murphy.
“This has always been a place where you never know who’s gonna be sitting next to you,” Mastros said. “Could be a judge, could be a councilman, could be the mayor. It could be a business owner who does $100 million a year in business. I don’t know if that would have happened anywhere else in the city.”
Even with their often star-studded clientele, the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe remains a family business to this day, and focuses on cooking food “as you want to do it at home.” Helen has worked with him since retiring from her career with Saks Fifth Avenue 25 years ago, running the restaurant’s register and interacting with customers. Mastros’ 21-year-old daughter, his wife, and his uncle have also helped out at the restaurant over the years.
When the pandemic struck, it was Mastros’ wife who helped him navigate getting Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to keep his staff employed. The restaurant had to temporarily close for four months amid the pandemic and reopened on Jan. 11 this year to what Mastros described as a “slow start.”
Originally, they tried shifting to a takeout-only model, but that soon proved unsustainable due to health concerns and sales figures that Mastros said were down by 70%. Mastros attributes the restaurant’s survival to PPP loans and the ability to expand into outdoor dining, which is now running for the second summer in a row. Navigating the pandemic was a “Herculean effort,” he said, for him and his team.
“I can’t tell you how many months I went to work and didn’t make any money… just to keep things going,” Mastros said. “Sometimes people say when you’re in business you have to pay yourself first—not in this rodeo. You have families that depend on you, you have to make a payroll every week, you have fixed overhead that has to be paid, you have to pay your purveyors. If you can’t do that balancing act on a razor blade, you’re gonna be out.”
As of now, things are largely back in full swing at the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe, with customers packing both the indoor and outdoor seating areas to order their favorite classic dishes. Although the restaurant’s menu has evolved significantly since the 80s, a few traditions remain constant: Meatloaf Thursdays, Friday seafood specials, and beef and turkey roasted in-house daily. Their grilled chicken salads are still served topped with French fries, a holdover from when this was “all the rage” in the Steel City.
According to Mastros, when the restaurant first opened, customers mainly sought out classic sandwiches like Reubens or Dagwoods. In time, he embraced a spirit of experimentation despite his own lack of formal culinary training, learning as much as he could along the way. He remembered calling his chef friends while working in the kitchen and described holding his phone on a long cord while leaning over a pot asking, “OK, so now what do I put in?”
In the early 80s, Mastros went out for lunch with a few friends in Long Beach, California, where he was told to try swordfish ceviche, a South American seafood dish where diced cubes of raw fish are diced, marinated, and cured in citrus juices. He had never heard of ceviche before, but loved it on the first bite, and with that, decided to try to recreate it in his own restaurant.
“I brought it back here and put it on the menu as a special back in like ‘84, ‘85, and nobody even knew what it was,” he said, laughing.
Today, Mastros continues to bring “fresh talent” into the kitchen to learn about new methods and dishes, while also ensuring that his customers can get those long-time classics that brought them to his restaurant 40 years ago. In this way, the restaurant exists as a marriage of tradition and innovation—a true labor of love for Mastros, his family, and his staff.
“To have thought when I built this place at 23 that I’d have a daughter working with me, my mom… my wife… my uncle… Life takes you down a road, you know. You think you’re going one direction and then you go another,” Mastros said.
“This is like a perfectly worn pair of shoes or [a] pair of jeans now for me. I enjoy coming to work every day.”