Despite economy, local businesses choose growth over uncertainty


Part three of a three-part series.  Read part one and part two.

One worry that has been aired since the beginning of the recession in December 2007 is that existing small businesses would suffer the most. Whether from lack of sales from reluctant buyers or the inability to get capital from banks, economists expressed concern that many small businesses would not survive the downturn.

But while many businesses nationwide were cutting corners or even shuttering their doors, two Northside businesses did what many would call unwise and expanded their operations during worrisome times.

Feeding the Northside

Below: Bistro Soul, which serves Southern comfort food, opened June 2010. (Photo/The Northside Chronicle)

“People thought I was crazy,” laughed Nikki Heckman, owner of Bistro To-Go, who, in the middle of the recession, put plans into motion to open another restaurant adjacent to her existing East Ohio Street one.

Crazy or not, in June, Heckman debuted Bistro Soul, a colorful, flavorful addition that specializes in southern comfort food. And in September, she opened Bistro at the Aviary.

In a time when most people’s eating out budgets are the first to be slashed and food costs are rising, Heckman believes her success is directly related to her location.

“Because we’re a neighborhood business, not in a suburban throughway, I think that the neighborhood was looking for a place that they could walk to that would be economical.

“We really meet a need in the community for a place that’s lower cost, but not a fast food place. Because of that, people felt that they could have an upscale experience during tough times.”

While managing both restaurants and the Aviary location, Heckman said Bistro is done growing, despite receiving numerous offers from all over the city to add locations. Now she just wants to focus more on her catering sales, which currently make up approximately 40 percent of her total sales, an increase of 220 percent since Bistro’s initial opening.

Heckman admits that it’s been a non-stop journey, but she said she was never concerned about the economic downturn because her goal wasn’t to become a city-wide eatery — the Northside was enough for her.

“All of our decisions are mission-based, not time based. Our mission is to transform East Ohio Street and I stay like a bullseye on that goal.”

Trolleys and DUKW boats

Below: DUKW boat Norside Nelly undergoes routine maintanence at Just Ducky Tours headquarters on the Northside.  The company recently bought Molly’s Trolleys, allowing it to expand operations from seasonal tours to year-round tours. (Photo/Henry Clay Webster)

Heckman and Just Ducky Tours owners Chris D’Addario and Michael Cohen share a similarity: they benefitted from buyers scaling back on bigger ticket items and cautiously grew their ideas.

The land and water tour company, whose garage and offices are located on Jacksonia Street, has experienced heavy patronage during the warm months, which D’Addario has attributed to more and more people doing “stay-cations” instead of traveling.

As a result, Just Ducky has grown from a small venture into a business that’s booming, with around 50 seasonal employees and nine full-time employees during the year. Since 2009, Just Ducky has added three more boats to its fleet for a total of six, and only did so after carefully examining its financial position and growth strategy.

“We’ve been really careful with our money, leaving enough money for later. We’ve anticipated issues and anticipated opportunities for growth,” D’Addario said.

Just Ducky was cautious and didn’t immediately expand its operations, he said, despite an increase in tour bookings. Initially, the team just worked harder, running more boat trips and making sure that existing boats were kept in tip-top condition.

“It got to the point where if we didn’t grow we would have crippled the business,” D’Addario said, who realized during the onset of the recession that eventually, expansion would have to happen.

Flash forward to present times where “growth” is putting it mildly.

In a move that will allow them to operate year-round, Just Ducky purchased Molly’s Trolleys on Jan. 1, allowing them to become the foremost land and water tour company in Pittsburgh. The team hopes to have up to six trolleys running by June and will continue to use the original moniker.

“It really makes sense for us,” D’Addario said, and that another revenue stream would be good for the typically seasonal Just Ducky Tours schedule. “It allows us to hire more people who we couldn’t before.”

Northside Chronicle Town Hall Subscription