Photo: The “Shops on California” make up the popular “one-stop shopping” business district of Brighton Heights.
The Brighton Heights main business district offers “one-stop shopping” along California Avenue.
Story and photos by Amanda Andrews
Brighton Heights is one of those neighborhoods that if you blink you might miss it. It’s tucked away on a hill just above the Ohio River, surrounded by Bellevue, McKees Rocks and Ross Township, and only 1.1 square miles. However, this diverse neighborhood, full of active residents and businesses, compensates for any lack of size.
The history of this neighborhood is remarkably similar to other Northside ones. Originally a boomtown for German settlers, and an area once under Allegheny City’s jurisdiction, it was annexed by the city of Pittsburgh in 1907. Brighton Heights is particularly noted for its architecture and has been featured multiple times in both The Northside Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for its house tours. Many residents have lived here most of their lives, which emboldens their sense of neighborhood pride.
No community, however, is without its conflicts. According to four-year Brighton Heights resident Danielle Graham Robinson, there is a divide between residents on some issues.
“There is often an ‘us versus them’ mentality between newer residents and people who grew up here that can be frustrating, especially in neighborhood groups online,” said Robinson. “Overall, I’d say that no matter how long people have lived here, we all want the same things: safe streets, opportunities for residents, and a strong, welcoming, family friendly community. We don’t always agree on how to achieve those goals though.”
One factor that can be agreed upon in Brighton Heights is the popularity of its business district on California Avenue. Just off of Ohio River Boulevard, this long winding road hosts a string of local businesses on a single block, each servicing a different aspect of the lives of Brighton Heights’ residents.
Tom Friday’s Market, a local butcher shop and grocery store, is the longest standing business on California Avenue.
“Tom Friday’s is… well-respected in the neighborhood, and has some of the highest quality butchered meats in the city. My personal favorites are their gyro burgers with in-house tzatziki sauce and pre-made meatloaf. Both are great for busy people like me who want to eat delicious food without doing all the work,” said Robinson.
Tom Friday’s Market is very unique in this neighborhood, let alone in Western Pennsylvania, for the traditional way that their meat is prepared and displayed. According to owner Tom Friday, they are the only butcher shop in the Northside that can claim to sell hanging sides of beef.
“The meat comes in, say, hindquarters to forequarters sides of beef, which we cut down into individual [parts]…,” said Friday. “We take all these larger cuts of beef, primal cuts, and then we cut them down into smaller cuts of retail—individual sizes and servings: T-bones, porterhouse, sirloins. We also, from the trimmings of beef, grind and make our own ground beef.”
Tom Friday’s Market additionally offers local pork, smoked cuts, and the popular option of homemade, all-natural hot sausage.
“We feel that having the fresh sides of beef is worth the labor,” said Friday. “It is more costly in labor, but it’s so much better and fresher.”
The late Thomas Friday Sr. first opened the doors to a store called Eagle Market in 1955—on East Street. It was not until 1971 that Thomas moved the store to its current residence on California Avenue and renamed it Tom Friday’s Market. Tom Friday Jr., the current owner of Tom Friday’s Market, remembers working in his father’s store from a very young age.
“I actually started ringing the cash register when I was nine years old in his store down on East Street. He always had me in there helping,” said Friday.
Friday continued to work part-time at his father’s store through high school, went away to study at Penn State University for two years, then took up his part-time job at the store again while studying at La Roche College, which is known today as La Roche University. He graduated with a business degree and began working full-time at the store. He’s been working full-time at Tom Friday’s Market for the last 43 years.
“There are other places you can buy meat, there’s other places you can buy groceries, but most importantly, we’re selling a service here,” said Friday. “That’s [what] we specialize in: real good service along with high quality and fair prices. That was my dad’s slogan. The thing he always believed in was, he said, ‘If you sell, give the customer a good quality at a fair price [and] they’ll be back.’”
Friday said customers go back four generations in some cases, creating a deep and loyal base for the store itself. In 2018, Tom Friday’s won second place in the “Best Specialty Retail Store” category for the Best of Northside Small Business Annual Reader’s Choice Awards.
Many businesses have come and gone on this stretch of California Avenue. Drugstores, banks, bars, and bakeries are just a few of the shops Friday remembers that were once here and have since left. Despite some mishaps, the area seems to be on the up and up.
“Ten to 15 years ago, this whole area hit a low point, and by [Tom Friday’s Market] staying in there, it did help,” said Friday, who named attorney Bill Goodrich’s business, located across the street, and good landlords, as other influences on the neighborhood’s revitalization. “Now the business, the home, the real estate is picking up, good people are back into the area. They like the well-built homes for the price, and the whole area has gotten better and continues to grow,” said Friday.
Another enduring business is Chubby’s Pizza and Hoagies. Established in 1990, this pizza and sandwich shop has stayed on California Avenue ever since. Owner Sue Creen recommends the steak hoagies, vegetarian pizza, and specialty pizzas. Although there are other pizza places in Brighton Heights, Creen feels confident in her ability to keep customers coming back for more.
“I have no competitors, and I’ll tell you why: You’ve got to care about what you put out, and I care. I’m hands on, and I care about everything that goes on here,” said Creen. “So as long as you care and you have the competitors, don’t worry about what they’re doing. Worry about what you’re doing.”
In 2018, Chubby’s Pizza was awarded third place in the Best of Northside’s Small Business Annual Reader’s Choice Awards in the category of “Best Pizza Spot.” Creen already has a loyal customer in Karen Streb, sole owner and employee of Doggone Delightful, a dog grooming salon on California Avenue. Streb said she often frequents Chubby’s for lunch, when she isn’t busy taking care of her furry clientele.
Doggone Delightful opened in April of 2015. Streb has had a lifelong passion for taking care of dogs, and when the opportunity arose to launch herself into a dog-related career, she jumped right in.
“I used to make dog treats at home. I got away from doing that, and I decided to go to grooming school after my other job I had—the company folded,” said Streb. “I learned how to groom dogs, and I’ve been [doing it] ever since.”
Streb typically sees eight to 10 dogs a day. On Saturday, she makes room for even more of them. The neighborhood reception to her business has been very positive for her, especially since her salon is within walking distance of many residents’ homes.
“Most people, they’re excited that I’m here,” said Streb. “They said they consider it ‘one-stop shopping.’ They can drop their dog off, go to the coffee shop, go grocery shopping. They love it.”
Streb keeps a very active Facebook page for her business, and mostly posts pictures of the dogs she grooms.
When Streb first opened Doggone Delightful, partners John Bratton and Larry Crouser introduced themselves to her and booked an appointment for their dog. Bratton and Crouser own California Cycle Path, an indoor cycling and fitness studio first established on California Avenue in August 2013. They began to recommend Streb’s services to their gym members.
It’s now been six years since California Cycle Path opened. The studio occupies three storefronts to host the variety of classes and personal fitness opportunities they offer to their members. Bratton and Crouser are Brighton Heights residents themselves and wanted to have a gym within the neighborhood.
“ …We started with just a spin studio…that was the first building, and then we quickly grew. About a year later we added the TRX boot camp room in the center,” said Bratton. “Within the last two years, we added the third room [where we] have heavy bag boxing workouts and weight training.”
According to Bratton, they also have a full rowing room downstairs.
“…Over the last six years, we’ve grown to like four full-size studios, and we expanded down the street. We are fortunate that buildings have opened next to us that we can keep expanding through,” said Bratton.
The hours at California Cycle Path, unlike those of other businesses, operate on a nontraditional schedule of 5 to 7 a.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. Their experience and the research they’ve done as trainers at other gyms told them that people typically seek out group fitness activities before or after the traditional workday. The hours also cater to their needs: Bratton and Crouser both work full-time jobs outside of running the gym.
California Cycle Path has also recently expanded its business ownership with Lauren Bradford becoming a third owner. The owners are trainers themselves, plus there are six additional instructors.
The gym offers indoor cycling, Total Body Resistance Training, or TRX, rowing, High Intensity Interval Training, or H.I.I.T, heavy bag, Turbo Kick, dance fitness, PiYo, which is a blend of pilates and yoga, POUND, a full-body workout that uses lightly weighted drumsticks, and Pilates classes in addition to personal training. Regular members have multiple options for payment plans, accessible through the Cycle Path website, and there’s even a new client special. When a new client signs up, Bratton said, they get a full week of unlimited classes for $5, and the $5 is donated to a local nonprofit. A new nonprofit is selected every quarter.
In June, California Cycle Path partnered with the Persad Center and the LGBTQ community to honor Pride month. The studio has also donated to organizations that focus on sarcoma research—one of the gym’s own members has it—and Humane Animal Rescue in the Northside just to name a couple.
Since they opened, California Cycle Path has received much recognition from the Pittsburgh community. They have a five-star rating on Yelp and have earned at least one neighborhood award from the Northside Leadership Conference.
Within the walls of their business, Bratton and Crouser, along with the other instructors, strive to create an accepting, welcoming environment. Their gym is just as accessible for novices as it is for active athletes, which creates a friendly camaraderie between members.
Due to the close location and special deals offered, many Cycle Path members will frequent California Coffee Bar after classes.
The two-year-old coffee shop is the most recent business to open on California Avenue but that has not stopped co-owners and partners Sarah Mendak and Susie Lobdell from thoroughly getting involved in the community.
“…We try to participate in everything that the neighborhood does, like Bright the Night, the Halloween festivals, the clean-up days, all [of] these various things…,” said Mendak. “We live in the city of Pittsburgh here, and there’s not a lot of places to walk to go and have that experience. We were really happy to be able to provide that.”
Mendak and Lobdell said that the experience of running this business has had its “learning curve,” but despite being Brighton Heights residents themselves, they have met people and made friends in the neighborhood whom they otherwise would have never known. California Coffee Bar centers on providing drinks and food that is health and environmentally conscious.
“I love infusing flavors and creating more of a health element, eating-wise… just more of an organic, fun place to come in and study or meet with friends,’ said Lobdell.
Lobdell and Mendak purchase all of their materials for cups and lids from a company called Greenware.
“We spend a little bit more so we can buy materials that biodegrade more quickly, that are made from recyclable materials,” said Mendak. “We do have a recycling program here where we capture recyclables, clean them. We have a single-stream recycling company that comes in and picks up once a week for us.”
Coffee grounds are recycled as well. Mendak and Lobdell try to incentivize customers to bring their own cups by using lower prices than would be charged if they did not bring their own.
Some of California Coffee Bar’s food comes from Mendak’s and Lobdell’s edible garden, but they also partner with many businesses like Pittsburgh Sweet Treats, Baked True North and even Tom Friday’s Market. The owners recommend their Turkey Asiago sandwich, the Green Machine smoothie and Nitro Bliss Brew coffee.
California Coffee Bar is just as much as a community center as it is a cafe. They host live music events, open mic nights, and charity events.
Despite opening in 2017, California Coffee Bar has already received plenty of recognition by the community. It is one of the top 25 coffee shops in Pittsburgh according to Yelp and has received two proclamations from Pittsburgh City Council.
All of these businesses, in one way or another, are interwoven. They may not have an official label or organization stepping in to coordinate their efforts, but they’re continuing to work hard to revitalize their business block.
“We’re hoping, eventually—we were talking about maybe trying to put in a petition to get the street named ‘The Shops on California,’ so we can all market together and work together,” said Bratton.
While the official title is still in legislative limbo, The Shops on California are prospering and providing a variety of services and outlets to Brighton Heights residents.