Food in Wilkinsburg
Both born in Taiwan, the couple came to Pittsburgh in the late 1970s when Chen-Tu, an industrial engineer, entered graduate studies in operations research at the University of Pittsburgh. They first opened a small Asian market in Oakland in 1976, and two years later moved the store to Penn Avenue in Wilkinsburg. In 1981, they purchased a larger building just a few doors away, at 705-709 Penn Ave.
Their current location was appealing, says Chen-Tu, because it provided five floors of space at an affordable price. Over the years, the Ous raised three children, all of whom attended St. James School in Wilkinsburg. The couple also maintains rental property in the borough, and has inspired other international businesses and families to relocate to Wilkinsburg.
Leona’s artisanal treats include delicious, lactose-free ice cream sandwiched between distinctive handmade cookies. Regular offerings include cinnamon ice cream on oatmeal lace cookies, fresh mint ice cream on chocolate chunk cookies, and pure vanilla ice cream on peanut butter cookies. Rotating flavors include fruit-based recipes in the summer and pumpkin, egg nog and other seasonal flavors in fall and winter.
In summer 2014, Heldstab and Puskarich connected with Jay Blackford, a Wilkinsburg resident who owned the former Smith’s Bakery building and previously ran a catering company. “It was a great professional kitchen space for rent and it was perfect for us.” By late summer Leona’s had moved in and the delicious aroma of cookies filled 774 Penn Ave. once again.
In the early 1990s the couple worked at the (now-closed) Southern Platter. The parents of six children, Hosea and Gloria had just bought a house in Wilkinsburg and began seeking a local business opportunity to help support their growing family.
When 819 Wood St. unexpectedly became available, the Ghafoors decided to take a chance on the space, which had previously housed an unsuccessful small restaurant. It was a challenge, because Soul Food Connection started with very little kitchen equipment and even fewer financial resources, he recalls. “We didn’t even have counters.”
“But very soon people smelled the food, and saw the sign in the window, and they were very happy with us.”
“Our customers started telling their friends, and word started getting around. I remember that one of our former business neighbors, who owned a clothing store, loved our food. While standing in line at the bank, one of our family members overheard him telling other bank customers to try Soul Food Connection.”
After two decades, and many financial ups and downs, Hosea is still cooking at 819 Wood St.
“We have always admired Wilkinsburg as a community, and Nancy’s was so special and had such a draw,” Maraugha explains, “It was perfect.” Maraugha worked with Nancy’s namesake and former owner, Nancy Bielicki and family, to purchase all of the original fixtures and appliances, from the kitchen equipment to the old-timey booths, which stayed.
In keeping with tradition, the new restaurant is called Nancy’s East End Diner. “We want to let people know that, although it’s under new ownership, it’s still Nancy’s,” Maraugha said. “Nancy was known for her hospitality, and we want to carry on that legacy.”
Part of carrying on the legacy means keeping Nancy’s menu largely the same, but adding more options and ensuring fresh ingredients. “Nothing will be frozen,” Maraugha stated. Having lots of friends in the local restaurant scene, Maraugha has already hired a professional cook whose experience includes opening the Eat’n Park in Squirrel Hill.
Maraugha sees the potential in Wilkinsburg and is excited to have the opportunity to be a part of the community’s future. She cites Wilkinsburg’s historic architecture, convenient location, including proximity to the Busway, and friendly people as some of the important features of the town.
“This isn’t just our diner,” Maraugha said, “It’s Wilkinsburg’s.”