After spending decades in the restaurant industry, my wife and I decided to open our own American fusion restaurant a few years ago in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. PRESS Bistro is about bringing back the artisanship of the restaurant. We have a scratch kitchen so we make all of our own sauces, cutting down and cooking all of our own meats. On the bar side, it’s all custom craft cocktails, craft beers and a lot of small-batch wines. We’re trying to give our customers a feel for what a restaurant should be, in our opinion.
In turn, we’ve helped spark economic development in an area that has been struggling.
This whole corridor, central Pennsylvania and central Ohio, we’ve all been hit up very heavily by the loss in the economy in the steel industry and the coal industry, which have vanished over the years. Because of the collapse of the economy, people have forgotten what a good restaurant feels like, what a good experience feels like. Everything simplified itself over time.
It created a kind of double-edged sword, where we had an opportunity to create something that wasn’t being done here, but then we are really dealing with the challenge of trying to educate our consumers about what the modern dining climate feels like and looks like, and what they should be enjoying and experiencing.
Like any restaurant, we went through our years of a learning curve where people didn’t understand what we were trying to create. But over time, as they started understanding what we were trying to accomplish for them, they’ve become very receptive.
“If we change how they eat, then maybe we change a little of that social fabric.“ -Jeremy Shearer of PRESS Bistro
When we first opened PRESS, we opened it as a sandwich shop. Our primary focus was to offer a quick, healthy lunch for a central business district. Everyone said, “Good luck with the lunch thing. Don’t plan on doing anything after 4 o’clock because the town vacates after 4.” We realized that people just didn’t really know how to eat. We came up with that mentality that if we change how they eat, then maybe we change a little of that social fabric and culture.
So we started doing sandwiches that focused on healthy, unique flavors, like adding strong umami notes to give it an Asian flair. People questioned it at first, but then they tasted it and kept coming back. We have just grown that, the whole mentality of continuing to educate our consumers and bring them back to the basis of what dining should be about, which is the experience. It’s not just about sustenance, it’s not just about eating so that you survive. It’s about creating an experience: the way you interact with the staff, the way you feel about the room, everything from temperature to sound to lighting, down to how close you put the tables together.
Business has gone up probably 500-plus percent over the last four years that we have been here. And more than 48 percent of our business comes from repeat customers.
But we are really starting to draw a lot of outside interest also by creating ourselves as a sort of destination point. We’re starting to see a lot of people who are traveling on weekends because we’re not that far from Pittsburgh or Harrisburg or Baltimore. We’re starting to see foodie customers that want to get out and have different experiences outside of their own town.
To get them here the first time, we rely heavily on the social media and word-of-mouth concept. All of our advertising is social media. We really do not do anything with traditional sources anymore because we don’t find it to be all that effective. Word of mouth spreads like wildfire.
As far as bringing them back, it’s about delivering a brand experience. We’re in a mountain town in what used to be the epicenter of steel production, but has since fallen apart. They get those emotional and historical sensations of what this town used to be and where it’s going. Then, outside of that, it’s about really high-quality food, chef-centered creations, and a staff that knows the food forward and backward. When someone says, “What is that flavor I’m getting in the ramen bowl?” our staff can explain the process it goes through, that we create the seasonings ourselves using different spices.
As for the warning about the 4 pm customer drop-off, our biggest sales time now is generally after 4:30. We do a very strong lunch but our dinner business over the last year has grown to the point where 50 percent of our daily sales during the week is going to be in the evening. On weekends, about 80 percent of our business is after 4.
We had to create a new mentality. People didn’t come downtown because they were scared. Johnstown lost an economy. The young, smart, freshly educated kids got out of town and went somewhere they could get a job. That creates a vacuum where you start drawing in the wrong crowd, plus drug problems and crime problems. Over the last decade, the police have done a lot to change that, but the mentality was still there. We worked around that by creating specific events. You might not come down for dinner with just you and a date, but if we created a well-defined event, like a wine dinner for 50 or 60 people, you’re more comfortable.
I would always get on my soapbox afterward and say, “You are all downtown and you are safe. Tell your friends not to be afraid of downtown anymore.” After preaching that to enough people over enough time, it started to reinforce that it is OK to go downtown and enjoy yourself.
“It’s not just about eating so that you survive. It’s about creating an experience.“ -Jeremy Shearer of PRESS Bistro
We’re definitely starting to see more activity. We have a few restaurants opening now, which tells me that other entrepreneurs are starting to see value. The more entrepreneurs there are that see value, the more the customer base will start to see, too. We’re also seeing more community events and community involvement. We’re doing parades again. Everyone’s focus is the fact that we have this wonderful infrastructure, all of these buildings that have been here since the 1800s and they’re in good condition. Why not find a way to get people to enjoy that?
We’re also expanding our own business by opening Stone Bridge Brewing Company. Our closest brewery is 45 minutes away from here, so I knew we had the market for it. It’s not just 20-something hipsters that want a craft beer. Plus, there are a lot of great farms around us, and they’re getting certified as organic on their grains and their malting process, so that lets us create an organic farm-to-table beer. We’ve shared a few little tidbits on social media to tease the opening and we’ve had an outpouring of people begging us to get our doors open. I can feel the undercurrent. I can feel the energy from the other entrepreneurs. We knew what was coming and we wanted to be on the front end of that.
A big part of that rests on the restaurateur’s shoulders. The more that restaurants take on a bigger mentality, rather than just making food for people to eat, the stronger it makes them.