By Steve Novotney
They had no idea if it would work. The “build-it-and-they-will-come” phrase was truly a question for Phillip Kendall and Lara Graves.
“If we build it, will they come?”
“We didn’t know what to expect because what we are doing hasn’t really been done around here,” Graves said. “Coming up on our two-year anniversary, now we just wonder where the time has gone. We’ve evolved, and the time has just flown by. What we’re doing here in Wheeling isn’t a big deal in larger cities, so we get a lot of people who would normally drive to Pittsburgh.”
Avenue Eats was not a restaurant the couple inherited. They started from scratch, and the menu is far from usual.
“We didn’t have anything to compare us to, so we were just doing it and waiting to see how the people would react to what we were doing,” Kendall explained. “We just threw ourselves into it.”
But not without some serious contemplation. Graves, a 1993 graduate of Wheeling Park High School and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh a few years later, and Kendall, a 1995 grad of WPHS and WVU in 1999, recalled many conversations before contacting a local realtor about their current location.
“And then there came that one day we just decided that we had to quit talking about it and just do it,” explained Graves, who worked during the days as a director of admissions and marketing for a local rehabilitation center. “And here we are two years later.”
Avenue Eats will celebrate its two-year anniversary on Sunday, and the owners and staff have a beautiful brunch planned for the one day during the week they are usually closed to walk-up patrons.
“We’re not celebrating us, we’re celebrating the people who have made it possible for us to still be here,” Graves said. “I think initially people were willing to check out what it is we’re doing, and then they found out that it’s really good,” Graves said. “And over the two years we’ve branched out a little; we’ve listened to our customers, and we’ve earned their trust.”
Graves explained that the success is tied directly to communication. While Kendall is the back-house manager and spends the majority of his time in the kitchen, Graves visits patrons often in order to gain their feedback and recommendations.
“That’s the thing about us here – you can order whatever you want, and we’re going to do it for you. It’s doesn’t have to be exactly the way it is stated on the menu,” Graves said. “That’s one of the amazing things about making everything from scratch. We’re all about tweaking things based on what our customers want.
“We’ve been able to win trust from people who haven’t been able to go out to eat for the longest time, and that makes what we do worth it,” she said. “I had a pregnant lady contact me, and because she’s going to breast feed and already knows that the baby has a soy allergy, so she can’t have soy. So I went through our entire menu, and I was able to figure out how we could serve her, and she hadn’t been out to eat for seven months. She came here because we know exactly what’s in our food.”
Graves and Kendall have been a couple for more than four years, and the pair has traveled to larger cities often. When they do, for business or pleasure, they eat. A lot. One restaurant after another offered them ideas that ultimately landed on the Avenue Eats current cuisine.
“A lot of what is on our menu are items that we have enjoyed while traveling,” Kendall said. “We like to travel, and we like to eat, and we would find ourselves eating in these unique little spots all over the country. For three or four days, we would just eat.
“Those kinds of places would make us discuss doing something like Avenue Eats. This is really a big-time dream come true,” he said. “We just kept throwing the idea around, and then one day I drove past here and saw the ‘For RENT’ sign. So the place kind of found us, to be honest.”
“We always said that we would do it if we could find THE right place,” Graves added. “It had to feel like the right place. We had all of these ideas, but we were convinced that it would never work unless we found the right place.
“That’s when Phillip sent me a photo on my phone of this place and the sign and phone number were in the picture, too,” she said. “I called it, and it’s my friend Missy Ashmore. She’s phenomenal. She met with us, and let us take a look around. And then we looked again, and again. We probably came in a half-dozen times, and Missy helped us every single time.”
Graves is the vegetarian. Kendall is the burger guy. The chefs have experience in Pittsburgh, and there has been little turnover with the staff. In fact, one staff member – Chelsea Wagner – was cited for excellent service by TripAvisor.com.
“When we were developing the menu, I did a ton of research, and the first decision I recall making was that we were going to grind the beef for the burgers every day – sometimes three or four times a day,” Kendall said. “And then we went with some classics like the Diner Burger, the Pub Burger, and then we decided to get creative with a lot of the standards while kicking it up a bit.
“We wanted to be a little twist on the burgers to make them unique, but we didn’t want to stray too far away because burger people like their burgers,” he said. “We tried to make the burger about the burger with a lot of different flavors added on.”
The menu does change with the seasons. When the Lenten Season arrives next week, for example, more seafood and fish options will appear, and more alterations will be made once the temperatures warm with the arrival of spring. The eatery offers soft drinks, craft beers, and various wines, and everything served at Avenue Eats is purchased as locally as possible.
“And our chefs are very versatile. They’ll make you a grilled cheese one moment, and something gourmet the next,” Kendall said. “We’re blessed to have that ability to take care of everyone who walks through the door.”
What Kendall saw when he first noticed the Washington Avenue location was a building that housed a dive shop operated by Wheeling resident Ted Velas. Velas opted for a new location in Elm Grove, leaving the Valley View corner available.
“The interior was nothing like it is now, but I could see it when we walked in. I knew what walls had to come down, and where the ceilings needed to go up. This place is now completely different than when it was a dive shop,” explained Graves, who is responsible for the scrumptious cupcakes served at Avenue Eats. “Now, putting a kitchen in a dive shop was not an easy task, and it was a lot of work. But I can say now that it was all worth it.”
“Figuring out how to put the kitchen in here was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Ever,” Kendall admitted. “Would we do it again? Yeah, we would.”
Most lunch and dinner services at Avenue Eats (Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.) attract large crowds that fill the two dining areas in the front of the house. The tables are set for four, but those can be moved together to fit larger parties. Most Sundays they welcome private parties, including extravagant dinners, baby and wedding showers, and birthday parties. Expanding, though, is not something Graves and Kendall are considering.
“There are days when we wish we had more seats, but if we made efforts to get bigger, we would lose what we started,” Graves said. “We want to be small. We want it to be intimate. We want it to be part of this community. We want our servers to know that when a regular customer comes in, how they like their food, or which beer or wine they prefer.
“We have customers that come here two or three times a week. We have other customers who are here at the exact same time each week. If we go big, then we lose that, and we don’t want to lose that,” she continued. “What we have today is a dream-come-true.”
Anyone ever employed in the food service industry is aware of the good days, the bad days, and of those times when walking away seems like the best alternative. Graves and Kendall, though, feed off their customers to the point where the negatives are quickly squashed by the smiles, the laughter, the “Thank Yous,” and the paid bills.
“I believe the best part of this is all of the little stories about the people whom we have been able to help with our food,” Graves said, “from the lady who was pregnant and couldn’t eat any soy, to all of the others who have told us they have been waiting for a place like this in Wheeling.
“And there really isn’t a worst part,” she said. “We’re not afraid to work, and we have a blast doing what we do. I hope someday this can be the only job for me because I would love to employ myself.”
So what does the future hold? Can Kendall and Graves now say whether or not Avenue Eats will be here for a fourth anniversary?
“Yes,” the couple answered simultaneously.
“I guess what’s given me the confidence now is how busy we have been and that now we don’t have to worry about people walking through the door,” Kendall said. “I think we’re getting better as we move forward. She, I, and our staff members — we’re all learning, and we’re all getting better. At this point I have a feeling people would be mad at us if we weren’t here.”
“People are coming, but not just because the food is good. I think it’s also because we listen to our customers,” Graves said. “We’ve listened, we’ve learned, and we’ve changed, so I think we’ve found our little cozy spot here.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)