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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A market of opportunities

Debbie Steinberg of East Deer Township, Pa., used Pittsburgh Public Market to incubate her business selling homemade marshmallows in a multitude of flavors ranging from Creamsicle to ghost pepper. Observer-Reporter

By Scott Beveridge

PITTSBURGH – A new market house in Pittsburgh features vendors selling the traditional vegetables and one who dishes out homemade marshmallows flavored with the hottest pepper on the planet.

And in a back corner of Pittsburgh Public Market, the local East End Brewing Co. pours nonstop samples of its Big Hop India Pale and Session ales to a long line of thirsty customers.

“We’re so busy. It never ends,” said brewery salesman Steve Gorby, while working his booth at the market in the historic Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction & Sales Building.

The venue opened in September along Smallman Street in the city’s Strip District after nearly 10 years of planning, said Cindy Cassell, its marketing manager.

A public market is an old concept brought to the United States from Europe, giving local farmers and small businesses a place to sell their produce and goods. At one time Pittsburgh had three such markets, Cassell said.

This one grew out of a 1999 study by William J. Green & Associates for the nonprofit Neighbors in the Strip that recommended such a destination in the area where merchants have long retailed produce, coffee, seafood and ethnic foods. Six years later the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh funded a public market study that caught the eye of former Gov. Ed Rendell.

“He really liked it,” Cassell said.

That led to the market receiving a state grant of $150,000 to add to the nearly $1.3 million it took to open the business opposite the 17th Street entrance to the sprawling brick building, she said.

Sarah Mansmann of Eighty Four had a hand in organizing the market. She wrote a concept paper about it while attending graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and then worked there recruiting vendors.

“I think it’s a fantastic project to give local farmers a place to retail their products,” Mansmann said. “Hopefully, some of them will make the transition into the Strip.”

“It’s a pretty amazing marketplace to get the best the region has to offer,” Cassell added.
Pittsburgh Marshmallow Factory has the homemade treats flavored with ghost pepper.

Owner Debbie Steinberg said her boyfriend, Chris Momberger, started out by making vanilla and chocolate marshmallows for parties and special occasions.

“I said, ‘Hey, wait. We need to make Creamsicle.’ It was the perfect first step,” Steinberg said.

Their flavored marshmallows “had such a huge reception,” she said. “We decided to stick it out.”

The small company wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the low startup cost offered by Pittsburgh Public Market, which charges it $300 a month for the booth every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Steinberg said.

“They kind of think of themselves as a business incubator,” she added.

A few booths down from her, a group of friends and relatives known as the Crested Duck Charcuterie has a meat case offering such delectables as smoked duck breast and smoked andouille. Across the aisle, a Penn State University Extension representative periodically shows up to offer growing tips. Other merchants are selling pierogies or stuffed grape leaves, and near the entrance, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has set up a mini library. 

“There’s a little bit of everything,” Steinberg said.

On a hot and humid Friday in June and without air conditioning, Linzee Mihalcin is selling vegan roasted-tomato soup and Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp at Soup Nancys.

“It’s a fun place to come to work,” said Mihalcin, who with her partner, Sara Raszewski,  prepares the food in a Methodist church kitchen to bring to the market.

“You can’t beat the location. It’s been good so far,” Mihalcin said. “It’s a fun place to be.”

(This story first appeared in the July/August edition of Living Washington County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter.)
Linzee Mihalcin, an owner of Soup Nancys, offers a customer, Mark Trawka, a sample of her soup, made using such ingredients as white bean, bacon and spinach and sold at Pittsburgh Public Market. Observer-Reporter

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