Pig and Fire preparing to turn up the heat

Rick Shrum

The 1,500-pound smoker en route from Texas had Susanne Sager fired up.

“Launching a new business was not something we thought we would do, but we’re excited about this,” she said Wednesday morning, anticipating the arrival of the massive meat smoker later in the day.

She and her husband, Matt, are on the verge of launching their new restaurant – and restaurant concept – which thrills them as much as the cooking apparatus, maybe more.

The Sagers own Pig and Fire House of BBQ, a barbecue facility that will make its saucy debut Friday. It will be the day Washington County businesses enter the least-restrictive green phase of Pennsylvania’s reopening.

Their grand opening will run from noon to 9 p.m., or until they run out of food, whichever occurs first. And for the first time in nearly three months, there will be indoor dining in some of the commonwealth’s “green” counties, under social distancing and other safety guidelines mandated by the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pig and Fire may be a new dining destination, but it will operate in a familiar building – one constructed 183 years ago. That’s where, for more than a decade, the Sagers owned and operated Palazzo’s 1837 Ristorante in the Quail Acres complex, and were pleased with their success.

Theirs was a fine-dining establishment along Route 19, near the intersection with Racetrack Road in North Strabane Township. Then in mid-March, COVID-19 shut down indoor dining, putting the couple in peril, but eventually on the road to an adventuresome barbecue plan.

They found out running a fine-dining restaurant during a pandemic, without sit-down meals, is not cost-effective.

“We’ve always done takeout and met the need for utilities with a limited Palazzo (takeout) menu,” Susanne said. “But (favorite dishes) still cost a lot because this was fresh, quality food.”

Palazzo, a longtime events location, also was hit hard by coronavirus-induced cancellations. And operating in a green-phase future promised to be financially challenging. Indoor-dining restrictions would be implemented, the most stringent being the limiting of guests to 50% occupancy. So the Sagers needed a plan.

Transitioning to barbecue was the one they would pursue. Barbecued foods are favorites and “takeout-conducive,” as Susanne put it. So in early May, the owners dipped their toes into those waters “and it was a giant hit. We were selling out every weekend and were absolutely paying all of the bills then. People gave us rave reviews.”

So now the Italian restaurant is gone, succeeded by wood-fire barbecue (Western Pennsylvania cherry and oak) of Pig and Fire. The menu includes sandwiches and platters featuring pork, beef brisket, chicken and baby back ribs, plus more than a half-dozen sides. There’s a Piglets Menu for those 12 and under.

“We’re making rubs and sauces from scratch,” Susanne said. “We’re dedicated to making everything low and slow.” She said Matt smokes brisket from midnight to 6 a.m., then chef Kevin Castellucci completes the 10-hour process.

Castelluci also was Palazzo’s executive chef, and is among a staff of two dozen who are back intact.

The restrictions, Susanne said, “will be difficult. There are going to be longer wait times. We can’t have more than four guests per table. There will be no standing at the bar.”

Outdoor occupancy also will be limited to 50%.

“We’ll be following all of the state guidelines pretty seriously,” she said. “We are trying to stay positive and keep a safe and healthy environment.”

The Sagers, as of Wednesday, were awaiting signage. But they are ready to go.

Pig and Fire’s hours, beginning Tuesday, will be noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday – or until the food is sold out.