Walnut Grill inks deal to open new restaurant in vacated Max & Erma's in South Strabane

Tim Schooley
Pittsburgh Business Times

Walnut Grill is ready to expand again and open its second new restaurant during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The homegrown and growing chain has inked a deal with the owner of a former Max & Erma’s on a parcel in front of the Old Mill shopping center on Route 19 in South Strabane in Washington County and is shooting to open the 6,400-square-foot restaurant by late January.

It’s a stretch of Washington County that spans from Racetrack Road to the South Strabane development for which Walnut Grill Founder and President Kirk Vogel said, “we’ve been eyeing … for the better part of five years now.”

“It just kind of worked out that Max & Erma’s was shuttering a few of their restaurants locally and that was the one we liked the best,” he added, noting its highly visible site and strong traffic.

After announcing in May that the restaurant was set to take over the former Steel Cactus location in Bethel Park and open in the summer, Walnut Grill is striving for an eight-week build out of the former Max & Erma’s to open in time to get a few weeks of operation before the busy winter business jump that typically comes with the Valentine’s Day holiday.

With an indoor capacity of about 215 or 220 seats in the new restaurant, Vogel said the restaurant’s ample patio will be expanded and seat about 105, describing it as a key attribute in operating amid a pandemic with restaurants now still limited to operating at 50% capacity as cases are again on the rise.

Noting how Pittsburgh's restaurant industry had boomed in recent years and now faces what he expects will be an unfortunate correction, Vogel sees closures "hitting the larger national restaurants first," and is eager to bring his local restaurant into a trade area dominated by larger chains.

It was the kind of opportunity that Vogel said came with too many long-term strengths to be distracted by the current challenges of the pandemic.

"We can’t let the last six or eight months hog-tie decision making for the long term," he said.

Walnut Grill, which also operates restaurants in the St. Louis metro, apparently wasn't the only restaurant interested in the former Max & Erma's, which is owned by an investor group based in California.

David Glickman, a director in the Pittsburgh office of Newmark, who represented the restaurant space for lease, said there were two other operators who also bid for the property.

It was a level of demand he said ran somewhat counter to the expectations created by Covid-19.

"I knew it would rent. But I wasn't expecting demand to be super high because of the pandemic," he said.

He called the location as "A plus" given its proximity to strong retail.

"It's pretty much Main and Main," he added.