The Beehive’s early clientele were Pittsburgh’s “neo-beatniks”: artists and art students, those studying at nearby colleges and universities, musicians, writers, filmmakers, out-of-work ne’er-do-wells and those still trying to find their way.

By David Rullo 

The following is an excerpt from David Rullo’s Gen X Pittsburgh: The Beehive and the ’90s Scene to be released by Arcadia Publishing.

Standing on the corner of Fourteenth and East Carson Streets, the Beehive Coffeehouse and Dessertery was hard to miss.

Painted in vibrant primary colors with a yellow logo that featured an image of a woman sporting the dated hairdo that shares the name of the café, the Beehive seemed better suited for San Francisco or Greenwich Village than Pittsburgh’s South Side.

Given its looks and wares—espresso and cappuccino drinks priced at a premium in a neighborhood better known for its shots and beers—the Beehive seemed destined to fail before it ever launched.

Lisa Young, a longtime friend of co-owner Scott Kramer, expressed doubts when she learned of the new café from her friend. “I told him, how are you ever going to make money with a coffee shop, but he said, ‘No, it’s a real thing. We went across the country and to other cities, and there’s coffee shops in them.’ I said, ‘OK, good luck with that.’”

Those fears were alleviated in February 1991, when the Beehive opened its doors. A large and soon-to-be-loyal clientele filled the shop in its first few hours of operation.

“I remember there was a line around the block,” Kramer recalled.

Scott had conceptualized the coffeehouse with his business partner, Steve Zumoff. The pair decided to gamble on coffee and rich desserts in a city that was the home of ex–steel workers and third-generation immigrant families from Eastern Europe and Italy. And while the idea and location might not sound so outlandish today, in the early ’90s, Pittsburgh had none of the hipster or foodie trappings that would soon see it named one of the country’s most livable cities.

The original business plan articulated modest goals for the new café. “Said business is intended to be a coffee shop with unique features that would differentiate it from other businesses located in the area,” Kramer and Zumoff wrote. The coffeehouse was “intended to create a ‘Bohemian’ atmosphere. Persons regarded as bohemians are traditionally those with artistic and literary interests who disregard conventional standards of behavior.”

Steve and Scott’s vision might have seemed a stretch given the Reagan-esque feel that still dominated much of the country, but there were signs that things were beginning to change.

In 1990, the New York Times ran a story by Margot Slade, titled “Campus Cafes Attract ‘Neo-Beatniks.’” In it, she wrote that “new and newly popular coffeehouses are serving up poetry and progressive music in rooms heavy with smoke and intellectual pretension.”

The Beehive’s early clientele were Pittsburgh’s “neo-beatniks”: artists and art students, those studying at nearby colleges and universities, musicians, writers, filmmakers, out-of-work ne’er-do-wells and those still trying to find their way.

While society may have been struggling with labels for this new generation at the time—slackers, bohos and other names were bandied about—there was no denying the initial stirrings of Generation X in the city. This group would eventually help transform Pittsburgh from its industrial past to a future that included an economy based on technology, healthcare, universities and hip restaurants, an expanding art scene, vibrant downtown living and converted brown spaces.

Two regions were instrumental in reimaging Pittsburgh: Oakland and the South Side. Home to the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow College (now Carlow University), plus several hospitals, Oakland was an incubator for the city and its young, hip students. The South Side, on the other hand, offered cheap rent, underground art galleries and studios and access to downtown, and it was near Point Park College (now Point Park University) and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Both offered frequent buses and walkable communities.

Scott and Steve first imagined the Beehive at a location on Atwood Street in Oakland. It made sense—the two had attended college at the University of Pittsburgh, lived nearby in the city’s East End and were enthused by the university district that seemed ready-made for a coffee revolution.

When the location fell through, the pair shifted their focus to the other side of the Monongahela River—East Carson Street in the city’s South Side neighborhood. In the process, they and the organic growth around their coffee shop helped the struggling community develop something it needed for more than a decade—an identity.

The Beehive and the businesses that opened around it—Slacker, Groovy, Dee’s Café and more—helped it identify itself as both a home to the nascent ’90s art scene and an entertainment destination. It was able to do this at a time when much of the city was fighting to claw its way back from the collapse of the steel industry.

To fight this postindustrial morass, Pittsburgh Mayor Richard Caliguiri developed a plan he called “Renaissance II,” meant to address the deindustrialization with bold initiatives.

Caligiuri’s blueprint reimagined the city’s physical landscape, adding landmarks like the all-glass PPG Place and One Oxford Center. By the time of his death in 1988, the success that was beginning to be felt downtown hadn’t yet made it to neighborhoods like Lawrenceville or Bloomfield, and it would never touch some of the areas surrounding Pittsburgh. Five decades after most of the steel mills closed, the rails and barges filled with coal ceased deliveries and the last miner clocked out, cities like McKeesport, Duquesne and Braddock are still waiting for their redevelopment opportunities.

East Carson Street, the main thoroughfare through the South Side, would become home to art studios and galleries, coffeehouses, vintage clothing boutiques catering to an alternative audience, concert venues, high-end condominiums, restaurants, dive bars, sports bars, Irish bars, hookah bars and virtually any other type of bar that could be imagined. Before any of those other businesses existed, however, there was the Beehive, which found fortune on its opening day.

The coffeehouse proved to be so successful that on most weeknights and through the weekends, if you didn’t arrive early enough, you didn’t get a seat.

Customers often stood three deep because the tables were filled. Those who arrived early in the day or never left occupied the mismatched tables and chairs along the right wall of the café. A huddled mass stood next to the filled seats, balancing mugs of coffee and cappuccinos, waiting to pounce on a table if anyone seated left. A third line stood in front of the counter, ordering drinks and desserts or chatting with baristas.

At the front of the coffeehouse, a round table was situated in a window space. It became premium seating that was typically filled by regulars or special guests like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

In the rear of the café, people played pinball. Remarkably, the Beehive had done the near impossible and made playing the analog game popular again. In the years to come, Steve would play an integral role in revitalizing pinball culture throughout the region.

Others were content to stand in the open space, leaving little to no room between them for anyone who needed to visit the highly graffitied bathrooms.

The coffeehouse became a viable third space for many Pittsburgh Gen Xers, who used it as a place to plan artistic collaborations, play pinball, chess or Magic: The Gathering. It was also a place where customers could discuss theater, read a book from one of the shelves located in the space, meet before a party or simply get together in the pre-internet days to share a sense of community.

Before there was a Starbucks on every corner, before a sitcom featuring six friends that hung out at a local coffeehouse ever aired, before alternative culture became pop culture and before Pittsburgh began landing on the top of “Best of Cities to Live” lists, the Beehive brought coffee culture, and with it a healthy dose of art and alternative lifestyles, to the Steel City.

Scott and Steve decided to create a coffeehouse that catered to an artsy clientele while they traveled across the country to attend a Jerry Garcia concert. The two had met as students at the University of Pittsburgh—Scott was a business major, and Steve studied psychology and worked at Zelda’s, a destination bar for many Pitt students, where Scott often stopped for a drink. It was at another Oakland bar, Thirsty’s, during the watering hole’s regular Grateful Dead night that the two first discussed the idea of opening a coffeehouse together.

Scott’s objective was clear from an early age: to be an entrepreneur and find some way to combine that goal with art. He started young, selling flavored ice cubes at Taylor Allderdice High School’s baseball field before moving on to cutting grass in the city’s East End, where he grew up. He kept his landscaping business while in college before adding the unusual title of tie-dye T-shirt creator and distributor to his resumé.

Rather than sell the T-shirts he was making door to door or in stores, Scott found a distributor in New York that sold the shirts to other companies. The shirts were so well received that several rock bands bought them to use—after printing their logos on them—as tour shirts. After receiving word that the dye he used in his shirts was carcinogenic, Scott shut down the space he had stacked with washers, laid off his few employees and began thinking about his next business venture.

It was a New England sales representative Scott had hired to sell his shirts who first mentioned he had noticed coffeehouses opening up in a few cities throughout the United States. “He told me that coffee was going to be big and asked me to make tie-dyed T-shirts that they could sell in coffee shops.” Kramer remembered. “It was an idea I bounced off of Steve, and then, traveling across the country to see the Dead, we started checking out coffeehouses.”

In the 2,400-plus miles between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, the pair decided a coffeehouse was at least something they should consider. In Chicago, they took particular note of one new chain that hadn’t yet reached the East Coast.

By the late ’80s, coffee was beginning to come into its own in America. Manufacturers were starting to experiment with various flavors, enticing those who weren’t fans of the acrid brew straight, and some cafés were selling a new addition to their line of caffeinated drinks: iced coffees. Of course, once a Washington store decided to create a chain, coffee, it seemed, found its footing.

Opened in Seattle in 1971, Starbucks had expanded to the Windy City by the next decade. The coffeehouse was proof that patrons desired cafés where they could buy Americanized versions of European espresso drinks and desserts and hang out for hours at a time. The coffeehouses revitalized the idea of ’60s cafes like those found in Greenwich Village, where folk troubadours performed, and radicals argued their beliefs. Starbucks found a way to make the coffeehouse safe for the suburbs. And while Scott and Steve weren’t yet sure they would be opening a coffeehouse—they weren’t even coffee drinkers—they did take note of the growing scene and menu at Starbucks.

Steve told Scott about Shapiro’s Coffee, a shop in Lemoyne, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, where he had grown up, that had been in business for more than a decade. Kramer remembered the café as something between the more traditional diner and college coffeehouse.

In 1990, the two took one last decisive trip, traveling to Toronto, Canada. It was there, after visiting Just Desserts, an establishment Steve recalled from a trip north in the ’80s, that served multiple types of tea, that they settled on opening a coffeehouse.

The voyage north provided more than simply inspiration, Steve recalled. The city had a bar on Queen’s Street with an unusual name that caught both Steve’s and Scott’s eye—the Beehive. The saloon was open for only approximately two months and was best remembered for its connection to the Pittsburgh coffeehouse. “I think there was a display outside made from a bunch of Bic lighters,” Steve remembered. “It was really colorful.”

The name, Scott and Steve would find out shortly after opening, had wings with more than their coffeehouse. A Pittsburgh strip club had opened with the same name before going out of business. “We used to get calls for it from time to time. That was interesting.” Scott recalled, “We would sometimes get people asking if certain girls were working. We would tell the caller the girl had the night off.”

Those early trips proved useful for the partners, who found inspiration for other aspects of their future coffeehouse.

Kramer remembered that in Toronto, the buildings were colorful. In Harrisburg, patrons poured coffee from French presses. In Chicago, they found a pamphlet in Starbucks that explained how to make the perfect cappuccino. They also began learning about roasting beans and initiated the task of deciding which coffee brand they liked best.

After their Oakland location fell through, Scott thought back to the South Side, an area he had previously visited when considering a few possible real estate investments. While that particular venture never materialized, he thought it might provide a home for the Beehive. “We came across the location,” he said, “called the landlord, who said it was available. He said, ‘I’ll do the electric, and I’ll do the heating and air conditioning, and I’ll charge you guys like $1,100 or $1,200 dollars a month.’ We took it.”

The neighborhood, Steve said, wasn’t a last resort, but it was fairly close to a final destination. “Maybe it’s because we were young and not yet a business, but no one wanted to rent us property. The South Side was still pretty run down,” he said. “It hadn’t yet become what it is today.”

The storefront they finally rented had been Lando’s Pharmacy in its previous incarnation, and it wasn’t in great shape when the two agreed to lease it. Inside, along with pounds of asbestos that needed to be removed, were remnants of the building’s former life, including shelves and counters, which found use as part of the coffeehouse.

Scott and Steve, as well as their new landlord, who worked as a contractor, rehabbed the building and began creating the design of the iconic café.

The total amount invested was close to $28,000, Scott said. To help recoup the money they put in, they secured a bank loan of $10,000. That money paid for the rent of the building; the equipment, coffee and supplies needed to open; the furniture; and even the plumbing and carpentry.

Like the building, the Beehive’s original espresso machine had seen better days, or as Scott remembered, “It was a piece of garbage. We paid $2,500 for it. It was the most expensive thing we bought and in three or six months we had to buy a new one.”

Tim Kaulen is the founder and executive director of Industrial Arts Workshop, a not-for-profit that works to inspire artistic literacy by offering enrichment opportunities that advance the understanding and process of sculpture-making artists and their works. In the early 1990s, however, he was a recent graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and a street artist creating works inspired by and part of the city’s post-industrial landscape. He was also an important link between the South Side that existed before the Beehive and what it involved into after the coffeehouse had opened. “There was community there,” Tim said of the neighborhood pre-Beehive. “It had all the amenities there which allowed it to be a cohesive community with a real culture and real tradition and real character.” He said that while the South Side was affected by the collapse of the steel industry, it never fell into the complete disrepair of other neighboring communities.

It was that foundation of essential businesses, Tim ventured, that saved the area from total collapse.

“There were no chain stores; everything was mom and pop–run businesses—a couple of bakeries, a poultry shop, a couple of used bookstores, there were a couple of art galleries,” he said. That didn’t save it from experiencing some of the blight felt by areas like Hazelwood, especially after J&L Steel Works closed its mill on the banks of the Monongahela River in 1987.

In some ways, he said, the South Side of the late ’80s and early ’90s was trapped in another time. As an example, he cited the realty company from which he rented his apartment. The front office was staffed by two men with tight crew cuts who wore short-sleeve button shirts and ties. “It was literally like walking into the 1950s,” Tim said. “When I wrote a check, they corrected me on exactly how to print the name and numbers. They schooled me every step of the way.”

Tim found the South Side, which would soon be home to the Beehive, a welcome place for both the existing community and the boarded-up buildings and empty lots that would soon play an important role in the art he would create.

It was in this neighborhood that the Beehive was born. Scott would earn the respect of many of the coffeehouse’s neighbors by going door to door, introducing himself and telling them of the plans he and Steve had for the storefront. At the top of his list at the moment, however, was the daunting task of redesigning the interior of the building, creating a logo and letter mark for the new business and getting art on the walls. For that, they would turn to a nearby resource: the artists and students already living on the South Side.

David Rullo is an award winning journalist and a senior writer at the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. His
work has appeared in national and international newspapers, magazines and literary journals. He has spent the better part of five decades exploring and contributing to the city’s art and literary scene. Rullo’s work has been exhibited and heard in Pittsburgh’s cultural district and his bands Digital Buddha, Architects of the Atmosphere and Centrale Electrique have explored the boundaries between electronic music, spoken word, performance art and experimental music. His music can be heard in the score for the art film The Pittsburgh Nude Project. Rullo’s collection of poetry, Tired Scenes from a City Window, was published in 2015. A Pittsburgh native, he lives in the city’s South Hills with his wife and son, where he enjoys strong coffee, good bourbon and great books.