Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Pittsburgh Connection

Whenever I read a story about talent moving to Pittsburgh, I immediately start searching for the regional connection. People don't move to Southwestern PA without knowing the region. From the great Pittsburgh foodie story in the New York Times:

Trevett and Sarah Hooper, husband and wife restaurateurs, were pioneers in 2007 when they opened Legume (1113 South Braddock Avenue; 412-371-1815;, one of the city’s first independently owned restaurants with a focus on local food. This spring, the popular 34-seat bistro, where Mr. Hooper is chef, will move to a larger space in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. In addition to buying from area farmers, he said he hopes to do more whole-animal cooking in the new space.

Chefs like Mr. Hooper, who moved to Pittsburgh from San Diego, do face challenges. Compared with a decade ago, the local foods infrastructure has improved, he said. But unlike farms in Southern California, those in western Pennsylvania geared toward working directly with restaurants are still rare. “It’s much easier to be a local chef-purist in a temperate climate with a critical mass of wealthy patrons willing to pay top dollar for high quality,” Mr. Hooper said. “That’s not the reality in Pittsburgh.”

How did a chef in San Diego end up in Pittsburgh?

I immediately guess that Hooper's wife is from the area. That turns out to be the case:

After cooking in California for five years, Chef Trevett Hooper and his wife Sarah returned to Pittsburgh to launch Legume. The East Enders love running a restaurant near a movie theater, coffee shop and like-minded businesses. “We wanted to be in a pedestrian friendly area with lots of independent businesses. The community is very active in keeping it like that. It’s four diverse communities coming together,” says Sarah Hooper, who hopes to draw patrons from Edgewood, Swissvale and Wilkinsburg. “We were able to find enough investors--it all came together quickly.”

Working with Joy Robison, the Hoopers oversaw a complete renovation of the space. The brown and orange bistro features tile floors, tin ceilings and 19th-century lithographs. For illumination, the Hoopers turned to Construction Junction, where they found vintage schoolhouse lighting. “It has the feel of an intimate European bistro,” says Hooper, a Pittsburgh native who works for the Rand Corporation.

From what I can gather via Google, Trevett and Sarah met at Oberlin. He decided to be a chef instead of a musician. He followed Sarah to Pittsburgh, where he got his start in the restaurant industry. Why the couple left would be a useful tale. Regardless, they did the boomerang and opened Legume.

The NYT article indicates that the Hoopers took what they learned in Southern California and applied it in Pittsburgh, trying their hand at playing entrepreneur. Long-distant migrants tend to be risk-takers. And talented women in particular tend to be highly motivated to return home. This kind of migration can help Obama's recent praise of Cleveland ring more true:

"You've been working to reinvent the Rust Belt as the Tech Belt," he said. "Your universities, your hospitals, entrepreneurs, businesses have all teamed up to get biotechnology and clean energy from imagination to reality, and as a consequence, you've made Cleveland an emerging global leader in both fields."

Rebecca Bagley, president and CEO of NorTech, which focuses on technology and economic development in the region, said the administration understood "the story of Northeast Ohio, an economy in transition, with a great base, but with particular challenges."

"They're taking the stories of Northeast Ohio all over the country and they're using it to help form and drive policies in Washington D.C.," Bagley said, adding that she's been in regular contact with the White House to raise awareness of the assets of the region, whose economy has been hit hard since the recession.

One of those stories that the White House will soon be telling is one of boomerang migration and how it can catalyze an innovation economy.

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