Making waffles, creating community
“I’ve never seen a place like this!” exclaimed first-year design student Susana Del Castillo at the Waffle Shop’s Grand Reopening on Friday night. With a newly refurbished interior and prime location in a revitalized area of East Liberty, the Waffle Shop displays an eerie resemblance to Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks from the outside. Inside, however, is a cheery restaurant and, of all things, a talk show platform. “Anyone can go up and be a guest on the talk show,” explained Terry Boyd, senior art major, as well as Waffle Shop staff member and talk show host.
The idea behind having a talk show forum and creating the Waffle Shop was to increase community participation. The shop is the product of an interesting Carnegie Mellon art class called Contextual Practices, where the aim is to “engage students in the production of art that has a direct, conscious, and sometimes catalytic relationship to the place it exists in and the audience it relates to,” as described by the School of Art’s website. And when inside the Waffle Shop during its shop hours (11 p.m. - 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays), you definitely feel part of a unique social atmosphere where anyone is welcome.
In order to understand the talk show platform of this restaurant, it is important first to be aware of where the Waffle Shop came from. As a 2007 class project, the Waffle Shop was originally called “The Waffle Shop: A Reality Show” and began when students rented out an empty storefront that used to be a tuxedo shop. With the hope of increasing community participation and interaction in the East Liberty and Shadyside areas particularly, the Waffle Shop filmed agreeing customers in a reality TV show style that was broadcast on the restaurant’s own street-facing TV.
But this environment resulted in some major reality TV drama, particularly when the area’s bars let out and some party-goers would wander to the shop for some food. Some of the conversations were hysterical and interesting, reminisced Boyd, but “some were awfully boring.” In true reality TV, there is no control over who comes on the show or what happens at all, Boyd went on to explain. With a talk show, there is more of a controlled setting. Anybody can still get up on the stage and say whatever they want to, but Boyd hopes that the talk show host can prompt the guest when the conversation becomes dull.
As for the restaurant component of the Waffle Shop, staff member and first-year design major Frances Soong points out that “after all the renovation, we’re starting to look like an actual restaurant [or] TV set — so people get angry when we run out of waffles or forks and knives.”
Although the Waffle Shop staff may be adjusting to the project becoming more of a restaurant, currently, the waffles come out great. Not afraid of experimentation, the Waffle Shop serves classic style waffles along with “debuts,” such as peanut butter waffles. Another attraction on the menu, the banana choco-chip waffle, was a definite success.
The renovation of the store has also allowed the customers to distance themselves from the talk show aspect of the project as the colorful stage is set up in the corner of the shop. “People can visually see that they don’t have to be on TV if they don’t want to,” Soong explains. In the old design, customers would walk in and be surrounded by cameras.
Boyd, a Pittsburgh native, is excited about the recent renovations and “get[ting] to know this really diverse community area” of East Liberty and Shadyside during the setting up of the store.
The general consensus among Waffle Shop staff and certain devoted Waffle Shop customers is that the shop is becoming a “permanent artist project” and that it hopes to be around for a long time. We now have a “really comfortable front,” mentioned Boyd as he described his aspiration for the shop to stay in its current restaurant and talk show form for a long time to come. With its professional and interesting design, quality waffles, and a number of satisfied customers, it’s easy to see that The Waffle Shop is on its way to becoming a long-term part of the East Liberty neighborhood.
From a Carnegie Mellon perspective, the project is also worthwhile and interesting as it is a premiere example of cross-collaboration between departments on campus and Pittsburgh culture off campus. Randi Smith, a senior architecture major and Waffle Shop staff member, explained the excitement of “starting this business from scratch” and seeing the shop grow, as it was forced to combine “departments across schools” and outsource creatively in order to stay alive.
Of the 13 staff members of the shop, there are two art majors, eight design students, two masters students in arts management, and the aforementioned Smith. Hoping to acquire a SURF grant this year, Boyd and Smith both cited the importance of coming together across campus and having at least some business skills to get their project’s message out while keeping it funded. Smith sees the next step of the Waffle Shop being to “convince people it is a real restaurant.”
An exciting aspect to the Waffle Shop is that you never know who is going to walk through its doors. Opening when most businesses are closed for the day or weekend, the shop is a convergence of many different people and lifestyles coming together for the simple goal of having a waffle and enjoying some company. Smith explained the shop’s atmosphere as a converging place “when all those paths cross.”
One devoted Waffle Shop customer who is currently struggling to find a job while trying to apply to colleges comes for the creative and social atmosphere. Earlier in the night, he volunteered to be the guest on the talk show where he and Boyd started playing a game of Monopoly. Talk shows and former reality TV shows from the Waffle Shop can also be found on YouTube. While these are the current two media for the Shop’s footage, they are hoping to gain some access to local television and cmuTV to spread their message to a larger portion of the public.
Of the shop’s customers, at least a third is composed of Carnegie Mellon students. “It’s neat that people from the community come; it gets the students involved in community events,” said first-year flute major Elizabeth Talbert.
Del Castillo noticed the intricacy and friendly design of the space and appreciated the work many art and design students put into the project. “[It’s a] cool way [of getting] involved with the community,” she said, excited about the cross-disciplinary example the Waffle Shop sets and how “it allows all of the students to be here and participate.”
The Waffle Shop may resemble Nighthawks from the outside, but the interior is a lively social atmosphere that is only enhanced by tasty waffles. The shop is on the rise with aspirations for the future, such as hiring local artists to perform in the space during designated variety hours. The impact of the Waffle Shop comes in the waffles it produces, the freedom of speech it encourages, the community involvement it sponsors, and the unique personalities that come through it; there really is no other place quite like it.