Optimism Served With Every Burger at Local Restaurant

Owner Jake Armstrong (left) supervises the back line employees in the kitchen of Harper’s Grill in Ford City.

One of the area’s newest restaurants is attracting everyone such as township workers, professionals, and tourists as well as retired senior citizens who want a taste of yesteryear when they were home on the family farm.

Harper’s Grill serves up fresh Black Angus beef grown locally on farms in Manor Township and Dayton, according to its owners – Jake and Justine Armstrong.

“My father-in-law has the beef farm in Manor Township,” Jake explained. “In the 30 years they have owned the farm, there has never been any type of fertilizer or anything synthetic on the farm. It’s all free-range grass-fed (beef). It’s a much healthier, much leaner beef. My wife’s uncle has a larger farm also in Dayton. When needed, he can supplement us.”

Jake, now 32 years old, spent his early years as a teenager working at local restaurants learning not just about the food, but how to build a business.

“I feel like I have learned from the best business people in this area. At 16, I worked for Sirena’s and the Hill family. Then I worked for Chris and Mel Diaz (Mel’s Pizza). Then I worked at Fox’s Pizza all through college. I only stayed at college one weekend in four years. The others, I would drive home to go to work at Fox’s. I learned a little bit from each of them, and I believe it has made all the difference in my approach to business. They each taught me something different.”

Jake has owned a restaurant in Indiana for the past three years, but was yearning to bring his business concept home. He is a graduate of Kittanning and Justine is a Ford City graduate. They have a 22-month-old daughter, Harper. She became the inspiration for this new venture.

“I’m in love with the area. A lot of people have this negative mindset of it. I’m the complete opposite. I think we are in a generational turn. My generation did not see the highs and lows. We didn’t have to experience the downfall (of an era). Optimism now is at the forefront rather than seeing this mass exodus of people in the area from when plants closed. I see opportunity. I could go on and on about the plusses of this area. You go from Pittsburgh to New York. Besides Oakmont, I believe Ford City and Kittanning are the nicest river towns in the entire state. I believe this is just the beginning of good things to come in the area. There are a lot of empty buildings that are starting to find purpose again.”

Jake looked at their current location in Ford City. It had held several pizza shops over the past many years, but had been vacant. It seemed like the perfect fit for Harper’s Grill. Jake felt his concept fit the revitalization of that area of 10th Street and 4th Avenue.

“This building along with several other buildings are part of a plan to rejuvinate the area. A micro-brewery is set to open soon next door. A coffee shop may also join the current glass business and beauty shops. Harper’s Grill brings a uniqueness of grass-fed customized burgers.”

Jake said the building was full of nostalgia, but very functional.

“The original pizza sign is still in a shipping crate in the basement. It looks like it is from the early 80’s. It’s a pretty kewl nostalgic piece. The necessities were here. The walk-in cooler, hood vents, plumbing was ran, all the utilities for the oven and grill. So we concentrated on updating cosmetically and then get a few pieces of equipment. It all fell into place for our concept.”

Harper’s Grill features a variety of burgers cooked to your specification in addition to waffle fries, homemade chips, and specialty salads. There are a lot of old pictures hanging on the dining room wall of Ford City. But Jake drew inspiration from his childhood to begin creating specialty burgers named after local people.

Zane Dudek bites into a burger named after him at Harper’s Grill. Zane broke many WPIAL records while playing football for Armstrong High School. He is now attending and playing for the Yale Bulldogs in college.

“When I was a kid, I watched Dave Letterman all the time. He would do these pieces where he would go down the street to the New York deli. They had sandwiches named after famous people. I always thought that was a kewl concept. Anyone from this area that follows high school football knows Zane Dudek.”

The Dudek burger is a double-decker cheeseburger with bacon on chips on a pretzel roll. A big appetite must come with this big burger if you order it.

“I think we are in a unique time – the Jason Nulph’s of the world, the Nick Bowers – these younger kids are beyond talented. It would be an honor if down the road we could bring them in. It is just a concept of naming sandwiches after local people.

“I originally wanted to name the Allegheny Mountain burger after Eljer, and incorporate the history of downtown, but then I was concerned about restrictions for name use since Eljer products are still being manufactured overseas. So we veered away from that. I wanted to incorporate the heritage of the area.”

To have good food, a restaurant must employ good people.

“I believe that in business, it’s all about creating the right environment,” Jake said. “When you get people who believe in what you are trying to do, and at the same time treating them well, they will want to be a part of that environment.”

The head cook is Justine’s cousin. Their second cook formerly worked at a Cowansville restaurant. Many of the servers are former employees of the Manor Inn.

“These were two restaurants in the area that closed and we were able to absorb their employees. They brought a little something from each place, so we were able to hit the ground running pretty easily. We didn’t have to put as much training into staffing as I anticipated,” Jake said.

Harper’s also offers delivery. Orders are also received via an online app that is available for smart phones. Orders are processed at digital speeds and burgers can be delivered directly to local homes. Staff is also available by telephone for those who wish to talk to someone to place an order.

With the success of Harper’s Grill, Jake said he is open to the possibility of opening additional grills in the future at other locations.