Q&A: Tim Tobitsch, Co-Owner of Franktuary
Sadly, Franktuary closed their brick and mortar location at 3810 Butler St. on February 12, 2022. They will be greatly missed in our community and Butler Street will forever have a hot dog shaped hole in its heart knowing that Franktuary’s doors have closed.
Our Business District Manager, Abi Gildea, sat down with Tim Tobitsch, co-owner of Franktuary, to ask him about his time in Lawrenceville and what he hopes to see in the future for himself and the neighborhood.
Q: Why did you choose Lawrenceville for Franktuary?
A: Well, we got started downtown, at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Pittsburgh, a gothic cathedral. Me and my business partner, Megan Lindsey, were just out of college and that was the only rent we could afford. We had limited hours, a shared water heater with the church, and blew electric circuits all the time. If we wanted to keep doing what we were doing, we knew we had to find a new space.
That’s when we started the food truck in 2010. That was our first attempt at growing beyond the downtown space. We were the first food truck in Pittsburgh at the time that moved around and cooked on site, I’m pretty sure. We were lucky to grow up in that scene, and it really helped put us on the map in Pittsburgh as far as people being familiar with the brand. Plus, food trucks are great for market research. You get to go to a bunch of different neighborhoods and see which ones you do well in. We were consistently doing really well in Lawrenceville, so that’s what made us want to move our business here. The space on Butler Street was just being built, and we approached the landlords, and were able to have the space. Now we have 18 years of business under our belt, 9 in Lawrenceville.
Q: What will you miss most about Lawrenceville?
A: I live on 43rd, and selfishly I’ll miss being able to host friends and family at the space. Overall, I’ll miss the point of connection a restaurant can be. Over the weekend when we were closing, it was an experience like no other. I had people coming up to me I had never met, telling me they had their first date here, and now they’ve been married for however many years; an initial bartender who’s now a firefighter had come on our last trivia night and brought 4-5 friends who he had met as customers while he worked here; I met my wife in 2013 when she was hired as an employee.
I’m really excited to have the opportunity to reset. Maybe I’ll have a brick and mortar again someday, maybe I’ll sell the food truck after this season. I’m happy to have had this experience especially as someone who has talked about owning a restaurant since I was five years old.
Q: What’s your favorite memory?
A: The true apex of Franktuary was 2013-2015, the first 3 years we were in the neighborhood. It was great, and we had a ton of fun. A specific memory is during the 2014 winter olympics. I’m a really big hockey fan and so are a lot of my good friends. There was nowhere to watch these really early in the morning games. There was a USA vs. Russia game at 7am and we were open. T.J. Oshie scored several shootout goals. We must have had 150-200 people in there for breakfast. We were handing out donuts and coffee, it was a really fun day. That jumps out for me more than anything else. On a personal level, meeting my wife here too. We’ve been married for three years.
As far as business goes, we had a really popular trivia night. I was never good at it, but we built it from the ground up. Two of our former employees hosted it from the very beginning. We never brought in a company to run it for us. Art all Night in the early days was a great memory. It was right down the street from us and we stayed open late because we’d have twice the volume of a normal busy Saturday.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you faced?
A: The delivery trend was growing more than I would have liked before the pandemic, and of course the pandemic blew it out of the water. We always relied on volume of sales since we had a lower price point. That model doesn’t work in a space as large as ours when too many people want to stay home to eat.
Delivery just isn’t for us and wasn’t ever part of our business model, like so many other restaurants. It’s hard for me to trust my product in the hands of someone else, especially when I’ve watched it sit on the counter for 20-30 minutes and then will sit in a car for even longer. That’s something I don’t have any control over. The fees from delivery apps are generally 30% of the tab. I’m in a business where you’re doing well if you’re making $0.10 on the dollar. It also takes away the opportunity for alcohol sales, which we rely on.
In general, managing staff is a serious challenge. In the restaurant industry, we are so dependent on employees making their shifts and customers coming into a physical space. In general, sick people can’t come in, and with the pandemic, illness has been so much more frequent. Managing that is really tough. You can’t afford to close, so someone – if not everyone on the team – is constantly stretched thin. During our busiest time of year, we had 20 employees, 12-15 in the winter. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s someone else that has to pick up the slack. I’m just really looking forward to not having to think about that.
Q: How can people stay in touch and continue to support your business?
A: The food truck is scheduled to start operating as soon as late March. Our website is still up and we’re working on it as we go. It’ll become more food truck centric, and you’ll be able to book the food truck through the website.
We’ll still run our social media and we’ll be releasing a recipe book soon that is pay-what-you-can.
Q: What’s something you hope to see in LV in the future?
A: As a resident, I do love the food scene in Lawrenceville. Part of why I decided to sell is because we are no longer the new and shiny thing, which is just the way it goes. I hope the food scene continues to thrive here whether or not I’m part of it.
I’d like to see more events like Art All Night and Open Streets. Events like those are what make the neighborhood unique.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share about your time in Lawrenceville?
A: I’m so grateful for the time we’ve had here. I don’t know how many people know, but we salvaged the pews from the Holy Family Church on 44th Street to turn into the restaurant’s booth seating. William Penn Tavern is planning on keeping those booths. My contractor fabricated the ends to turn the pews into restaurant booths. The footrests at the bar are from the old kneelers for the pews, and we made our shelves from the hymnal racks. Our bar front is salvaged from a demolished building in McKeesport. We sourced a lot of the materials mindfully and hyper-locally. We are proud of those elements and feel like that’s part of what made us unique.