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North Neighborhoods
Community is the loser in closing of Mitchell's Deli in Etna

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

By Susan Jacobs, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

She won't go quietly.

That's what Lou Mitchell vowed when she heard a few weeks ago that the lease for her Etna deli would not be renewed.

Lou Mitchell, left, owner of Mitchell's Deli in Etna, jokes with her customers, Etna Mayor Bill Dougherty, right, and Etna police Patrolman Tim Rodman. The good-natured, barbed repartee that Mitchell enjoys with these regulars have earned their table the nickname, "The Infamous Table 13," in a deli that has only 10 tables. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"I'm not a derelict, and I'm not going to go away," she said. While she knows that getting a new lease for Mitchell's Deli is unlikely, she is fighting for more time to properly close her business and sell the equipment, which she said cannot be done by the time the lease expires at the end of April.

The popular eatery opened as an Isaly's store in 1938 and has been faithfully serving soups, sandwiches and fresh-baked pies ever since.

Mitchell, 59, and partner Margie DeArmit, 74, run the store themselves, doing everything from cooking and waiting on tables to mopping the floors and managing the business. They work seven days a week, closing only on Christmas. They never take a vacation.

"They're priceless," said Philip Isaly, of Ross, grandson of the restaurant chain's founder, who has known the two women for most of his life. "You can't find a better work ethic. Period."

Until March 2, when a letter arrived informing them that the lease would not be renewed, Mitchell and DeArmit, both of Shaler, had every intention of remaining in business for another year or so. Then they hoped to sell the store to someone who would operate a similar eatery.

Property owner Sarah Karam of Morningside has refused to specify her reasons for not renewing the lease.

"The deli knows why, and I don't want to air their dirty linen," Karam said. "I don't think that's right."

But Mitchell and DeArmit said they don't know why.

"I certainly don't know what's in her mind," Mitchell said.

Steven Carnevali, a dentist from Millvale who once worked at Mitchell's, said some people in the town are speculating that Karam is not renewing the lease for their favorite gathering place in retaliation for the demise of the plan to house the homeless in her building.

Late last year, Northside Common Ministries looked into using the upper floors of the building as temporary housing for homeless men. The Etna building inspector told ministry leaders that the space would have to be renovated at considerable cost to be suitable for use as a group home.

Janet Holtz, executive director of Northside Common Ministries, said the apartments there would not have been a group home, and therefore should not have required such extensive renovations. But, she said, the appeals process to get the borough to change its requirements for the space would have taken too long and been too costly for the agency.

Some residents circulated a petition to oppose the use of the building, but the ministry withdrew its proposal, so the borough didn't formally reject the plan.

"[Karam] might think the borough was responsible" for the project being dropped, said Etna Mayor Bill Dougherty.

Dougherty stops in for lunch at Mitchell's just about every day and stays for hours. Police Chief Robert Ober is also a regular, as are other local officials.

Centrally located at Butler Street and Freeport Road, Mitchell's is the only place in Etna that sells groceries. Since the borough doesn't have any grocery stores, many residents, especially the elderly, shop for bread, milk and other basics at Mitchell's.

"It's going to be a huge void in this community," Mitchell said. "I want my customers to know that we won't be here."

She also wants her customers to know that she isn't closing voluntarily. For a few days, she displayed a sign in the store window that read, "I lost my lease after 22 years. Sally Karam will not renew it."

Mitchell and her husband, Archie, joined with DeArmit in 1980 to buy the store, after all three had worked there for many years. DeArmit started working there in 1945, Archie Mitchell worked there from 1949 until his death in 1996, and Lou Mitchell started working at the store in 1958.

The restaurant still has its Isaly's green floor tiles and an ice cream freezer that could hold the full selection of Isaly's flavors. Mitchell's pride and joy is a refrigerated meat case that is as old as the store but sparkles like new. The women use the shop's original meat slicer to "chip" ham for customers.

DeArmit and Mitchell have already received job offers for after the store closes, but both women worry about the future. Both invested their own money to maintain the store, hoping they would make a profit when they sold the business. Now they are concerned about scraping by and about being able to sell all the store's contents before May. They plan to auction the diner's equipment in mid-April.

"It's like a death in the family," Mitchell said of the closing.

In addition to their personal worries, the women worry about their customers, especially the elderly residents who have nowhere else to eat.

Mitchell said they notice when regular customers don't show up and take the time to call or visit to make sure they are OK.

"I'm more worried about the town," DeArmit said. "This town needs this place."

No one knows what Karam's plans for the building are, if she has any.

"I don't know what's going to happen next," said Etna Manager Mary Ellen Ramage. "I'm assuming she has other intentions for the building."

Mitchell said she looked into renting a storefront across Butler Street, but renovating a new place would cost close to $100,000.

Dougherty said that other businesses will lose foot traffic from Mitchell's if it closes.

Lunch-time customers last week said they would deeply miss the store.

"We're hysterical," said Joan Cessna, who works nearby. "We don't know what we're going to do. These ladies are too nice to have this happen to them."

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