Fat Head's Saloon turns 25

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South Side institution-turned-multi-state operation celebrates couple’s humble start on Carson

No longer just a South Side institution, Fat Head’s is a multi-state craft beer phenomenon. 

A new $12 million production brewery and restaurant is being built in the Cleveland suburb of Middleburg Heights to replace, early next year, the brewery and tap room the company built in 2012 and quickly outgrew, in part thanks to a pile of national and international awards.  

There’s a booming Fat Head’s brewpub in nearby North Olmsted, Ohio, that opened in the spring of 2009. 

There’s a Fat Head’s brewpub in Portland, Ore., that opened in 2014, and similar brewpubs slated for Canton, Ohio, and Charlotte, N.C., within the next year or two. 

Not all fans of this winning brand know that it all started in Pittsburgh in 1992 at the original Fat Head’s Saloon that a young couple opened at 1805 E. Carson St. This month, the couple, Glenn and Michelle Benigni, plan to celebrate their 25th anniversary there in a space that they’ve newly renovated for whatever comes next.

This spring and summer, they widened the bar area and the bar itself, and updated the tap system and back bar. They also have installed a new tin ceiling, reconfigured the upstairs and adjacent patio, and redone the bathrooms, kitchen and menu. 

Still, if you hadn’t been in in a decade or two, you’d immediately recognize it as Fat Head’s, from the colorful head logos to the “headwiches” -— sandwiches nearly as big as your head — and other enduring aspects of what owners and workers proudly call “Fat Head’s culture.”  

Sitting at the new bar, reflecting on the story so far, Mr. Benigni chose his words carefully, as if he were talking about their kids (they’ve raised three). “This, in my mind, is my baby and my bread and butter.” 

He was just 25, living with Michelle and her mom at nearby 23rd and Sarah streets, in the early 1990s. He’d just bought a bar in the neighborhood he grew up in, Beechview, a basement dive just off the main drag of Broadway. He and a partner rechristened it with a nickname a schoolmate had given him: “Big Head’s.” While the beer choices were, typically for the times, minimal and bland — they offered bottles of Guinness “because one guy liked it” — they started serving some pretty tasty sandwiches, wings and other bar food, and business was decent until the partnership broke up.

The Benignis spotted this three-story 1874 Victorian, which had held a succession of restaurants, for sale at a surprising low price so they bought it. But that summer of 1992, as their liquor license transfer was delayed, they took a quick vacation to Ocean City, Md., where they wound up in a bar unlike any they’d ever been to. It offered scores of beers and “passports” for customers to record each one they drank. They loved it and agreed, We have to bring this to Pittsburgh.

It wasn’t easy, as what were then called microbrews were just beginning to rise, but they managed to offer 99 brands of bottled beer, with eight on tap, at the new Fat Head’s Saloon. A friend of a friend, in a matter of seconds, sketched out the logo on a BevNap.

“I would kill,” Mr. Benigni says with a smile, “to have that today.”

They were too busy handwriting and photocopying their first menus and putting them under windshield wipers up and down Carson. Opening day was Sept. 11, 1992.

He cooked. Michelle tended bar and served. He was proud of their busiest day that first year, when there were eight people at the bar watching the final game of the National League Championship Series. When Atlanta’s Sid Bream slid home to beat the Pirates, every customer walked out.

As the 1990s went on, so-called craft beer kept getting more popular, as did Fat Head’s food, and its tap list grew. South Side’s popularity was peaking, too, and Fat Head’s became a destination. 

In the meantime, in the early 2000s, Matt Cole was making a name for himself —  first as a homebrewer while he attended the University of Pittsburgh, later while brewing at Great Lakes and Rocky River brewing companies. They’d heard of each other, and Mr. Benigni, at one of his Saturday morning “beer camps,” tried and loved several of Mr. Cole’s beers.

But they really didn’t know each other until one day in 2008 when Mr. Cole drove to Pittsburgh to ask the Benignis to invest in a brewpub he and some others planned to open in a former farmers market in North Olmsted, Ohio. Mr. Cole was so nervous he almost turned around, but the meeting happened at Fat Head’s Saloon. The Benignis agreed to be part of the project, but it was going to be a Fat Head’s brewpub. It clicked.

The couple and Mr. Cole decided to grow into a production brewery, with its own taphouse, and before long they were maxing out at 32,000 annual barrels of beers, some of which were gaining cult followings. 

They not only were amassing a lot of bronze, silver and gold but also doing it in some of the most popular beer categories. Hop Juju Imperial India pale ale won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in 2013 and 2015 and a bronze in 2016, when Fat Head’s five medals were more than any brewing company in the country. 

Today, anywhere from 10 to 20 of the 42 taps at the South Side bar are Fat Head’s. 

“I haven’t had a domestic beer in 25 years,” Mr. Benigni says, while sipping water. He still works a LOT, driving to Ohio one day a week, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It went fast, but it took forever,” he says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

He believes it will take some time before they make money on the new brewery but is counting on slow and steady growth. They could double production to 65,000 barrels over the next four to five years, and ultimately grow to 125,000 barrels.

Now that the three Benigni daughters are either college graduates or about to enter, he and his wife are talking about selling their house in Robinson and moving back to the city, maybe to the place where it all began. He’s seen South Side change so much over the three decades and is painfully aware of its challenges, including parking, but he’s continuing to invest in its future.

“In my opinion, this is the best neighborhood in the city.” 

Andrew Topping is right there with him, just across Carson Street. He owns Piper’s Pub, which he opened in 1999 in a building the Benignis sold to him.

“They’ve been nothing but good to us,” he says, appreciating everything from their personalities to their attention to detail.

“That’s how they get to 25.”

And 24, as Monday is another anniversary, Mr. Benigni confirms: “We got married the following year, 1993, same day, the 11th. Twenty-four years for us.” 

Locations

Fat Head’s Saloon, 1805 E. Carson St., South Side (15203)

Fat Head’s Brewery & Saloon, North Olmsted, Ohio

Fat Head’s Brewery, Middleburg Heights, Ohio

Fat Head’s Brewery, Portland, Ore.

Coming this year: Fat Head’s, Canton, Ohio

Coming in 2018: Fat Head’s, Charlotte, N.C.

More at fatheads.com. 

Anniversary fun 

Fat Head’s opened on Sept. 11, 1992, so Monday, the place is marking the occasion by having owners Glenn and Michelle Benigni guest bartend from 4 to 6 p.m. when drafts from Fat Head’s Brewery, including a 25th Anniversary IPA, will be half priced. That beer comes with a souvenir glass you can keep (one per customer per day). It’s 7.7 percent alcohol by volume and 82 IBU, brewed with Chinook, Warrior and Citra hops and dry-hopped with Mosaic and Simcoe Cryo hops. 

From 2 to 6 p.m., 93.7 FM The Fan’s Chris Mueller will be broadcasting the [Joe] Starkey & Mueller show from the place, of which he’s a huge fan (the regular proposed to his wife there). 

From 6 to 11 p.m., wings are 25 cents.

Through September, you can buy $25 gift cards for $19.92 and drink the anniversary brew while it lasts. There are “throwback foods” and anniversary swag available for purchase, too.

Sunday, Sept. 10, is the place’s traditional post-Steel City Big Pour beer brunch from 9 a.m. to noon.  

As the Benignis noted in a recent email blast to customers looking back over their 25 years, “Of course, without you none of that would be possible. We would like to convey our heartfelt thanks to all of our customers, employees, family and friends who share this incredible experience with us.”

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.

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