Through It All, New Castle Businesses Endure

NEW CASTLE, Pa. – During a midweek lunch rush at the Capitol Grill in downtown New Castle, owner Sam Constant hurries between bar patrons, taking lunch orders, runs food out from the kitchen and, in the middle of it all, makes conversation with his regulars.

“It’s always been a workingman’s bar,” going back more than 50 years to when his grandfather became a co-owner, he says. “Any time of the day, you can come in and there’s people here. Good people. Working-class people.”

Just as the Constants have been serving patrons for decades, so has Bruce & Merrilees Electric Co., founded in 1948 by co-owner Justin Bruce’s grandfather. Today Justin Bruce works with customers whose parents and grandparents hired the company.

In the heart of downtown, Haney’s Comfort Living Furniture owner Sid Shenkan runs into the sister-in-law of a former employee as she shops.

“How’s he doing?” Shenkan asks. “Let him know that we appreciated what he did here and we’d love for him to stop by.”

These types of relationships, those that build organically over the years, are numerous in New Castle. They were built on a solid base of trust and respect, which is why so many of the city’s businesses have been around for decades.

Haney’s was founded in 1912 and the Shenkan family took over in 1927. The two major fireworks companies in town, Zambelli Fireworks and Pyrotecnico were founded in 1893 and 1889, respectively. Butz Flowers was founded in 1851. Coney Island and Blair Strip Steel Co. set up shop in the ’20s. Forbush Ice Cream, Augustine’s Pizza and Berner International all trace their roots to the post-World War II boom.

Sid Shenkan, owner of Haney’s Comfort Living Furniture.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, Eckles Architecture was making a name for itself in the Shenango Valley, designing churches and college campuses, including Westminster and Grove City colleges.

“The campus plan [at Grove City College] was done with the sons of Frederick Olmstead, the architect for Central Park in New York,” says Eckles President David Esposito. “He was a consultant with Eckles for the upper campus.”

William G. Eckles founded the firm in 1898, making it one of the 50 oldest architecture firms in the country. The Eckles family led the enterprise until the 1990s.

“It’s an odd thing to have an architecture firm in a town with 23,000 people. But back in 1898, this was a big place,” Esposito says. “There were two firms and the other had been here longer than us and has closed. They competed for the development that was happening in this area.”

When the firm was at its busiest, it stuck mostly to western Pennsylvania. Today, though, it has stretched the boundaries of where it will go. Most jobs remain within a few hours’ drive, but the firm has taken on projects as far as Galveston, Texas.

Other businesses in New Castle are expanding into new markets as well.

After 81 years in business, Weingartner’s owners George and Tom Weingartner decided in 2014 to shift the family business from being a flower shop to offering home décor, fashion accessories and gifts.

Their greenhouse is still open part of the year, but no longer is Weingartner’s a flower shop. Business is good, says George Weingartner, but there’s always work to be done.

“Even though we’ve been here 80 years and involved in all sorts of organizations, there are still people who don’t know us,” he says. “We have to put ourselves out there, tell them who we are and give them the opportunities to see what we do.”

And going out into the community doesn’t simply draw new customers. It’s a reflection of how well long-time businesses know their niche.

Being a working-class bar is what Capitol Grill remains because that’s what Constant’s grandfather was.

“He didn’t start a restaurant here in New Castle. He started off with a parking lot and he worked his way up. Then his cousin asked if he wanted to buy into a bar and he did,” Constant says. “I’ve been telling my family since I could speak that this was going to be mine eventually. They didn’t want it for me. It’s hustle-and-bustle. It’s not a nine-to-five. But it’s what I’ve always wanted. So I can’t complain.”

A similar ethic has played a role in drawing – and keeping – employees, says Bruce & Merrilees co-owner Justin Bruce. The company has grown to five offices across western Pennsylvania with the headquarters in New Castle, where the company was founded in 1948.

“New Castle is a hard-working, blue-collar type of town. We care about each and we support each other. That’s why there are so many family businesses here,” he says. “And the employees value having that. We have people travel in from Pittsburgh and Canfield and Mercer. They come to New Castle every day because they like those values and that atmosphere.”

For those businesses that have been around decades or, in a few cases a century, longevity can be a boost for both the company and the community. All acknowledged that having a business stick around has translated into a name the community can rely on through any business climate.

“We have customers who’ve been with us 40 years and when you have that longevity, there’s a tremendous value in that,” Bruce says. “It can be a challenge at times when we’re trying to change our way of thinking or the way we do things. Overall, we’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of people who’ve seen a lot of different things.”

Regardless of the years behind them, they look forward at how they can improve upon that legacy. For example, Shenkan led Haney’s after the original store burned down in the ’80s and has kept the ship afloat by keeping up with trends.

Even with projects such as Westminster College or the Grove City College master plans in their portfolio, Esposito understands that those projects are long past.

“When someone is hiring today, they want to know what you can do right now. We’re proud of that legacy,” he says. “We still have to hire good people and keep current to remain a viable firm. It’s nice to say that and there’s a desire to keep the ball rolling.”

All also expressed excitement about the future of New Castle. As Bruce & Merrilees continues on its growth path, Bruce says, so can the city.

There’s always something to do, Constant notes, from the festivals and downtown concerts to the natural resources and activities. “A lot of people think they have to spend money to do something,” he says. “But there’s so much that’s free.”

Shenkan, who sees himself retiring in the not-so-distant future, admits to some concern about who will run Haney’s after him, but he’s still encouraged by the natives who leave and return home.

“It’s interesting to see young people who’ve left New Castle come back and visit the establishments that are still here. They point out to their friends where they lived, where their schools are and what’s in the community,” he says. “We’re survivors of the Rust Belt community. … We have a lot of good customers who follow us. I’ve been working with third and fourth generations. If we give them good value, good quality furniture and good prices and good services, they’ll come back.”

Pictured at top: Sam Constant owns Capitol Grill, just as his grandfather did more than 50 years ago.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.