When someone mentions crepes, they often think of the soft and sweet French crepe, filled with cream and strawberries, topped with powdered sugar.
But with the opening on June 27 of T-vertebra At Schenley Plaza, Oakland residents can try Japanese crepe: a crispy and chewy crepe that is neatly folded into a hand-held cone and topped with either sweet foods – strawberries, chocolate truffles, or bananas – or savory foods like crab meat or salmon.
Owner Tom Chen said the crepes look “nice” when you wrap them up.
“We have a lot of customers who don’t even want to eat it when they see it!” Chen said with a chuckle.
From the 12 different sweet crepes, including matcha chocolate truffles and lychee romance, to the two different savory crepes, spicy crab meat and smoked salmon, the Japanese take-away crepes appeal to a wide range of customers.
Before opening the two T-Swirl locations in Pittsburgh, Chen worked at Schenley Plaza’s Asia Tea House, owned by his father, from 2010 to 2017. While on vacation in Queens, New York City, Chen was introduced to Japanese crepes. He loved the crispy hand dessert and decided to contact T-Swirl’s corporate headquarters. In December 2017, he opened a location in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
Encouraged by the success of T-Swirl in Squirrel Hill, Chen began making plans to open a second location in Pittsburgh. He said Schenley Plaza management called to offer him space previously occupied by Waffallonia, a local dessert chain.
“It’s the place and it’s also near the student,” said Chen. “This is also a good advertisement for us, so that people know us.”
Chen said he expects business to get busier once the students arrive on campus for the fall semester.
The location on campus, the novelty of Japanese crepes, and the variety of crepes offered on the T-Swirl menu are some of the reasons why some customers choose to purchase a T-Swirl crepes.
One person attracted to T-Swirl is Joshua McDermott, a Pitt graduate student studying sociology. McDermott said he was walking past Schenley Plaza on a sunny Tuesday afternoon after teaching at Posvar Hall when the T-Swirl sign caught his eye.
“The waffle thing was too easy,” said McDermott. “That’s more interesting. There are more things. “
But the crepes primarily appeal to gluten-free consumers – the crepes are made from rice flour instead of regular flour, which gives them their crispy taste.
Rachel Rudnicki, a senior psychology student in Pitt, said she was relaxing with friends on Schenley Plaza when she decided to try a T-swirl crepe.
“What I noticed was’ gluten free, ‘so I was like,’ Oh, gluten free! Let me check it out because I can actually eat it, ”said Rudnicki, who has celiac disease. “And then I looked at the menu and it looked really nice.”
Chen said that gluten-free foods are more common these days and one of the reasons he and his customers are drawn to Japanese crepe. While the crepe itself is gluten-free, some of the toppings, including the pudding, aren’t gluten-free. Chen mentioned that he is currently working with the supplier to make the pudding completely gluten-free.
Opening a store in Schenley Plaza also means staying close to family. Chen and his father Feng said they help each other in running their respective grocery stores in the square.
“He’s helping me order the business because I don’t speak English at all,” said elder Chen, a Chinese spokesman, in an email that his son translated. “I’m helping him give him the knowledge to start the new business.”
The father and son duo are just two of the steadily growing Asian companies in Pittsburgh. According to CBS PittsburghThe city’s Asian population increased by 28% between 2013 and 2017. Largely due to the influx of overseas students and immigrants who want to go to school or work in Pittsburgh, more Asian businesses are opening up to meet demand.
Kung Fu tea, a national chain of bubble tea stores, was one of the companies that saw this growing trend and opened an Oakland Food Truck in May. Kevin Chu, the truck’s manager, said the growing Asian population is one of their target audiences in Oakland.
“There isn’t enough Asian culture in Oakland, there could be a little more,” Chu said. “So every little bit counts.”
With the new T-Swirl location at Schenley Plaza and the new Kung Fu Tea Truck, Oakland is slowly expanding its Asian-style restaurants to cater to the growing Asian population in Pittsburgh. When asked whether or not he would open a third T-Swirl location, Chen said he was considering another location within the next year or so.
“Yes, that’s my plan,” said Chen.
An earlier version of this story said the manager of the former Waffallonia booth in Schenley Plaza offered Tom Chen the location for a T-Swirl store. Schenley Plaza management was the group that offered the location to Chen. The Pitt News regrets this mistake.