Home-cooked ideas are on the menu at Elisco's Creative Cafe | Lifespace
Elisco’s Creative Cafe, Lawrenceville

Home-cooked ideas are on the menu at Elisco’s Creative Cafe

September 22, 2016

For 38 years, Elisco Creative Cafe’s core objective has been to serve clients. Only now, the context is literal. Headed by president and creative director John Elisco, the advertising agency has evolved rather atypically since it was founded by Elisco’s father in 1978. Back then, under the name Stone Wheel, the company was celebrated for its proactive account service and nontraditional ways of thinking. It still is, of course — but since 2002, those fresh ideas have been served alongside actual home-cooked meals. Headquartered on Lawrenceville’s storefront-heavy Butler Street, Elisco’s Creative Cafe is a supremely clever — albeit quirky — fusion of the advertising and food service industries.

“Twelve years ago, we asked our clients why they picked us,” Elisco tells me. “They all said basically the same things. They loved our account service. They liked our creative. And the last part, which was the weird part — everyone said, ‘We really like the food that you bring to events.’ So we thought, ‘How do we combine food, creativity, and account service?’ So we did this [Creative] Cafe. It’s a celebration of things that we’re passionate about.”

Several times per year, the firm’s multi-talented staff of seven plans and hosts a range of free events, open to anyone and everyone in the Pittsburgh community. Think: dinners, wine tastings, art shows, and poetry readings, all designed to foster an office space that’s both welcoming and conducive to creative thought. Fare is prepared by a few “great cooks” on the team. It’s served, naturally, in the Cafe’s dining room.

Want to make your customers feel at home? Rule No. 1: Design your office like an actual home.

Built in the early 1900s, all 2,000 square feet of the Cafe’s working quarters resemble a residential dwelling — and a well lived-in one, at that. Between three floors, nine rooms, a full kitchen, and three full bathrooms, this crew is certainly not pressed for elbow room. The place even has an outdoor deck, fresh with plant life in warm months; and a detached garage, site of the agency’s annual “Winter Bocce Classic” and, recently, a Maryland-crab-eating party (“Crabvertising”).

“We like to make the process of whatever we’re doing — which happens to be advertising — as fun as we can make it,” says Elisco.

Just don’t be fooled by their laid-back atmosphere.

Since its inception, Elisco’s Creative Cafe has assisted in launching nearly 2,000 new products, services, and companies. Its local clients include Trib Total Media and Port Authority; among its national are Joy and Bayer. Unofficially, it’s one of the most respected advertising agencies in Pittsburgh. And still, after roughly four decades of continued success, this team has retained its humility.

“We have a very collaborative environment,” says Elisco. “We have a very creative environment without excessive ego. We believe in what we believe in, but we’re also in the commercial business side of [advertising]. So, we tend to work well with others. That’s what [our team dynamic] is like. It’s just very down-to-earth.”

I talked to John Elisco for 29 minutes and 30 seconds on the day of our meeting. In that time, I learned the names, titles, and hometowns of everyone on the team; was given a narrated tour of the building; and received a detailed account of what Lawrenceville was like 14 years ago (in a nutshell: nothing like it is now). Very quickly, I discovered just how much these people care — about the work they do; about their clients; about each other.

You can’t walk past the agency’s front door without noticing its logo. It’s not a hop, and it’s certainly not a marijuana bud, though Elisco’s been asked about both. It’s an artichoke. And it fits this company like a glove.

“Sometimes people will ask about the artichoke,” he says. “‘Why an artichoke?’ I think what I would want people to know is why we picked it. We liked it because it represented our Italian heritage. [We liked] that it is unique, that it has multiple layers. And at the center of it is a really good heart.”

PHOTOGRAPHY: TARA BENNETT