PITTSBURGH — Sonja Finn doesn’t think we should be fighting over one slice of the pie.
That maxim dictates just about everything Finn does. It’s why tipping is verboten at her upscale pizza joint, Dinette. It’s the reason she decided to open her first restaurant in the neighborhood where she grew up. It’s why she is running for Pittsburgh City Council. Perhaps it’s why she ordered us two pizzas.
“If the people are battling it out over crumbs … somebody else has the seven other slices,” Finn said.
She’s trying to change that mindset, starting with her restaurant and, if she wins, at City Hall. “There is a significant portion of the population that believes that if somebody else rises, they fall and that’s what needs to be addressed,” she said.
Finn is a boomeranger — one of many Pittsburghers who moved away seeking opportunity and returned to participate in the city’s revitalization. She moved back to her hometown from San Francisco 10 years ago. In that time, she’s watched Pittsburgh emerge as an innovation hub, driven by its universities, healthcare sector, and hardware startups.
Those changes have been a boon to the former Rust Belt city but Finn wants to make sure Pittsburgh doesn’t fall prey to the same problems that other tech hubs, like San Francisco and Seattle, are grappling with.
“We want to be the best city,” she said. “I don’t think we get to that by chasing after San Francisco or New York. I think we get to that by deciding what is our strength and learning lessons from them. Let them be the labs, we can be the success.”
Finn is a pioneer of Pittsburgh’s emerging foodie scene, which is getting national attention. In addition to Dinette, she is the consulting chef of the Cafe Carnegie at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, a dream-come-true gig because her 6-year-old “basically learned to walk in the hall of dinosaurs.”
Whoever said you shouldn’t talk politics over dinner has never met Finn. Her politics permeate everything in her orbit: food, family, and community.
That was one of the takeaways from eating dinner with her at Dinette. Our two-hour meal covered everything from Amazon HQ2 to urban farming to Trump and featured surprise appearances by Finn’s father and Hollywood director David Fincher. Those encounters perfectly encapsulate Dinette: A restaurant that manages to feel intimately connected to its community and relevant on the national stage.
First Dinette, then Pittsburgh
Finn opened Dinette in 2008. She is credited with jumpstarting the food scene in East Liberty and Shadyside “single-handedly” by some accounts. Dinette earned Sustainable Pittsburgh’s “Platinum Plate” status, the organization’s highest designation for restaurants committed to environmentally responsible ingredients and employee welfare. Some of Dinette’s ingredients are grown in a rooftop garden on-site — a result of Finn’s degree in urban planning and religious commitment to homegrown tomatoes.
Last summer, Dinette got rid of tipping. It was the last change Finn needed to make the uphill battle of owning a restaurant feel completely worth it.
“If I’m going to fight this battle every day then this needs to be exactly the restaurant that I want, and the one thing that was lagging was that I don’t believe in tipping,” she said. “I think that everyone should know what they are going to make before they start to do the job.”
Dinette was one of the first restaurants in Pittsburgh to move away from tipping and increase regular wages for employees. It’s a risky move because increased upfront menu prices can put off some customers. But Finn is committed to sending a message with Dinette: sustainability is an asset, not a liability. She says the higher wages and eco-conscious ethos of Dinette create a sense of mission and purpose among her employees.
“They believe in it,” she said. “They’ve bought in. They’re committed to this and therefore the customer has a much better experience. The customer feels at ease. By not having tipping, it’s just like they’re being hosted at somebody’s house … by me not just thinking about cash and profit, but thinking about the overall well-being of the restaurant, including the employees, the restaurant does better. It ends up being more profitable.”
The model has made Dinette a success. But Finn’s situation also reflects the paradox of the modern Pittsburgh, because that success wouldn’t be possible without customers willing to spend around $30 on a meal. The restaurant is walking distance to Google’s Pittsburgh campus and other tech companies clustered in the neighborhood. Dinette feels welcoming to all but it has become a watering hole for its affluent neighbors.
Halfway through our meal, Finn started chatting with the patrons at the table next to ours. “We’re obsessed,” one said, adding later, “we registered to vote so that we could pull the election Sonja’s way.”
After a gentleman at the table left, the remaining customers introduced themselves. They are producers on the Netflix show “Mindhunter,” which films in Pittsburgh. Turns out their recently departed companion was David Fincher, the director behind “Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” and other hit films.
Seeking a seat at the table
Finn thinks that ethical business practices are the ingredients of Dinette’s success. She’s a firm believer that a rising tide can lift all boats. It’s the reason she’s running for Pittsburgh’s District 8 City Council seat.
“What I’m asking for Pittsburgh is we make it more livable for everyone,” she said. “We embrace that and we make it more livable for everyone. Then we will all rise and it will be what brings people here.”
Finn is much more interested in attracting newcomers because of Pittsburgh’s organic strengths than trying to land Amazon’s second headquarters. She isn’t against efforts to lure Amazon here but is frustrated that she doesn’t know “at what cost” because Pittsburgh and Allegheny County officials are refusing to release their bid.
Instead, she wants to see the city invest in universal preschool and infrastructure to attract more young professionals.
Finn launched her campaign for City Council when Dan Gilman vacated the seat to serve as Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff. She won the Democratic nomination for the special election in January though Peduto is supporting her opponent Erika Strassburger, who is running as an independent. Strassburger is Gilman’s former chief of staff and has a long history with Peduto, according to The Incline.
But Finn’s work in politics didn’t begin with this campaign. She spent time in Washington, D.C., lobbying for the Farm Bill and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. She has also done advocacy for the Environmental Working Group and raised money for non-profits. Finn’s campaign platforms include universal preschool, infrastructure investment, and raising the minimum wage.
She can’t believe it when she hears “somebody who’s making $10 an hour fighting about the minimum wage … of somebody who makes $7.25” going up. “What is that? I think a lot of that is propaganda. All of these people who are struggling fighting amongst themselves while the elite few prosper.”
Finn inherited ambition from her mother, Olivera Finn, a pioneering immunology researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC). Now a mother herself, Sonja Finn has a son in the same Pittsburgh Public School system that she graduated from.
Finn studied sociology and urban planning at Columbia University and attended the Culinary Institute of America before taking a job in San Francisco. She returned to Pittsburgh in 2008 to launch Dinette.
“Ten years later, and I’m starting to see these markers of San Francisco in Pittsburgh and it is worrying me,” she said. “So that’s really why I want to be on City Council. I want to just make sure that Pittsburgh stays livable, that that’s its strength, and that we reinforce that and don’t let that slip away.”