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Strip District incubator to give new chefs a taste of running a restaurant

| Sunday, April 5, 2015, 9:06 p.m.
Along Smallman Street, Tyler Benson, left, and Ben Mantica are co-owners of the new restaurant incubator, at right, located in the Strip District, seeking its first class of resident chefs and restauranteurs. The selected four restaurant ideas will simultaneously incubate in its four test kitchens. The business hopes to open in early fall of this year.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Along Smallman Street, Tyler Benson, left, and Ben Mantica are co-owners of the new restaurant incubator, at right, located in the Strip District, seeking its first class of resident chefs and restauranteurs. The selected four restaurant ideas will simultaneously incubate in its four test kitchens. The business hopes to open in early fall of this year.

Two Pittsburgh entrepreneurs are looking to give a crop of rising chefs all the ingredients they need for success.

Ben Mantica of the South Side and Tyler Benson of Aspinwall are launching Smallman Galley, a restaurant incubator, in the Strip District, where culinary artists can learn the ins and outs of operating their own businesses. The pair is seeking interested chefs to run four test kitchens, starting this fall.

“We want someone who's genuinely excited about improving the food scene here in Pittsburgh,” Mantica says. “We want them to interact with the customers and really show them what they're doing, offer them insight into their proposals and their story.”

Mantica and Benson, who were both lieutenants in the U.S. Navy, began brainstorming ideas while serving and started soliciting support once home. Funding for the project comes from private investors. Smallman Galley has support from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, Mantica says.

While Smallman Galley will provide all the necessary infrastructure for each restaurant, the most valuable tool is the training chefs will receive, Mantica says. The program includes education in restaurant operations, credit repair, marketing, business-plan drafting and financing.

This foundation will help chefs navigate the many challenges that often lead to failure in the ever-changing restaurant business, he says.

“They don't fail because the talent isn't there,” Mantica says. “They fail because they don't have the business or management background.”

Smallman Galley will be open for lunch and dinner. The design will feature open kitchens, high ceilings, plenty of seating and glass walls looking out onto 21st Street. Each chef will be responsible for the theme and menu at his or her individual station. The bars will feature craft cocktails, domestic beer and wine.

Interested chefs and restaurateurs can submit applications now at smallmangalley.org. The founders and a team of professional advisors will select three chefs. A crowd-sourcing contest will determine the fourth.

“We're looking for someone who's really driven and ambitious to start a restaurant in Pittsburgh and who just needs a few of the roadblocks removed,” Benson says. “We're looking for somebody who can work well with other chefs and is good in a collaborative environment — someone who's OK being in a transparent environment where, as a guest, you can see everything that's going on in the kitchen.”

Because the goal is to have chefs interact with guests as much as possible, Mantica says, the concept doesn't include servers. Instead, patrons will order directly from the chef at a counter and be notified electronically when their meal is ready.

“There's always that gap between when a chef starts a new restaurant and tries to develop that following,” he says. “We're trying to develop that following for them even before they go out and open a restaurant. We think if somebody can come in and really have a relationship with a chef and really learn about their background, it's so much more exciting to go eat at their restaurant. You're kind of invested in them.”

The first 12 months of the program will be training intensive for chefs, Mantica says. The last six months will include working with Mantica and Benson to secure developers and financial support for their business plan. The pair will then start over again with a new cycle of chefs while maintaining relationship with the previous class.

“We really want to develop a lasting partnership with them and as they move on to their restaurants, we'll still help them in any way we can,” Mantica says.

Details: smallmangalley.org

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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