Made from scratch: Smallman Galley food hall an incubator of 4 restaurants
Tyler Benson of Aspinwall and Ben Mantica of the South Side became friends while lieutenants in the U.S. Navy.
When visiting various Southeast Asian seaports together on deployment, they noticed something really great.
Not the food — which is terrific — but everybody appreciates that.
They noticed the food halls, where you can get an incredible meal for next to nothing, from an improbably vast array of choices, prepared without a fuss right in front of you. There were wizened masters of traditional cooking, ambitious young chefs getting started, and seafood that had been ashore for less time than the young lieutenants.
Most importantly, it was “nothing like a food court” at a mall in the States.
“They're packed all the time, everything is communal,” Mantica says. “The atmosphere and energy in these places was awesome.”
They noticed some similar ideas taking root in the culinary epicenter of Northern California. So, they decided, despite a lack of culinary experience, that they wanted to try to create something like this.
Four in one
Smallman Galley, which opened last week, is a food hall in a beautifully transformed red-brick building in the Strip District. The old building wears remnants of its many previous lives as warehouses and nightclubs. Exposed brick walls, naked light bulbs, a copper-topped barroom and long, reclaimed-wood tables complete the look.
The hall holds four self-contained restaurants, with open kitchens and communal tables. There's a bar at night, and a coffee bar in the morning. Find a spot at one of the 192 seats, and pick and choose dishes from each restaurant for a meal.
Smallman Galley is a start-up incubator styled after the tech industry's successful model.
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.
“What sets us apart from the other incubators and food halls is that we have a very hands-on approach to training chefs,” Mantica says. “Originally, this was supposed to be a food hall, but we found this deep need by chefs for business training.”
Not that the partners are teaching chefs about food. The first “class” of four chefs chosen, from a pool of 20, are already impressively accomplished:
• Chef Jacqueline Wardle, who runs Josephine's Toast, competed on Food Network's “Cutthroat Kitchen” and was executive chef at the now-closed Isabela on Grandview.
• Chef Jessica Lewis, who runs Carota Cafe, was executive sous chef at Hotel Monaco's The Commoner and Biergarten, and competed on celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey's “Hell's Kitchen.”
• Chef Stephen Eldridge, who runs Provision PGH, was executive chef at Pink Pony restaurant in Scottsdale, Ariz.
• Chef Rafael Vencio, who runs Aubergine Bistro, has absorbed culinary traditions from kitchens in Chicago, Montana, Los Angeles, Louisiana and his native Philippines, en route to local standouts Grit & Grace, Spoon, Legume and Hyeholde.
These chefs were chosen for their culinary skill, but also for their vision. Plus, something the two Navy vets think they can spot as well as anyone — the potential for leadership.
Goal of chef-ownership
“All chefs want to start their own restaurant,” Mantica says. The Smallman Galley chefs “are all at the point in their careers where they're ready to go into business.”
Running a kitchen and running a business — opening a restaurant as an entrepreneur — are totally different gigs. Branding, marketing, budgeting or purchasing are a big part of what makes a restaurant successful or not.
“The chefs aren't new, but they're new to the business aspect,” Benson says.
The shared struggle of getting not one, but four, restaurants off the ground at once, they say, makes it feel like a graduating class who all went through the same meat-grinder together.
They have certain things in common, like an obsession with the freshest local ingredients and a willingness to revamp entire menus based on what's fresh at the moment.
But their individual concepts are different enough that they don't overlap much — and are, in fact, complementary.
Carota Cafe is “vegetable-forward, fresh ingredients, healthy,” Lewis says. There are touches of meat and seafood, but they aren't the focus. Dishes include Horseradish Gnocchi ($14), Fennel Bouillabaisse ($14) and Pot-eu-feu ($14).
“I think they got lucky having us as the beta group,” Eldridge says. “We've done a lot of events together, gotten drunk together, cooked together, played bocce ball together. They've baby-sat my kids. ... My success is their success, and vice versa.”
Eldridge's Provision PGH is full of rich, meaty fare, again characterized by attention to ingredients. There's a Vietnamese-style Banh Mi sandwich ($10) and a braised beef cheeks dinner ($18).
Wardle's concept, Josephine's Toast, is a so-simple concept that it's bound to have skeptics. But hear her out.
“I've done fine dining for a long time,” she says. “We all love the same things. Refined flavors meet the whimsy of toast.” For example, Brioche French Toast ($5) or Ciabatta Toast with tatsoi, root vegetable and honey ginger dressing ($7).
Aubergine Bistro is Vencio's attempt to reflect his classical French culinary training and the simple-yet-experimental ethos of the original French bistro. Porchetta & Smashed Potatoes ($15) and Winter Root Vegetable Tart ($10) reflect this approach.
Pitching to backers
After 18 months, the four chefs will be ready to become chef-owners, if financial backers can be found. Smallman Galley will help with that, too.
“At the end, we do a revenue-share,” Benson says. “It's in our interest for all four to be successful. At the end of 18 months, each will do a ‘Shark Tank'-type panel, with 20 to 30 handpicked restaurant investors. Each chef will pitch their concept and make some dishes. Tyler will help them build a business plan.
“By then, they'll have real numbers instead of projections to show investors.”
The plan centers on the belief that chef-owned restaurants are better. The chef-owner has more invested in success than if he or she is merely a hired gun.
“The classic person who owns a restaurant is a wealthy individual who just does it as a passion project,” Benson says. “We're coming into a new age of chef-owned restaurants, but it's too capital-intensive for most.
“The goal is to build a following for their names, food, concepts. We're going to be a business-generator for Pittsburgh.”
Benson and Mantica are relatively new to the restaurant industry, but they're getting a lot of help. The owners of the building, Michael and Nicholas Troiani, who own Papa J's Ristorante in Carnegie, provide a reservoir of culinary and culinary-business expertise.
Pittsburgh-based marketing firm Shift Collaborative helps the chefs sell their ideas.
Bridgeway Capital, several economic development agencies and private investors provided the capital for Smallman Galley.
“We did the first professional development session, teaching the chefs about branding and marketing,” says Eric Sloss, a principal partner of Shift Collaborative. “We built their logos and shared with them the process of brand building.
“Yes, the chefs are working through a professional development curriculum,” he says. “Others in the restaurant management field, business planning and investing will be part of the development program.”
All four chefs' restaurants are rent-free for the duration. Smallman Galley collects 30 percent of gross revenue from each. Chefs use the other 70 percent for inventory, staff and themselves. All marketing, advertising, equipment maintenance, space upkeep and utility costs are covered by Smallman Galley.
There are other bonuses, as well. Bartender Will Groves (Kaya, Root 174, Butterjoint) has his own following.
“He made three drinks to complement each of our menus,” Eldridge says. “All of them are named after rap albums that complement our personalities.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.