First in an occasional series exploring Essential Pittsburgh.
Jacqueline Wardle was working as the executive chef at Isabela on Grandview, a Mt. Washington restaurant, when she received a beguiling email: Instead of working for someone else, did she want to own her own restaurant?
The note came from Ben Mantica and Tyler Benson, two young businessmen who had recently left the Navy. Mantica had grown up in Pittsburgh and had seen how the city was changing, including the arrivals of educated young people and booming tech companies.
One thing that Pittsburgh was missing, though, were the food halls they had loved while on Navy tours in Southeast Asia — dozens of vendors selling street food around communal tables.“We really liked the food-hall model, really liked the idea that they were kind of centers of the cities,” Mantica said. “(You’d find) kind of informal but really high-quality food.”
Although neither Benson nor Mantica had any experience in the food industry, they did know how to run a business; Benson had an MBA and they both had managed multi-million dollar maintenance projects on their Navy ships. They were also intrigued by the rise of tech incubators like Pittsburgh’s AlphaLab, which helps new startups get up and running.
The idea clicked.
“Chefs are in a similar sort of situation as budding tech companies, in that they need help getting their concepts or ideas to market,” Mantica said. “And so we merged that tech incubator model with a food hall and ended up with a restaurant incubator.”
In April 2015, the pair put out a notice: They were looking for four chefs willing to share one space for 18 months while refining their restaurant concepts. Mantica and Benson would build out the space, pay the rent, cover utilities, oversee maintenance and take a 30 percent cut of the restaurant revenue. They also get all of the bar revenue and own a 10 percent stake if the creators eventually open their respective restaurants.
They started reaching out to young, ambitious chefs. Chefs like Jacqueline Wardle.
Building a restaurant from scratch
Revitalization drew Mantica and Benson to the Strip District right away.
“These companies are coming to the Strip, they’re taking over these warehouses,” Mantica said. “A lot of these tech companies, they understand what an incubator is, they get it, and we wanted to be a part of that Strip reinventing itself.”
They didn’t "spin the globe with a blindfold on and just pick a place,” Benson said.
“Pittsburgh, I think, is at a time right now where the city is kind of starving for innovation in a lot of different sectors," he said. "It’s heading in a direction that’s gonna put it on track with some of the bigger cities in the U.S. over the next 10 years.”
They found an old nightclub at Smallman and 21st streets and overhauled the space, decorating in the ever-popular, industrial, hipster style, brimming with exposed brick and stainless steel. On one wall, they built a copper bar to sell local craft beers and locally themed cocktails; toward the middle in a back room, they installed bench-style wooden tables for diners. On the other, four identical, 144-square-foot kitchens were nested side-by-side.
The competition to fill the tiny kitchens was fierce — Mantica and Benson ultimately received around 100 applications. After narrowing down the group and holding a cook-off at Pittsburgh Public Market, they chose Jessica Lewis (with the vegetable-focused Carota Cafe), Stephen Eldridge (with meat-driven Provision PGH) and Rafael Vencio (a bistro named Aubergine).
Fourth was Wardle, who presented a novel concept: toast.
“The inspiration for my restaurant came from when I was really small,” she said. “It was my grandmother’s breakfast every morning. She fixed my older brother and I breakfast, and it was this delicious toast she made. But it wasn’t delicious because it was perfect — it was delicious because it was burnt and she scraped the burnt off. And somehow, to this day, it is my favorite dish. She’s passed, so this is my way of paying her all the due respect she deserves.”
Firing up the grills
The chefs were driven by the opportunity to open their own place — to create their own menu, hire their own staff, run their restaurant the way they wanted to.
“I just wanted to open my own place,” said Eldridge of Provision PGH. “I don’t want to answer to anyone else.”
The incubator promised a hands-on education, Wardle said.
“I wanted to have the black and white paper saying not only did I go to culinary school, but I did the incubation," she said. "And I did go through all the different steps of opening my own restaurant, without the risk. Because at 25, I don’t have any money.”
Mantica and Benson said they designed the entrepreneurship program to help the chefs learn to manage inventory, staffing, payroll, management, marketing and even finding real estate.
“Nothing that we’re teaching these chefs is super high-level, arcane, business finance kind of stuff,” Benson said. “We’re looking at some really fundamental principles, like, you know, what do customers want? How are we reaching out to our core customer base? How can we scale a business? Do we have the right people on our team who are the experts in various fields and industries to help us along that path?”
Jessica Lewis, 30, of Carota Cafe said those basic business skills and entrepreneurial spirit was what really interested her in the program.
“(I was excited about) being able to dive head-first into learning all the things I never learned about before by being a sous chef, by being a line chef, by going culinary school,” she said.
Refining and evolving a concept
In the last 10 months, the chefs say they've grown and learned from customers' experiences.
Wardle realized that $8 slices of toast were a tough sell in Pittsburgh. So, like any good entrepreneur, she pivoted. She added “toasted” sandwiches to the menu and has experimented with a risotto — with toasted rice, of course.
“It’s me taking the concept from the bare bones and then evolving it into a place where I’m comfortable and it’s still my food,” she said. “But it’s also something that people are confident ordering.”
Being in the same space presents challenges — and some competition — between the chefs. When new ingredients like peaches or tomatoes hit the markets, it’s not unusual to see the produce popping up on multiple menus.
“If everyone’s putting a sandwich on their menu for lunch, you feel driven to put a sandwich on your menu for lunch, because that’s what sells,” Lewis said. “It’s hard to stick to exactly what you want to do and give people what you think they should be eating versus what people are telling you they want.”
The chef-to-customer interaction also helps to drive the evolution of the menus.
“I understand my clientele a lot better than I thought I would,” Wardle said. “I can talk to people. I can ask people, ‘Oh hey, you didn’t like that? Let’s figure it out.’ I’m not perfect. This is definitely my first restaurant. It’s the first restaurant my ass is on the line.”
But they also have to spend a bit of time doing customer education; it can be a bit confusing how the space actually works. (If you go: check out the four menu boards, find your preferred dish, and then order from that kitchen. Grab a table and a drink and sit down. When your food is ready, they’ll text you to pick it up or deliver it if they aren't too slammed.)
The four chefs are expected kick off the training wheels and graduate from the incubator in the spring of 2017. Ideally, by then, they will have found financing and spaces for their now refined ideas. And at that point, four new chefs will move into the same petite kitchens at Smallman Galley, and start learning how to build their own dream restaurants.
90.5 WESA producer Katie Blackley and multimedia editor Megan Harris contributed to this report.
WESA's Essential Pittsburgh presents in-depth looks at the people, places and ideas that exemplify what Pittsburgh is and how it's evolving.