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Smallman Galley’s first class of chefs learned on the job

Josephine’s Toast “Toast Man” sign

By Neil Strebig, Point Park News Service:

A U-Haul was parked outside Smallman Galley with the tailgate’s mouth open wide, waiting for another lump of restaurant equipment from the Provisions staff as they dismembered their kitchen space piece by piece to leave a desolate ocean of stainless steel countertops and a defunct cash register behind.

It was a sentimental scene for the Strip District favorite, a new type of restaurant formulated from the minds of two retired U.S. Naval officers that was routinely jam-packed with customers and the boisterous sounds of order-fire in unison with sizzling flames and the crackling of garlic in sauté pans.

Now, that harmonic hustle and bustle is just a barren memory. The kitchen is silent. Wooden crates loaded with cookbooks, cambros, dry goods and a box of Franzia sat atop the counters of Carota Café. At Aubergine Bistro, a white maneki-neko waves goodbye in the shadow of a black-and-white photograph of chef-owner Rafael Vencio and his co-workers, stamped on the kitchen’s exhaust vent. The playful toast-man chalkboard at Josephine’s Toast reads, “After today we’re toast.” And despite the comical “JK, LOL” that followed, nothing could hide the resonating truth in the pun.

Smallman Galley’s first class of chefs were indeed done – at least for now.

With Smallman’s next class of chefs preparing to takeover, Sunday, May 28 marked the last day of service for Vencio, Jessica Lewis (Carota Café), Stephen Eldridge (Provisions) and Jacqueline Wardle (Josephine’s Toast). Only one of the four is moving on with the original concept.

Aubergine Bistro’s black-and-white photo of Vencio and his team.

The Smallman Galley prototype was heralded as a restaurant/chef incubator, serving as a launching pad for the four chef-inspired concepts to branch off of after their completed tenures. Smallman was the first installment of the Galley Group restaurants (https://www.galleygrp.com/). The Galley Group was created by co-owners Ben Mantica and Tyler Benson as a project to create multiple chef incubators within a food hall-style setting. For Smallman Galley’s beta group, the ultimate goal was to see each of these restaurant concepts fly the coop and start their own brick-and-mortar establishments after their 18-month contracts expired.

The initial business model at Smallman was to have the chefs work Tuesday through Sunday. Monday would serve as a training day for the chefs – an educational day of sorts – where they’d be introduced to the business side of running a restaurant, gaining professional insight and perspective on how to manage their finances, refine their business plans, as well as marketing themselves and their concepts.

Along with the space cohabitation, Smallman had a joint-revenue structure. According to Wardle of Josephine’s Toast, the initial contract stated that The Galley Group owned a 10 percent stake in each concept and would make 30 cents on every dollar the restaurants sold (a 70-30 split between individual concepts and the Galley Group).

Aubergine Bistro’s menu.

The Galley Group owned the restaurant and work space. The chefs owned their concepts and in return were offered a space to chase their entrepreneurial dreams. The partnership was designed to give the chefs a low-risk opportunity to operate their own restaurants and learn the business side of operations, while the Galley Group would have a chance to establish itself as a communal food hall in Pittsburgh.

However, after an explosive start it appeared both Mantica and Benson were playing catch-up with their blueprint along with the chefs.

Their December 2015 launch erupted with a media bonanza leaving the corridors of Smallman flooded with patrons. The aforementioned chefs, in conjunction with Smallman, became overnight celebrities finding their businesses mentioned in a story by The New York Times, a 2016 accolade in Pittsburgh Magazine’s “Best Restaurant List,” a feature in USA Today Travel, and even a spotlight in Southwest Magazine, the airline’s inflight publication.

The blitzkrieg of exposure was more than enough reason to smile for the chefs and owners as Smallman Galley saw itself become a rising star in the Pittsburgh food scene. According to Mantica, by the end of the 18 months, all four restaurants were profitable.

“It exceeded our expectations,” Mantica said. “We learned a ton.”

However, the shared learning experience for both owners and the previously incumbent chefs brought in more than just media attention and accolades. The publicity brought in customers, but it also forced Smallman Galley’s owners to adapt their business model on the fly and consequently required the chefs to tailor their concepts to meet the surging influx of clients. That experience left all six parties with various tastes in their mouths.

El Luga Tacos. Photo Courtesy of Susan Eldridge.

Now after their contracts have expired the four chefs have had time to reflect on Smallman Galley’s initial sales pitch.

“If you look at the concept dumbed down as a food hall and not a chef incubator based off a tech model, which is what it is, it is a much more relaxed time and space. The surprise was fitting my restaurant concept into that. It turned more into making sure I could serve fast casual and exceed customer expectations on that level, versus what I really want to do,” said Lewis. “This was more about Smallman Galley’s story.”

For the Philippines-born Vencio, the experience had a number of pros and cons.

“It’s sweet and bitter. I can almost compare it to a coin, which has two sides. If you look at it, it’s still one piece: On the good side of it – the business ownership side of it – is something I’d never would have had thought I’d be able to have. It opened a lot of doors for me and made me realize a lot of things I needed to have set,” said Vencio. “…I was able to practice theories in my head, certain dishes, certain flavors, how people reacted to my food, my cooking and that opened a lot of doors for me. And honestly it was a positive experience.”

“On the other side of the coin there’s also that negative side of owning a business: It’s stressful for sure. There’s a lot of moving parts and I feel like we were placed right in the middle of that. And in my opinion, it was detrimental because we weren’t able to really absorb the core. It’s really hard to learn when you’re pulled apart in many directions and you’re stretched too thin.”

Vencio ran Aubergine Bistro, a non-traditional American bistro heavily influenced by his Filipino roots where he’d combine American staples with foreign ingredients to create unique, approachable dishes like kimchi egg salad. He talks with a learned poise, a methodical somewhat whimsical pacing to his tone as he sorts through his mind for the right words.

And for better or for worse, Vencio cites a significant amount of personal growth since Smallman opened.

Vencio plans on taking the creativity – that credence –he found in himself while running Aubergine Bistro, and pouring it into his newfound passion as a food stylist. The switch is a joint venture with his partner, Adam Milliron, a food photographer. The two have been discussing the possibility for quite some time and are actively polishing up their business plan. Vencio believes it will give him the innovative outlet he needs not just for personal experimentation but also the avenue he needs to affect Pittsburgh palates.

And despite not carrying on with his concept, Vencio is fully aware of the cloud looming over the last year and half of work.

“I think that’s why it was hard for me to take into consideration what was really going on [at Smallman] because on top of being a student of sorts I was also being a chef, I was also being an owner, I was also a line cook– I was everything.”

For Lewis of Carota Café, the Smallman adventure was about one thing – maturity.

“The Burger” from Provisions. Photo Courtesy of Susan Eldridge.

“This experience is more about exploring my concept and letting the guest figure out the space. And when you look at it like that and the exposure to the restaurant industry as a chef-owner and the ability to produce your own concept, connect with customers face-to-face, it is an awesome, awesome thing,” Lewis said.

Lewis took great pride in building budding relationships with her staff and her customers at Carota Cafe. She commended her staff for their ability to seamlessly wear multiple hats during service becoming sales persons, chefs and servers as needed She is thankful for working in a space that allowed her to “figure it out as we go.”

A former collegiate swimmer, Lewis talks with a sense of optimism that is unusual for a chef. She wears two mocha-colored burns on her right arm, injuries that can be mistaken as novice burns as they’re often the result of hasty actions made near cookery hazards. They are not a denunciation towards her skill but rather a statement to the rookie mistakes that arise with being overburdened.

“I think a lot of the learning came on myself and being thrown into it. Which ended up being a positive thing,” Lewis said.

Lewis will be leaving Smallman and the produce-first Carota Café concept behind to help her partner, Dennis Marron open up two restaurants, the Merchant Oyster Company (https://www.merchantpgh.com/) and Or, The Whale (https://www.facebook.com/orthewhalepgh/) in Lawrenceville and Downtown respectfully.

Lewis is adamant about not holding any resentment and admitted she’d “love to do it all over again.” However, she recognized the shortcomings of Smallman Galley’s first year.

“You don’t get that whole package deal,” Lewis said. “I think, we thought we would be more involved. But at the end of the day it is not our pocket book that we’re taking out to buy more plates, to make the tables look this way to make sure all the glassware isn’t chipped. We don’t have the money to do it. We’re just trying to tell them about guest expectations and there’s only so much we can say about it.”

Lewis touched on a conflict in the venture: The Galley Group’s enterprise model and the chefs’ concepts. A conflict best represented by the other two chefs: Stephen Eldridge and Jacqueline Wardle.

Eldridge, a 41-year-old transplant from Arizona is the only chef who will be moving on with their initial concept. Eldridge will take Provisions’ protein-packed menu to the Galley Group’s (https://www.galleygrp.com/) newest location, Federal Galley, located on Pittsburgh’s North Side at Nova Place. In addition, he will be opening up a second restaurant, El Lugar, in the same space. Both restaurants are under contract for a three-year lease. Eldridge has been working seven-days a week (like the other three chefs) clocking 70-80 hours a week, and believes that being a part of Federal Galley is both a reward and a testament to him and his team’s hard work.

“If Galley Group grows, I’d hope that we can grow with them with Provisions and El Lugar,” said Eldridge who wears his passion on his sleeve, literally. A butcher map of a pig decorates his forearm as a similar culinary map of a fish rests on the inside of his bicep. Yet despite his ink Eldridge is soft-spoken and earnest in talking about his success, constantly giving thanks to his team (nearly all of whom he recruited and imported from Scottsdale) and his motivation – his wife, Susan and their soon-to-be three-year-old daughter.

Yet, despite his success both personally and professionally, Eldridge admits that as prepared as he was for the necessary sacrifices, there were still obstacles within the operation’s model to overcome including the business side of things.

“[I] would’ve liked to see it tailored more towards the individual,” Eldridge said in regards to the business and class portion of the incubation. “[It] stopped maybe halfway through and that is where I feel like we were shortchanged. Wish we weren’t, wish they would’ve carried those through.”

Monday classes for the chefs stopped approximately six to nine months in.

“The biggest thing is you can’t force entrepreneurialism on anyone…you can’t force those classes on the chefs. It was more beneficial to tweak it in the middle of the 18 months,” said Mantica while later admitting, “They could’ve been better communicating that.”

Mantica and company stated they’re establishing a more individualistic methodology to Smallman’s incubation model with their next class of chefs.

“If one [chef] wants to learn Quick Books and three others don’t care we can bring in an accountant to do that [for them],” added Mantica. He also took in consideration that he and Benson were also adapting their business model in the process and didn’t gain their footing until about twelve months in.

Aubergine Bistro’s countertop with Maneki-neko, aka good luck cats.

Eldridge believes a part of this may have been due to miscommunication or just the necessity to keep up with the volume of business all four restaurants were doing. Provisions alone accounted for nearly $750,000 in sales during their 18-months of operations despite having a kitchen he described as smaller than most people’s closets.

The constant barrage of patrons was a positive for sales, but detrimental towards the original 6-day model.

“Everyone deserves a day off. It should’ve been closed Monday and Tuesday. It is an incubator. There should have been a day dedicated to classes and a day dedicated for homework or giving someone a day off. But it isn’t about that it’s about money. If this is an incubator you want to come in here and learn something. This is a school of hard knocks again,” said Wardle.

Wardle described the Monday class structure and instruction as more “introductions than classes,” where the four would be given pamphlets and business cards rather than a constructed core of curriculum. She felt that there wasn’t enough attention given towards learning the business side of restaurant operations, which clashed with the joint-partnership that is Smallman’s incubating model.

“The project was in its infancy when they wrote that contract, because wherever there was the basics of a restaurant’s needs and all of that was in it they said it was provided. But whenever it came down to it, like the dish staff, there were no details to how they’d provide it. There wasn’t any real clear way of determining it,” Wardle said.

Wardle, who is the youngest of the four chefs at 26, came to Smallman from Isabela on Grandview where she was “baptized by fire” after replacing the previous executive chef who had to take leave due to illness. Her spitfire temperament matches her auburn locks and she may come off with a harsh bluntness, but her feverous voice echoed many of the takeaways the other three chefs had.

“What we didn’t realize is that they were fashioning our concepts into their business model. And unfortunately, sometimes a cookie cutter approach doesn’t really help promote or nurture our concepts,” said Vencio. “Basically, at the end of the day we were left to fend for ourselves.”

All four chefs acknowledged the faint sense of a feast-or-famine undertaking they were put through and that may or may not have had to do with the onslaught of customers and consequent reconfiguring of Monday’s classes but likely a culmination of variables.

Mantica recognized that as the concepts and business model evolved, changes had to be taken into account, adding that he and Benson are not “absentee owners” and are on site daily.

“Only way we can help them out is by talking to them,” he said.

However, for Wardle, the middle ground of issuing templates and open-door policies instead of classes was disheartening nonetheless.

“I know that I’m not a hundred percent on it [enterprising portion] so I’m taking the steps to get there.” Wardle began taking 6 a.m. business classes at the University of Pittsburgh to better understand how to build a proper business plan and move forward with her own ideas.

That conviction to pursue her dreams – that confidence – is something she admits came from her experience at Smallman Galley.

“I found the exact kind of restaurant that I want to open. I found what makes me happy, so I’m going to do it regardless of what it takes,” she said in regards to opening a brunch-focused restaurant in the near future.

She confessed that she was offered to join Federal Galley’s team but declined.

“It didn’t fit into their business model, so we couldn’t do it,” she said. Wardle wanted to be open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. but the proposed model for Federal Galley is a 7-day-a-week restaurant operating 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

View of Carota Cafe and Aubergine Bistro.

“That’s not good for me. It is not creating what I want. That is not incubating my idea; that is turning my idea and smooshing it into your form,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to me that they have my best interests unless I’m moving on with them.”

Wardle admits that a portion of that dismissal is from the initial contract along with a revamped contract she had to sign six-months into her campaign. According to her, the contract stressed an urgent improvement on Josephine’s Toast’s profits.

“At one point, I was not doing as well as the others and they made me sign a form, saying I would do better, I’m going to try more things, to make X-amount of money because I wasn’t making as much as the other guys,” she stated. “What kind of incubation is that?”

In response for clarity on that issue Mantica responded, “If an operator is underperforming, that can signify a lot of things. [The] concept could be failing, food could be bad, but we don’t want to kick you out. We want to help them.”

Mantica acknowledged that he and Benson helped work with the Smallman chefs (and other chefs from around the city) on their business plans and proposals over the course of their tenures. He reiterated multiple times that the restaurant is their “responsibility,” adding, “We want them all to be successful – their success, is our success.”

“Even though we weren’t in control of a lot of the things that happened here, we were the reason that people kept coming back,” Lewis said.

Wardle, is currently planning her October wedding and aims to open a restaurant in the spring of 2018. In the immediate future, she’ll be launching her pop-up popsicle campaign, Tippy Top Pops, selling at local farmer’s markets around the city.

While Provisions is on the move, it appears that Aubergine Bistro, Carota Café and Josephine’s Toast have evaporated from the Pittsburgh food scene. Back in January of last year, co-owner Tyler Benson told Pittsburgh Magazine, “The goal is that six months after they leave they will have opened their own restaurant.”

With only one of the four chefs continuing on with their concepts, it begs the question: Was Smallman Galley’s first class a success story?

After a year and half of adjustments, Mantica said his takeaway is, “If one person is successful, they all are.”

Smallman Galley’s next class of chefs Jesse Barlass, Hoa Le, Ryan Peters and Pete Tolman will begin their year-long tenure Tuesday, June 6. For more information on Smallman and Federal Galleys visit the food hall’s official website. (http://www.smallmangalley.org/)

Editor’s note: This story originally included an error, which has been corrected. Dennis Marron is Jessica Lewis’s partner. 

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