La Gourmandine will take over the former Penn Avenue Fish spot on Forbes Avenue
A cutting-edge restaurant incubator — the first of its kind in Pittsburgh — is heading to the Strip District this fall.
Smallman Galley will be a food hall showcasing a rotating crew of emerging chefs, each with his or her own kitchen and menu, to help them build the skills and resources to go on to run their own restaurants.
The project is being created by Tyler Benson of Aspinwall and Ben Mantica of South Side Slopes, and is slated for the Twin Plaza building at 2016 Smallman St. They have partnered with building owners Michael and Nicholas Troiani — the family behind Papa J’s in Carnegie — who will be landlords as well as mentors for the project, helping with restaurant operations.
“We want to guide Michael and Ben toward success,” said Michael Troiani, whose family also runs several parking lots and has developed additional properties.
Mr. Benson and Mr. Mantica, neither of whom have experience working in or running restaurants, said they got the idea during their years as Navy lieutenants. When they were traveling around the world, they visited food halls in off-hours.
They decided to create a food hall in Pittsburgh, with the hopes of helping the dining scene grow. Their plan is to work with several chefs and many businesses to expose them to the market, then link them with funding sources and real estate, while offering “high-quality food and drinks at a reasonable price,” according to the business plan.
The partners’ first go-round in the restaurant industry is ambitious, in part due to the support of the Troianis, who, Mr. Benson said, are “bending over backward” for the project.
Mr. Benson and Mr. Mantica are also partners in a real estate development company, Pritchard Hill Capital, which they founded last year.
Nationwide, the cost of starting a new restaurant can average $500,000 in many cities, while high-end markets can require well over $1 million just to open the doors.
The same is true for this project, though as an incubator, the plan is to build the foundation for many future restaurants here, as well as market and sell the training program to culinary schools and hospitality groups in other cities.
Start-up costs for Smallman Galley will be approximately $750,000, obtained through a $350,000 Bridgeway Capital loan, a $100,000 economic development loan and the remainder through private and owner equity.
Smallman Galley (smallmangalley.org) joins a number of restaurant incubators around the country. Washington, D.C., for example, has at least two. Union Kitchen offers new small businesses space with access to a full-service kitchen, while founders help clients streamline distribution and reduce operating costs. EatsPlace is a neighborhood restaurant and bar staffed by chefs and bartenders-in-residence for stints of varying lengths.
But the Smallman Galley plan is unique in that the partners have hired an inaugural class of four chefs.
They will cook for customers — each in their own fully outfitted kitchen — and take classes from consultants on how to draft business plans, brand and market a restaurant and learn about the ins and outs of restaurant operations. Their program will last 18 months, then a new team of chefs will be brought in.
At the start, each chef is required to invest roughly $10,000 for cookware, inventory and starting funds, said Mr. Benson. A current $60,000 Indiegogo campaign, which ends Sept. 27, aims to help raise funds for the chefs’ contributions.
Smallman Galley will cover the rest of the overhead expenses, including rent, marketing, space upkeep and utility costs.
The chefs will meet partners for a weekly profit/loss meeting to ensure they will meet sales goals. In the final six months of the program, mentors will help each chef launch his own restaurant in another location, said Mr. Benson.
Smallman Galley will get a 30 percent cut of each chef’s revenue and sales from alcohol.
Diners visiting Smallman Galley can walk up to one of four kitchens, order from that chef’s menu using an iPad and pay via credit card (no cash payments).
As they wait, diners can sit at communal tables or get a drink from the 50-seat bar that will offer microbrews from 20 taps, domestic wine from up-and-coming U.S. producers and craft cocktails from Will Groves, who will oversee the bar program. Mr. Groves comes from Marty’s Market in the Strip District and had been a bar manager at Legume and Butterjoint in Oakland.
The four chefs were chosen from 20 applicants, said Mr. Mantica. They are:
• Jacqueline Wardle, former executive chef of Isabela on Grandview in Mount Washington, now closed. Her penchant for snacking inspires the menu that’s centered on gourmet toast.
• Rafael Vencio, former sous chef at Grit & Grace Downtown and before that, Legume and Butterjoint in Oakland. A native of the Philippines, he migrated to the U.S. when he was 19. He wants to use his experience to put a global twist on American bistro dishes.
• Stephen Eldridge, former executive chef at Pink Pony in Scottsdale, Ariz., plans on a meat-centric menu showcasing international cooking styles. His menu will include cured meat and sausages.
• Jessica Lewis, who was a sous chef at The Commoner at Hotel Monaco, Downtown, will emphasize vegetables, with small cuts of meat and seafood as accents.
The partners have planned several events to promote the chefs and raise additional revenue.
One that still has tickets available will be at the Wigle Whiskey Barrelhouse 7 p.m. Friday, where guests can sample dishes by Mr. Eldridge and Ms. Lewis. The event costs $25.
Katya Schwab was a Post-Gazette summer intern.