Restaurant scene: Smallman Galley will nurture big ambition

Smallman Galley — a food court and restaurant incubator — has opened in the Twin Plaza building in the Strip District.

For the next 18 months, four emerging chefs will oversee their own kitchens in the galley to build the skills and resources they will need to run their own restaurants.

Customers can visit Smallman Galley at 2016 Smallman St. nearly any waking hour, with coffee service from La Prima starting at 7:30 a.m. and a midnight last call at the bar, with lunch and dinner service in between.

The 6,000-square-foot space looks like a repurposed warehouse in the best way, with exposed brick walls and big windows in a room awash in natural light. Parallel to the bar, four distinct open kitchens align a narrow corridor, where diners can walk up to order and then sit where there’s room at a communal table or the bar.

Over the past few years, variations on food halls have taken root across the nation, from San Francisco’s Ferry Building to New York’s Gotham West, with ramen shops and high-end coffee bars replacing the Sbarro and Orange Julius of yesteryear’s suburban mall food courts.

Smallman Galley is decidedly different than even these more modern variations, say founders Tyler Benson of Aspinwall and Ben Mantica of the South Side Slopes. The pair partnered with building owners and mentors on the project, Michael and Nicholas Troiani — the family behind Papa J’s in Carnegie.

The key difference here is the incubator concept. A rotating crew of four cooks with experience, good ideas and potential will be groomed for 18 months. Once they leave to open or run their own restaurants, four new chefs will come in. 

The concepts for the first round are Aubergine Bistro from Rafael Vencio — former sous chef at Grit & Grace Downtown and before that Legume — who will plate global riffs on bistro fare.

Carota Cafe from Jessica Lewis will be a veg-focused concept using local ingredients on a menu that will change often. She says she’ll have a deep staff, with cooks such as Dennis Marron, former executive chef at The Commoner in the Hotel Monaco Downtown, helping her out.

Josephine’s Toast from Jacqueline Wardle offers something for the meat eater, the pescatarian and the vegan — on toast. And Provision PGH comes from Stephen Eldridge, former executive chef at Pink Pony in Scottsdale, Ariz., who will feature a menu of cured meats and sausages, served in a variety of European styles.

Smallman Galley is an intermediary step that buoys chefs’ confidence, builds their brands, introduces them to investors and helps them develop a customer base.

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 traveled around the world visiting European food halls during off hours. They are partners in a real estate development company, Pritchard Hill Capital, which they founded last year.

The argument is that Smallman Galley offers something unique and ever-changing to the public, while ensuring that there’s less risk for first-time restaurant owners, a key asset in a notoriously difficult industry in which many restaurants close after they’re open a year.

Smallman Galley cost approximately $900,000 to open. The group obtained this funding through a $350,000 Bridgeway Capital loan, a $100,000 Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission loan, a $150,000 loan from the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the remainder through private and owner equity.

Throughout construction, it has absorbed all of the costs associated with opening a restaurant except the food. Over the 18 months, chefs will pay 30 percent of their earnings, which does not include liquor sales.

Since the summer, when they were selected among 20 applicants, the four chefs have become more press-savvy and brand-conscious as they’ve built their reputations. They have fleshed out ideas, as well as worked through staffing and funding for kitchen incidentals.

Although they can’t say from experience if their choices will translate to smooth service, the nitty-gritty details are not the most challenging part of the process so far.

“Try explaining what this is to my grandfather,” Ms. Wardle said.

As the project has inched closer to opening day, Smallman Galley has gone from a series of business plans to a reality, not just for the founders and chefs and their families, but also to potential customers — even those who’ve never been to a food hall.

“It is surreal,” said Mr. Vencio. “And it is exciting.”

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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