Pittsburgh's Smallman Galley: Like a Tech Incubator, but for Food

For diners, fancy toast and other new restaurant concepts. For would-be restaurateurs, a low-risk, nurturing environment for experimentation and growth (run by ex Navy officers)

Josephine’s Toast, in all its simplicity, is genius. It’s helmed by Jacqueline Wardle, a graduate of Pittsburgh Art Institute’s Culinary Arts Program, who made an appearance on Food Network’s Cutthroat Kitchen.

Yes, it’s a toast restaurant. Yes, like the trend first noticed circa 2014. But it’s a toast place with a difference. You won’t find jams or the usual smeared meats crowning crusty pieces of whole wheat bread on the menu. Instead, you’ll get a taste of local farm-sourced ingredients such as roasted peaches, raw honey and a variety of quality proteins from shrimp to steak.

Josephine’s Toast is one of a handful of restaurant concepts at Smallman Galley, an innovative space showcasing up-and-coming chefs and their concepts. Based in Pittsburgh’s historic 6,000-square-foot Twin Plaza Building in the trendy Strip District, Smallman’s offers four diminutive and distinct restaurant models, two bars and enough seating for 200. Much of the seating is communal.

It’s a pretty neat project conceived by U.S. Navy Lieutenants Ben Mantica and Tyler Benson, who have seamlessly merged their global food hall dining experiences with these burgeoning chefs’ passion projects. What sets Smallman apart from other food halls, however, is that each restaurant concept is a pop-up venue with a life span of 18 months. It’s an idea they say they’ve patterned after technology incubators.

“We fell in love with the tech incubator model, which has brought many great ideas to the market, so we decided we could do the same for chefs,” says Mantica. “The initial idea was a food hall, and then we infused it with the tech incubator model.”

Mantica says that he and Benson were particularly inspired by the food halls they had visited during their travels in Asia and the Middle East. “Singapore stood out,” he says, “because they had a ton of great food halls there sort of in the bottom of buildings throughout the city. They were pretty amazing.

“Tokyo is the same way, [and] Southeast Asia, and then all the markets in the Middle East. The cool part was that they were all high-quality food, but really approachable, and all the seating was communal and they were just buzzing. That’s what we were aiming to do with Smallman Galley.”

The best part for chefs here is that they don’t have to put up any money. All they need to do is be armed with a well-laid-out business plan, some great menu selections, and a reliable cooking team. All supplies – including a kitchen for each concept – as well as ingredients, marketing, and so on are provided by the owners. Also to the chefs’ benefit: Smallman is closed every Monday so that they may attend regular training meetings by industry leaders on branding, business plan drafting, marketing and operations.

Each restaurant concept is distinct and easily stands out on its own. For the first round of establishments, set to leave June 2017, the choices range from a vegetable-driven venue to pan-Americana to … well, yes, Josephine’s Toast. A fan favourite there is the smashed avocado toast, a bite-sized delight that’s topped with toasted flax seed, fresh cilantro and, of course, avocado. Those looking for something more filling may opt for a toasted sandwich (think BLT or roasted mushroom toasted cheese) or entrée of rotating choices. Josephine’s is open for breakfast, and early risers gleefully dig into generous portions of signature dishes like roasted pineapple cottage cheese toast that’s drizzled with local honey and topped with sunflower seeds and pink peppercorns.

Courtesy Visit Pittsburgh

Josephine's Toast

And over at American bistro-inspired Aubergine, the Philippines-born Rafael Vencio showcases his experience of living in Chicago, Montana, Los Angeles, Louisiana and Pittsburgh. During brunch you’ll find his version of shrimp and grits as well as street corn topped with spicy morita aioli and pork rinds, and a lamb and pork meatball sandwich covered with cucumber herb cream.

"When people come to Smallman Galley [they] actually feel like they’re part of the chefs’ development"

A beverage program has been carefully curated to match the fare at Aubergine Bistro, Josephine’s Toast, plus vegetable-driven Carota Café and globally influenced Provision PGH. Diners may settle in at the bar offering 20 local craft beers on tap, a wine program featuring small-batch productions and spirits made by local distillers. The cocktail menu boasts classic and original concoctions, and during the week, customers pile in for discounted drinks at happy hour.

Smallman’s coffee bar, meanwhile, serves as a gathering spot for business meetings or work space. The coffee, espresso and loose teas originate from local companies with fair-trade sourcing practices. Selections are seasonal and wifi is complimentary.

Courtesy Visit Pittsburgh

Four dining options, with communal seating: Like a food court, but way hipper!

“Food halls in general are a big trend across the country, and it’s one that will stay,” says Mantica. “I think that Smallman Galley has embraced that spirit. Pittsburgh is one of those cities that is a very community-driven city, and I think that when people come to Smallman Galley [they] actually feel like they’re part of the chefs’ development.”

54 21st St., 412-904-2444

Published Tuesday, September 20th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Smallman Galley



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