Smallman Galley’s Next Round of Conceptual Kitchens

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2 bars. 4 restaurant concepts. 200 seats. Located in Pittsburgh’s iconic Strip District, Smallman Galley boasts a one-of-a-kind dining experience as a food hall/restaurant incubator, and has quickly become one of the city’s most talked about, and celebrated local eateries. Inspired by the world travels and culinary exploration of two former Navy Lieutenants, Tyler Benson and Ben Mantica,  Smallman’s entire concept revolves around cultivating the unique talent that individual chefs bring to the table (pun most certainly intended).  If you have not yet made it down to 54 21st Street to try one of the current four concept kitchens, get on it! Currently holding down the fort are Aubergine Bistro, Carota Cafe, Josephine’s Toast, and Provision PGH.

Smallman Galley, 54 21St Street in Pittsburgh’s iconic Strip District

At the beginning of June 2017, Smallman Galley will be bringing in four more au courant kitchens, ready to serve us up some mind-blowing cuisine, all while establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with amongst Pittsburgh’s thriving culinary scene. First up is Ryan Peters from Western Pennsylvania with brunoise. Highlighting locally sourced ingredients, brunoise will showcase Ryan’s approachable take on the fine dining experience. Next up is Hoa Lee, originally from Vietnam, bringing us Banhmilicious. After working in her family’s restaurant in Vietnam and a brief stint in the corporate world, Hoa is eager to bring her traditional Vietnamese culinary experiences to the Steel City. No stranger to Smallman Galley as one of the original Sous Chefs of Carota Cafe, Jesse Barlass has created a new concept in Colonia, which will showcase the many diverse cuisines of Latin America. Lastly, hailing from our great city of Pittsburgh, is Pete Tolman. Pete will be bringing us Iron Born, featuring high quality American fare, with a distinct emphasis on Detroit-style pizza.

I recently had the privilege of sitting down and chatting with the aforementioned brains behind the Smallman Group operation, Ben Mantica and Tyler Benson, and got to ask some burning questions (all while painfully ignoring the urge to eat absolutely everything in Smallman Galley).

Tyler Benson and Ben Mantica

Icons: First off, how did the two of you initially meet? Give us a little background information on this stellar partnership.

Tyler: We were on the same Navy ship out of San Diego; our first ships were different, and then we both rotated to our new ship, and met on a deployment to the Middle East.

Icons: When it comes to artisanal inspiration, is there any one experience or memory that sticks out from your travels?

Ben: I think it’s kind of a collection of all of them, all of the food halls in Tokyo and Singapore, and the street markets in the Middle East as well. Also a lot of the food halls here in the States are really awesome examples; Tyler was just in San Francisco, and the Ferry Building Marketplace is pretty amazing, a couple in New York also provided some inspiration for Smallman Galley.

Icons: What sort of criteria do you look for when selecting the chefs that will be working in Smallman Galley?

Tyler: We kind of look for the whole package. First and foremost, the chef has to be very talented at making high quality food, cooking, and doing all of those things that chefs do. But we also kind of look for the “X factor”; do we think this person can lead and create a team and business around their concept and attract people to it? So that’s why we go through these lengthy processes, a 6 month ordeal to select them. We started accepting applications for this new class in October and went through December, then moved on to the first round phone interview, second round in-person interview, and then we had them come out and do the cooking portion and present their concept, kind of pitch it “Shark Tank style” to a panel of experienced industry judges. It’s all based on quality of food, how well they put the concept together, their team, how they present it, and personal references are taken into account as well.

Ben: One of the biggest pieces of feedback we’ve gotten when a customer comes in, is that not only is the food good, and they get good drinks, but a lot of people have told us that they actually feel kind of involved in the growth of the chefs, which is really cool. Part of our selection process is finding chefs that people can really get behind; these guys are fantastic in our next class, they’re people you really want to see succeed.

Icons: What do you feel are the positives and negatives of the “fast casual” no-waiter format, and how do you find your patrons feel about it?

Ben: I think the only downside I see about fast casual would be the “touch points” in hospitality, so it’s really hard to hit every table, and ask “How is your experience?”, or “How can we make it better?” and really make sure that the hospitality is consistent. On a Friday, Saturday or Sunday when we have 200 people in here, our managers are running around trying to talk to everyone, and that’s tough; there are definitely some times when I wish we have could hit every customer that walks in. I think the positives are that you can get really high quality food, and you can create your own experience. If you want to be in and out of here in 15 minutes you can, if you want to hang out here for two hours, have a few cocktails, try food from every kitchen, you can. Every time you come in here it feels entirely different, which is really awesome.

Tyler: I would also say that it allows us to focus on what our core competency is in this business. Although the bar is a big part of what we do, the main piece of our concept is those four restaurants, we’re in the business of selecting operators, that’s our core business model. We want to make sure we’re focusing on providing people with four solid concepts all of the time, and providing the back end business resources and training that they need, and mentorship and strategy that they need so that we can make sure that it is, as Ben said, consistent across the board every time you come in.

Icons: What happens after a restaurant concept cycles out of the galley? Are any of the departing kitchens opening up their own restaurant locations, and what stake (if any) do you have in their future business?

Tyler: They’re all leaving and doing different things; Steven from Provision will be going off and doing two new concepts, Jessica of Carota Cafe is helping open Merchant Oyster Company in Lawrenceville, Raphael of Aubergine will be starting an unrelated catering business this summer, and Jacqueline of Josephine’s Toast is actually working to put together a breakfast/lunch concept that is in its early stages. We’re not really in the mindset to hunt these guys down, we’re just here to help them grow, and add to the food scene in Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, people come to Smallman Galley to experience the four different concepts we have here at any given time.

Icons: In your minds, what qualities does Pittsburgh possess as a city for the nurturing of such immense culinary talent that maybe others lack?

Ben: Pittsburgh and a lot of these other “Rustbelt Cities” are very proud, and I think that’s a cool part of the city, but it’s definitely changing for the better. And I think the way that it is changing, the new demographic is really supportive about small businesses and entrepreneurs; that’s why Pittsburgh works for this concept. People come in here and they really support these guys, and want to see them succeed. The restaurant community in Pittsburgh is pretty collaborative, as opposed to some other cities where it’s pretty cut-throat, so I think that’s why Pittsburgh and some of these other Rustbelt Cities are perfect for this kind of concept. It has to be collaborative, it doesn’t work if its not collaborative.

Tyler: I’d say also that with the Rustbelt, you have an opportunity to experiment with new concepts and new models, for a pretty low risk. It’s tough to go into a big market like New York 0r San Francisco and try something totally new just to see if it works, but you can still do that in a place like Pittsburgh; there’s a massive amount of opportunity here.

Icons: What is your favorite meal to cook at home?

Tyler: Macaroni and cheese.

Ben: Pretty much anything I can cook outside, anything I can grill up.

Icons: Assuming you’ve already previewed the menu’s for the incoming kitchens, what one item would you pick as your favorite from each?

Ben: I’m really excited we’re getting a pizza concept here, Iron Born. Detroit style pizza is something I wasn’t too familiar with but it’s awesome. The Vietnamese concept Banhmilicious is going to be awesome, Hoa Lee is originally from Vietnam, and we’re really looking forward to that. Ryan of brunoise is coming from a fine dining background and is doing some pretty amazing things, some hand made pasta, and we’re getting a really good Latin American concept Colonia. Jesse who is the Sous Chef at Carota Cafe is taking over one of the kitchens and is doing food from all across Latin America.

Tyler: When we do the selection process we do it based on concept, to make sure they’re all different.

Shrimp Ramen from Aubergine Bistro

Icons: Do you think the Pens will win the Stanley Cup?

Tyler: I hope so!

Ben: I think they’ll win.