The four chefs who helped make Smallman Galley a favorite food and drink spot in Pittsburgh are each wrapping up an 18-month residency this week in The Strip’s innovative restaurant incubator.

What’s it like launching four restaurant concepts in a 100-year-old building, renovated into a food hall in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods?

A lot of hard work. But the experiment seems to be working.

“Our first group of chefs had great concepts that were executed really well,” says co-owner Benjamin Mantica. “They’ve set the bar really high.”

We sat down with the first class of chefs at Smallman Galley: Rafael Vencio (Aubergine Bistro), Jacqueline Wardle (Josephine’s Toast), Stephen Eldridge (Provision PGH) and Jessica Lewis (Carota Cafe), to talk about lessons learned, and future plans. (The next phase begins in June when four new chefs and concepts are set to open for a shorter 12-month residency.)

Chef Rafael Vencio, Aubergine Bistro, Smallman Galley. Photo by Tom O'Connor

Chef Rafael Vencio, Aubergine Bistro. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

Chef Rafael Vencio, Aubergine Bistro

Concept: Global approach to classic American food

On working in The Strip District:
“My concept changed a little bit because some customers were not always as adventurous in their food choices. I kept refining dishes, making sure to deliver the product I said I would deliver, but also keeping customers happy, and keeping myself happy too. With four concepts in one place, it was sometimes a struggle to really sell people on all of the elements of your menu.

“We had to figure out how to adapt and find the norm. It’s so much easier now to plan when it’s a holiday or there’s a sports event. We have a much better understanding of The Strip as an entity and the activity here.

“The neighborhood is a goldmine for chefs who are looking to be creative. It’s a great place to shop and I love to watch how it behaves. I talk to other vendors a lot. They’re the real veterans. When they say it’s going to be dead tomorrow . . . they know.”

On future plans:
Vencio’s immediate next move will be working as a stylist on some projects with his partner, photographer Adam Milliron. He also hopes to help invigorate the local food scene by introducing something that is uniquely his own. “I think Pittsburgh is opening its door to other kinds of food. People are more adventurous, looking to step out of their comfort zone. Obviously, my experience being born and raised in the Philippines will be a huge part of whatever I do,” says Vencio.

Chef Jacqueline Wardle, Josephine's Toast. Photo by Tom O'Connor

Chef Jacqueline Wardle, Josephine’s Toast. Photo by Tom O’Connor

Chef Jaqueline Wardle, Josephine’s Toast

Concept: Creative culinary options served on toast 

On shaping her menu:
“At first we served just toasts, but we started to be more profitable when we added sandwiches to the menu. It’s always fun having creative control over what I want to do. The responses were always positive, it’s just that some things sold better than others. We shaped the menu as we went along based on the trends and being in The Strip District. Also, people at lunch want something quick, which definitely had an impact.”

On the food hall setup and space:
“It was challenging. We went from relying on people to look at their phone for a text message—that was the worst—to writing down descriptions of what people were wearing. That became maddening in the massive crowds. Finally, we incorporated flag markers and it all worked out.”

On future plans:
Wardle is getting married in October so “no plans for opening a restaurant tomorrow.” But she has a concept, a business model and a possible location for her next project. “I figured out what my next focus will be and I’m going to be the best at it, but it might be closer to the end of the year, or next,” she says. In the meantime, this summer she’s firing up her popsicle business, Tippy Top Pops, working out of Gluten Free Goat Bakery and selling at the Lawrenceville Farmer’s Market and other locations around town.

Chef Stephen Eldridge, Provisions PGH, Smallman Galley. Photo by Tom O'Connor

Chef Stephen Eldridge, Provisions PGH. Photo by Tom O’Connor.

 Chef Stephen Eldridge, Provision PGH

Concept: Meat focus with broad interpretations on American cuisine

On reactions to his concept:
“I didn’t adjust it much overall, but I didn’t expect all of the positive feedback on the burger. We’re approaching 16,000 burgers sold in a 140-square-foot space in 18 months. It’s been the money maker but it eats up a lot of prep time. I was working 100 hours a week when we first opened.

“I always had an idea of what this would be, specifically our interpretation of American food. Everyone says we are a meat and potato country, but we’re really so much more than that because of our open borders.

“I’ve been able to grow and expand the menu a lot including making different charcuterie. There’s also so much to take advantage of with local produce grown in this area. Unfortunately, we’re closing right as the growing season is really starting.”

On future plans:
Eldridge will be re-opening Provision PGH in the new Smallman Galley Space at Nova Place when it opens this Fall. Additionally, he will be opening a Mexican concept called El Lugar in the same location.

Chef Jessica Lewis, Carota Cafe. Photo by Tom O'Connor

Chef Jessica Lewis, Carota Cafe. Photo by Tom O’Connor

Chef Jessica Lewis, Carota Cafe

Concept: Vegetable forward cuisine working with local farms

On the experience:
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity where you get to cook in a space with other chefs. It’s very comfortable, but we each kind of kept our own space. It was a chance to have some exposure and do our own thing. I wanted to go with what I thought was going to be successful for me because I believed in what I was doing.

“The most surprising thing was given how much of an innovative space this is, people were somewhat uninterested in trying new things. It surprised me for a city that has so many burgers and sandwiches, a lot of times, that’s still what they really want.”

On the challenges:

Because it’s a fast casual concept, everything has to be fast and prepared in the same kitchen during service. We also have to prep in the same time that we have service happening which can be hard. There’s also a lot for the guest to do. They have to find the water, find the bar, find the restaurant, bathroom, utensils. There’s a lot about the experience that’s out of our control.”

On future plans:
Lewis is already working on two new projects with her boyfriend, Chef Dennis Marron, who is opening Merchant Oyster Company in Lawrencevile and Or, The Whale at the new boutique District Hotel opening soon Downtown. She says she’s interested in opening an offshoot of what she did at Smallman. “I’d like to create a new experience, one where I have more control over the whole experience, something that is very different,” she adds.