Workshop is the in-between incubator emerging chefs didn't know they needed 

Proving Ground

click to enlarge 200129_mansuettascoverimage_rsmith_web.jpg

Ruta Smith

The glass-enclosed izakaya seats about 40 guests, oftentimes HBO crews and celebrities like Danny McBride. The Japanese word izakaya literally translates to "stay sake shop," which people do — stay, order sake, usually some usuzukuri, sashimi, or nigiri. "It's in between full service and fast casual," explains chef Kazu Murakami. He and fellow chef and longtime friend Chris Schoedler opened Sushi-Wa in June 2018. When approaching the complex, it's the first salient signpost that yes, there is food to be found at 1503 King St., tucked behind tech start ups and parking lots. The chefs have experimented with the space — first housing Bad Wolf Coffee, then Effin B Radio — since opening. Order at the counter. Order at the counter plus table service. Table service with a hostess.

But many customers still walk in and lock eyes with Schoedler. "They'll get in line and try to order up here. Which is totally understandable — it's just the workflow of Workshop. We've spent a year-and-a-half trying to swim against the stream, almost."

click to enlarge Sushi-wa izakaya - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Sushi-wa izakaya

The Workshop model is not new. Public markets, food halls, and upscale food courts have been operating in major cities for a century (Cleveland's West Side Market opened in 1912). They've picked up steam — what's old is new again — in the past half-decade. In 2017, Slate's Henry Grabar examined why Americans have fallen in love with the idea of eating moderately priced high-end bites in the company of hundreds, hunched over long tables with plasticware. "That's part of the charm, too: the no-nonsense emphasis on food."

Workshop possesses its own kind of utilitarian charm. The half-dozen tenants hawk a variety of fare served on bright red trays and silver platters — right now you can order tacos, burgers, steamed buns, and bagels inside. Find wood-fired dishes, craft ciders, and snow crab rolls just outside. The model is appealing to folks on the move, on a budget, and with a modicum of discernment. "I want something fast, but I want to probably take a picture of it, too," Grabar wrote.

This spring will mark three years for Workshop. Owner Michael Shemtov says that 2018 was challenging, and the start of 2019 was "rough." But there's been incredible growth — a year of transformation, he says. After graduating only one concept, Slice Co., from stall to brick-and mortar in the first year, in the two years since, Workshop has graduated four more: Spanglish, Pink Bellies, Free Reign, and most recently, Little Miss Ha. Things are starting to gel, and the lineup of stalls is as strong as ever.

click to enlarge Workshop owner Michael Shemtov and operations manager Buist Rivers - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Workshop owner Michael Shemtov and operations manager Buist Rivers

Workshop Tenant List

FORMER

Bad Wolf
Beech Acai
Cafe Roux
Effin B Radio + Bar Fowl Mouth
Free Reign
Greens and Grounds
JD Loves Cheese
Juan Luis
Little Miss Ha
Kite Noodles
Koa Bowls
Pink Bellies
Root Note
Sambar
Slice Co.
Slider Gold
Spanglish
Two Fat Olives
Verde
Wolf Peach Pizza

CURRENT

Chuck and Patty's
Burger and fries

Ginger Vine
Rotating menu with seasonal produce prepared in Workshop's wood-burning oven

Julius Delicastessen
"Newish" Jewish deli serving comfort food

Mansueta's
Filipino food with a twist

Merrows Garden Bar
Wine pro Kevin Regan serves libations from small producers

Rebel Taqueria
Specializing in tacos and burritos served on locally made organic tortillas

Sushi-Wa
Sushi, chirashi, sake, small plates

GRADUATES

Free Reign Community Table now open at 148 Civitas St. Mt. Pleasant
Little Miss Ha Opening at 915 Houston Northcutt
Pink Bellies Opening at 595 King St. Spring 2020
Slice Co. Now open at 1662 Savannah Hwy.
Spanglish Now open at 652 St. Andrews Blvd.

Shemtov says he went into the project knowing that, "By definition, we will always have people who would not be candidates, who have bigger teams and money to invest in a brick and mortar." He also designed the food court as a response to the Pacific Box & Crate developers. "They said, 'We have this parcel, we have BoomTown and tech offices, we need amenities.'" Not wanting to open a branch of The Daily or Butcher & Bee there, "I have enough restaurants," and knowing that the city's top chefs wouldn't deign to take a risk that far up King, he knew he'd need candidates with "one hand tied behind their backs" — enterprising cooks eager for a shot at success.

It was a compromise: Come try and sell your food way up on King Street in an area with no foot traffic, little car traffic, and huge office buildings blocking your facade. Oh, and the owners are going to take around 30 percent of your sales. In return, you get a space to grow, with top-of-the-line equipment, an in-house dishwasher, free marketing, and the blessed commitment-free lease. Need to cut and run? You can write a 30-day notice and walk away, something you'd never be able to do if you wanted to shut down a struggling storefront.

What Shemtov says he didn't anticipate was just how inexperienced some of the stalls would be. "Early cohorts didn't know how to manage their staffs," Shemtov says. "There were a lot of highly emotional issues coming from lack of experience or maturity on the operators' parts," as one might expect when money and early-stage businesses are involved. He soon realized he needed to find tenants with one hand tied behind their backs, and one hand deftly — and efficiently — creating and selling tasty food.

His reasoning for pursuing this complex scheme that could go so terribly wrong was simple: altruism, with a hint of selfishness. "I like seeing people have a chance," says Shemtov. "I especially like it when someone who has worked in proper restaurants or has fine dining training has an opportunity to cook food that is a childhood memory, or is from somewhere where they went and got inspired ... I get a kick out of it, and I enjoy giving people the platform."

One of those people is Janice Hudgins, the woman behind Little Miss Ha Vietnamese concept. After more than a year at Workshop, Hudgins' first storefront is set to open any day now in Mt. Pleasant. It will be "elevated fast casual," with customers ordering at the counter and a server bringing out their food. Hudgins, whose husband — along with Shemtov — owns and operates a string of local Mellow Mushrooms, says she never wanted to open a restaurant. And she certainly never thought she'd open one boasting a counter- service model. But Workshop changed all that.

"It was low cost," says Hudgins about her decision to transition from private chef and caterer to Workshop tenant. "If you open a restaurant there is a lot more invested — you'll be putting your house up for collateral. [At Workshop] you aren't looking for investors and bank loans."

Hudgins admits that her success was largely dependent on her perspective: She'd seen firsthand how taxing running a restaurant can be on a person and on a family. "I'm not saying Workshop is easy," says Hudgins. "But it's not that bad because I've seen bad — at Workshop you can walk away, you can write a 30-day notice if it's not working out for you."

Jacob Hunter, the brains behind '90s-themed burger joint Chuck & Patty's, has experience building brands in cities like D.C. and Chicago, where fast casual means more diversity and more access for anyone who loves to eat out frequently. "When I go out to eat I want to eat, I don't want there to be a whole to-do." Hunter says that with the "oversaturation" of restaurants, he didn't want to invest in a costly, large brick and mortar.

Though now with his proof of concept — Tiffani Theissen herself vetted the stall's Kelly Kapowski burger — Hunter thinks Chuck & Patty's would do well in Charleston arteries like Daniel Island and Johns Island. Like Verde, Hunter wants to populate the city, and maybe even the Southeast, with locally owned and operated fast-casual eateries that serve high quality eats to people who are hankering for Chipotle-fast but want to support local small businesses. A Big Mac riff you can feel good about.

click to enlarge The Kelly Kapowski burger at Chuck & Patty’s - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • The Kelly Kapowski burger at Chuck & Patty’s

There are concepts of course, no matter their menu of feel good eats or snazzy Instagram stories, that didn't work. Google their name — they were set up at Workshop, and then they were gone, poof. They were not privy to the luxury of time-earned wisdom, perhaps. Or maybe their price point wasn't hitting that "sweet spot" Hudgins looks for — $12 is the max, $15 is where customers are going to start expecting table service.

During that "rough" patch, Shemtov cites in early 2019, Chick-fil-A (heard of it?) had a two-week run in an empty stall. We lambasted the gimmick at the time — why not put up Boxcar Betty's or Chicken Fats, we queried?

click to enlarge Rebel Taqueria has been slinging tacos at Workshop since September 2018 - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Rebel Taqueria has been slinging tacos at Workshop since September 2018

"I mean, it's very tough to make money," admits Lewis Kesaris, co-owner of Rebel Taqueria. "As an owner you're putting a lot of hours on the clock yourself, you really have to watch food costs, labor, waste, and make really good sales on top of that to make a dollar."

Kesaris, like Hugdins, credits his industry experience for why his stall has been successful — Shemtov says Little Miss Ha and Rebel were often competing for number one and two in sales — and why it's been around so long, almost a year-and-a-half. Kesaris says while food trucks require a lot of upkeep, running Rebel for three years with just a couple of employees was a breeze compared to figuring out that as an owner, "You're getting taxed for having employees."

Still, Workshop has helped Rebel build their brand and their audience. "It's fun to be around people so energetic about food, to see what works and what doesn't work." Many of the tenants note the organic camaraderie of Workshop, how, even as the stalls compete, they're also ready to share a head of cabbage, a nub of ginger.

"I probably owe Janice a pound of ginger," laughs Schoedler. It's almost 3 p.m. (they open at 4) and Murakami is behind the bar, starting the rice. It's just the two of them in the kitchen, always has been. Sushi-Wa, although very much its own entity, still has to turn over their cut to Workshop, too — the more $14 crudo they sell, the larger that share is. So to keep costs down, they limit labor. Fresh seafood is expensive, after all.

click to enlarge Sushi-wa izakaya owners Chris Schoedler (left) and Kazu Murakami are the only ones in the kitchen Tues.-sun. - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Sushi-wa izakaya owners Chris Schoedler (left) and Kazu Murakami are the only ones in the kitchen Tues.-sun.

"It's always chasing behind you," Schoedler says of the sales they have to turn over. "We never hit that point where you're like 'We made rent! We did this now we're going to start making a profit!'" But he and Murakami, who met a decade ago working at a Japanese restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, say there would be no Sushi-Wa without Workshop. They'd tossed around the idea of opening their own 20-seater, an upscale izakaya, for years. One potential space fell through and they were tied to their full-time jobs, Murakami serving as executive chef at O-Ku, Schoedler doing sushi events and catering.

One day the two were having an omakase lunch at former stall Slider Gold and started chatting with owner Brian Emperor. "He said he was on his way out, asked if we were interested, gave us a tour of the kitchen," say Schoedler. They chatted with Shemtov, the restaurateur saw an opportunity to offer a couple of talented chefs a platform — "it's such a good offering, they're a perfect fit" — and they were given a choice between the recently vacated adjoining space and the inside stall.

It only took five days for the empty box to become Sushi-Wa. All they brought were their groceries and specialized sushi equipment. "Their business has probably tripled in sales from the first few months," says Shemtov. But don't expect the chefs to stay confined. That's the nature of the food court — it's only an in-between space, no matter how many Instagram followers you've gained in the process. "It's scary to be comfortable," says Murakami. "This is only a stepping stone. This is for the next step."

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