By Emily Stevenson
Charleston has plenty of business incubators and places for startup tech companies to gain footing, but its restaurants tend to be established – and pricey. Not anymore, thanks to Workshop, the latest culinary endeavor of local entrepreneur Michael Shemtov.
Shemtov was approached by the landlords of his restaurant Butcher & Bee. They mentioned they’d purchased a 10-acre, 80,000-square-foot property, and asked Shemtov if he wanted to open a restaurant or café. At the time, he says, he had too much on his plate to open another eatery. Still, he wanted to help.
“I liked the challenge of solving this unique problem,” he says. “I like the landlords and wanted to do something with them, but I didn’t want to do another restaurant in Charleston myself.”
Shemtov chewed on the problem, and came up with a palatable solution.
“You have these office tenants, you have a yoga studio, you have a brewery, you’re on the north edge of town beyond where people traditionally go to eat, so what sort of businesses would work in that setting?” he says. “At the end of the day it’s an office park and it’s not on anybody’s mental map to go eat.”
Finding someone willing to take a risk on the less-than-perfect location took some creative thinking.
“We needed vendors who would have interesting food and who were willing to take a risk on the north edge of town,” Shemtov says. “Because you had people working there Monday through Friday you needed multiple tenants, because if you just had one restaurant, even if it was great, people would get burned out eating there. We took all of this together and realized what we were essentially talking about was a food court, or what I call a fancy food court. Imagine a mall food court, without the mall, with nicer food and a nicer ambiance.”
Once he hit upon the realization, Workshop was born. The space features a large communal kitchen, with counter locations for each of the six current enterprises, which range from a coffee shop to a unique grilled cheese restaurant. The variety makes it great for group outings and ensures that nearby office workers won’t get bored with the offerings.
Much like its business-incubator counterparts, Workshop offers a safe testing ground for restaurateurs trying a new concept or breaking their way into the oft-competitive industry. In fact, Shemtov says, he and his team actively recruited restaurant newbies. Chefs who have money to invest, wealthy partners, and/or access to bank loans typically look for properties in the heart of the peninsula, where the tourist trade drives up prices.
“We needed people who were working their way up or testing something new,” he says. “This wasn’t some hot potential restaurant space. We knew that we needed people who wanted to take a chance, who didn’t have the ingredients it would take to open a traditional restaurant.”
Shemtov says that within a short time of opening, Workshop has received high praise for quality and flavor. He credits the small enterprises and the hard work of the chefs.
“These are all very personal projects to people,” Shemtov says. “Those tend to be the best ones. You can taste love in people’s food.”
Thai Phi, chef and owner of Pink Bellies, is one such example. Phi came to America from Vietnam as a child. After moving to South Carolina, via San Francisco’s Little Saigon, Phi had little access to the food he was accustomed to.
“We want to make Vietnamese food accessible to as many people as possible,” says Phi. “I want to create little outposts wherever there’s a void to speak to the people who are missing it.”
Pink Bellies originally began as a food truck, which is currently parked to allow Phi and his team to concentrate their energy on their Workshop offerings. Having a brick-and-mortar location has been a game-changer for the 28-year-old.
“It has allowed us not only to expand our brand a little bit more, but also to stay open longer and make our food more accessible, which was always our main goal,” Phi says. “We can do everything in-house and dedicate more of our energy to the food itself, as opposed to transporting.”
In addition to offering a physical location for folks to try his food, the Workshop offers Phi and the other restaurateurs valuable advice.
“Working with Michael [Shemtov] and Jonathan [Ory] has been so tremendous in our growth,” he says. “I try to pick their brains as much as possible.”
For Shemtov, this, more than a food court for nearby offices, is the goal of Workshop.
“We intend for the space to be an incubator for new ideas,” Shemtov says. “My longer-term goals are to start attracting people outside of Charleston to see what we’re doing. My hope is that someone who is in New York or Boston would say, 'Man, it would be really nice to spend January in Charleston, where it’s 55-60 degrees', and do New England seafood for the month.”
Shemtov has planned for turnover; he and his team expect tenants to stay from one month to one year. While it’s not written anywhere that tenants can’t stay longer, he expects that if they do really well they’ll “graduate” from the food court and open an independent restaurant.
When he first launched the concept, Shemtov says that gathering tenants was a mix of individuals querying him, and him reaching out to others he thought might make a good fit. Now, Workshop is getting near-daily inquiries. Currently, he’s in the process of vetting the seven to eight serious inquiries that will fill only two slots.
Prospective tenants have to submit a pitch including the concept, logos, collateral marketing, and any press they’ve generated. Once they pass that stage, Shemtov and his team will ask for sample menus, and then ask them to do a tasting.
The tasting, like Workshop itself, is meant to be a give-and-take, for Shemtov and his team to offer suggestions and help budding chefs grow and thrive.
“This is what I love,” Shemtov says. “I love thinking about people’s ideas and helping them figure out how to edit them if necessary to make them successful.”