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Taste Test restaurant incubator sees value in decisions, yes or no

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Personal chef Ellen Eaglin takes a break during the April audition of G's Jook Joint in the Taste Test restaurant incubator in York. Eaglin works the kitchen with chef April Collier, the founder of the restaurant concept, which serves Creole cuisine.
Personal chef Ellen Eaglin takes a break during the April audition of G's Jook Joint in the Taste Test restaurant incubator in York. Eaglin works the kitchen with chef April Collier, the founder of the restaurant concept, which serves Creole cuisine. - (Photo / )

Laura Lamar always wanted to own a restaurant. But after testing the culinary waters at York restaurant incubator Taste Test during two weeks of 18-hour days, she laid that long-held dream to rest.

Though her aspirations didn’t amount to entrepreneurship, that doesn’t mean the 48-year-old York woman’s experience wasn’t valuable.

Taste Test offers a platform for wannabe-restaurateurs to pitch ideas and audition them before the community with the help of experienced guidance in finance, marketing, logistics and other areas from the four partners of O.N.E. Hospitality Group, a York-based umbrella company whose projects include Tutoni’s Restaurant, an Italian eatery in downtown York.

Taste Test also offers a more realistic portrait of what owning a restaurant is like, without exposing participants to the financial risk of joining the commonwealth’s estimated $21.5 billion restaurant industry

While Allison Witherow, creative director for Taste Test, said the group measures success by those who go on to run their own business, there’s also value in realizing that owning a business is not a good idea.

“There is a small ounce of success in someone figuring out that it’s not for them,” Witherow said.

Competition has grown

With gas stations and grocery stores adding casual dining options and ready-to-eat food products that people can bring home to eat, entrepreneurs looking to take their conceptual eats to the market need to be prepared to dish out something extraordinary.

Twenty years ago, people went only to restaurants when dining out, said Joseph Renfroe, a chef and instructor at The Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts, a division of YTI Career Institute-Lancaster. “Now, even convenience stores are direct competition.”

Laura Lamar opened a vegan community café concept in Taste Test’s audition space in June 2017. She ultimately decided not to open her own restaurant.
Laura Lamar opened a vegan community café concept in Taste Test’s audition space in June 2017. She ultimately decided not to open her own restaurant. - ()

In classrooms like Renfroe’s, instructors are not only grilling students on all aspects of cooking and food pairings, they also are providing background on food costs, menu development and other business know-how. Instructors and chefs pay close attention to trends and encourage students to tune in to customer expectations, the markets they’re selling into and the demographics of the areas where they may be looking to set up shop.

“You can be the best cook in the world, but if you don’t know how to budget your costs, you’re going to end up failing,” Renfroe said.

Nonetheless, Americans are spending more at restaurants. The Food Institute’s analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 2014 shows that millennials spend 44 percent of their food dollars on eating out, for an average of $2,921 per year. Baby boomers, on the other hand, spent $2,629 annually and 40 percent of their food dollars on dining out.

The Food Institute also found that many millennials favor fast-casual dining –a mix of fast-food and casual dining that doesn’t necessarily require tipping.

With all that in mind, taking a chance on a restaurant can be a less-than-appetizing risk. Unless, of course, the risk is in someone else’s hands.

A safe space for start-ups

Opening a business can be stressful, especially when an entrepreneur isn’t fully prepared, which is what Taste Test hopes to change. Toni Calderone, owner of Tutoni’s and president of O.N.E. Hospitality, understands the stress, having experienced it firsthand when she struggled to start up her restaurant.

“She heard ‘no’ for loans from 17 different banks,” Witherow said. “Eventually she did get funding, but when she did open, she made a lot of first-timer mistakes. It took her a year or two to work out the concepts, and that’s when we said, ‘There’s got to be a better way’ to perfect the concept before you open the doors to a new restaurant.”

It wasn’t just Calderone’s experience. Witherow said they noticed that when restaurants did move into empty spaces in York, they didn’t stay open for long.

“It wasn’t a good look for our city,” Witherow said. “We wanted to change that.”

And thus Taste Test was born in 2016.

Throughout the Taste Test process, each member of the O.N.E. Hospitality team works with a chef to develop and mentor their restaurant’s concepts. Chefs are provided with a kitchen at Taste Test’s 101-105 S. Duke St. location, and all of the tools they need to simulate owning a restaurant. Witherow said that before participants take their concepts to the community, they need to set prices for their items. Just like a real restaurant, the overhead costs are taken out of each night’s sales.

“Taste test offers a safe space for these concepts to be tested and proven before people are putting their houses or retirement on the line and go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, just so that they can put out a concept that maybe doesn’t work and they close in six months,” Witherow said.

18-hour days, creative freedom

As a personal chef with 15 years of experience in the industry, Lamar said she wanted to create dishes that were not only healthy, but would also contain locally sourced ingredients and support small businesses and farmers. Having worked closely in the past with farmers and having been a former vegan — someone who doesn’t ingest or use animal products — many of the dishes she created were vegan.

But as she reflected on traditional Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies like hog maw — pig’s stomach stuffed with meat and potatoes — Lamar wanted to make sure there were also meat options on the menu. She realized she had an opportunity to introduce the meat-and-potatoes crowd to meals they might not even realize were vegan.

With front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house experience in hand, Taste Test’s equipment and space, and a staff of people she supplied to help her, Lamar ran her restaurant concept, Karma: Food With a Conscience, in late June and early July 2017.

Lamar said the creative freedom she experienced was exhilarating and the positive responses were gratifying. The experience, however, came at a cost.

“Every single day was an 18-hour day,” she said. “I spent every hour outside of the kitchen planning, prepping, and shopping. There wasn’t time for anything else.”

After her two weeks were up, Lamar decided that the hours of a restauranteur weren’t for her. She has been working as a bartender instead. And she’s OK with that.

For Lamar, the trial run served as an eye-opener to how people perceive vegan food. Some, she found, didn’t want to try the cuisine because they didn’t consider themselves vegan, while others were surprised at how flavorful it could be. Either way, the experience is one she’s grateful for.

“Taste Test gave me the platform to test my dream and I did that,” Lamar said.

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Emily Thurlow

Emily Thurlow

​Emily Thurlow covers York County​ for the Central Penn Business Journal. Have a tip? Drop her a line at ethurlow@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter @localloislane.

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