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Off-duty trips to bustling Asian food markets inspired the creation of the Galley Group, a new culinary incubator with big plans for the Rust Belt.

When Tyler Benson and Benjamin Mantica joined the Navy, they didn’t expect that their tenure in the armed forces would lead them to the restaurant industry. But their travels—especially in places like Japan, Singapore, India, and Malaysia—inspired them. “When we were off-duty, we went into these bustling markets. The food quality was unbelievable, and the atmosphere was exciting,” says Mantica. The experience showcased what food does best: bring people together. “People were sitting next to others they didn’t know and trying all kinds of different food. That’s how we decided to bring something like this back to the States.”

And bring it back they did, in the form of a food hall company called Galley Group, named for the ship kitchens they treasured at sea. When it came time to develop their first location, they knew they wanted to harness the economic and entrepreneurial energy they saw building in the Rust Belt. “We have no interest in going to the New York Citys and San Franciscos of the world,” Benson says. “We’re interested in the story of these comeback cities.”

So it was fitting that in 2015 their inaugural venture opened in Mantica’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Smallman Galley (located in the market-studded Strip District) wasn’t just any food hall—it was also an “incubator.” With help from Galley Group, the first class of four up-and-coming chefs shared the space for 18 months to present their restaurant concepts. The second cohort is now at Smallman until May, and next month a second Galley Group location will open on the ’Burgh’s North Shore; Detroit and Cleveland are next.

The Smallman Galley Model

To Mantica and Benson, it makes sense to take a page out of Silicon Valley’s book to responsibly jump-start Pittsburgh’s culinary talents. Galley Group facilitates workshops on marketing or operations, chefs get a full kitchen, and the food hall affords them the space to see how their menu fares with the public. Think Top Chef’s “Restaurant Wars,” but instead of conceptualizing and running a restaurant for a night, it’s for a whole year.

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“This explosion of food halls within the restaurant industry is mainly developer-driven,” Benson says, citing the hands-off approach large real estate companies often take at typical food halls, which don’t integrate an incubator. “We do a revenue share, license agreements, and we build out the kitchens entirely for [the chefs]. We bear almost all of the capital risk, but in return we attract much better talent, in our opinion.” 

Finding Success in the Steel City

Community response has been positive; Smallman Galley has high ratings on Yelp and Google, and the space has integrated well into the neighborhood, attracting families looking for a weekend brunch spot and young professionals heading to a weeknight happy hour.

The business seminars and support have proven especially helpful for incoming restaurateurs, even for those arriving at Smallman with an extensive culinary background. “I’m a chef—I know I can cook,” says 24-year-old Ryan Peters, a member of Smallman’s current class who has trained at the Michelin-starred French Laundry. “I don’t necessarily know what it takes to obtain a liquor license or write a business plan.”

Employees at Smallman also have a chance to give back to the community in non-culinary ways. Last year, charity cocktails raised more than $10,000 for organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, all chosen by the bartenders. Benson says they plan to continue providing a platform for their staff to support causes important to them at all their locations. October proceeds support Puerto Rico.

Growing Galley Group

If the goal is to guide chefs to a stronger foothold, their generous attitude seems to be working—well enough, at least, that late this fall they’re opening a second location. Federal Galley, a food hall on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, will feature both new and more established local chefs who won’t necessarily have to abide by a yearlong lease. There, Smallman alum Stephen Eldridge will reprise his well-received American-centric Provision PGH, plus co-open Mexican-inspired El Lugar with his partner, Susan Cope; in addition, chef Vincent Perri will strike out on his own at the vegetable-forward Supper, and Kristen Calverley and Nate Peck will present Michigan & Trumbull, a Detroit-style pizza joint named after the intersection where the original Tigers stadium once stood.

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Although Federal Galley won’t follow an identical selection process as that used for Smallman, Galley Group will still offer back-end assistance to the chefs there. “It’s the perfect scenario for people like Nate and me who have the experience and concept but not the means to open a business on our own,” says Calverley, 35. “We have an 8-year-old and a 3-year-old, so for us it’s life-changing to be able to provide for our kids. We’re excited to get in there and see what people think.”

Moving Beyond the Keystone State

Mantica and Benson are looking forward to showcasing the region’s culinary talent as they bring their community-centric style into nearby states facing similar reinventions. Downtown Detroit, where Galley Group anticipates a summer opening, has grown by 15 percent in the past five years. And since 2000, Cleveland, where they plan to open later in 2018, has seen a 76 percent increase in downtown residents ages 24-35.

At the end of the day, Galley Group’s mission is about bringing people together over food and drink. “We want our food halls to become centers of these neighborhoods, where people feel comfortable meeting in large groups and everything feels really approachable,” Mantica says. “We want it to feel like a place that’s for everyone, whether you’re a 26-year-old millennial or a 55-year-old office worker.”