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Workshop in downtown Charleston was on the brink of closing. Here's how it turned around.

“You know those movies with the tumbleweeds?” asks Brittaney Hutson, who for four frustrating months tried to sell meatballs, lasagna and eggplant Parmesan at Workshop, the upper peninsula food court, which in May 2017 opened as a restaurant incubator.

From the outset, Workshop’s premise was attractive to aspiring chefs and restaurateurs with concepts to test, since stall rental came with very little risk. Workshop supplied the kitchen equipment and covered overhead costs. Charleston-area diners, at first, were equally enamored with the prospect of chefs tossing out new ideas, as they’d lately been complaining that a certain sameness had infected downtown’s thriving restaurant scene.

Yet, as owner Michael Shemtov (The Daily, Butcher & Bee) puts it, “We started strong and then it tapered.”

Unfortunately for Hutson, she joined Workshop around the time that customer traffic and investor confidence were at their thinnest.

Hutson didn’t have any food-and-beverage experience prior to launching her Two Fat Olives stall last September, but she was eager to quit her job as an emergency room nurse and excited about sharing favorite dishes with fellow fans of Italian-American cooking. Still, “it was so scary,” she recalls. “But they said, ‘Let’s take a chance and do it. We have a marketing team. We have a back-of-house guy who’s been in the business for 20-plus years. Everyone will help you.’”

“In retrospect,” she said. “I was maybe expecting a little bit more.”

Without someone on site to guide Hutson through the fundamentals of running a food business, such as setting up an efficient prep station and keeping an inventory log, Two Fat Olives flailed. Hutson couldn’t afford to hire a cashier, so she was stuck behind the counter for eight hours a day, just hoping a customer might come by.

“Sales were so low, I couldn’t afford anything,” she says. “If you think about it, with 35 percent of net sales (going to Workshop), there’s zero room for error: One day, I made like $54 gross. I lost so much money.”

Plotting a turnaround

Hutson wasn’t the only one worried. Pacific Box & Crate developer Stephen Zoukis in January told The Post and Courier that Workshop was in critical condition. “This has been a lot harder than we thought, and more complicated,” he said. “This could be office space in a heartbeat. We’d just have a lot of restaurant equipment to throw in the trash.”

Now Zoukis says his only regret is “not yelling sooner” about the need for improvement.

“Things have gotten remarkably better,” he says. “The economics have turned around to the point where we’re not stressed. I’m happy.”

According to Shemtov, Workshop has been transformed since the start of the year, with the food court showing a 28 percent improvement in year-to-year sales. Workshop’s one-day sales record, set during a Cinco de Mayo party hosted by the Juan Luis stall just a few days after the food court’s debut, was this year shattered on a random summer Saturday.

While Workshop doesn't track the number of patrons who come through the door, Shemtov says its transaction count suggests the food court is serving approximately 500 people a day.

And it’s finally fulfilling its goal of serving as a stepping stone for restaurateurs. When Hutson joined Workshop, only one of 14 stalls had blossomed into an independent restaurant. Since then, Workshop alum Spanglish has acquired a permanent location in West Ashley, and longtime tenant Pink Bellies has announced plans to settle on King Street.

Plus, of the seven most recent tenants, at least three are in various stages of opening restaurants, including the tremendously popular Little Miss Ha. Their departures will create room for newcomers, including a Jewish-style deli (more on that later).

“Our tenant mix is the strongest it’s ever been,” Shemtov says. “Plus, our evening business has grown into a vibrant scene, drawing a broad section of the mostly local public. Our partners are very happy with the progress, and we’ve done all of this without a major retooling.”

But that doesn’t mean the turnaround happened all by itself. In interviews with nine people involved with Workshop, it became clear that seven operational changes contributed to the project’s recovery.

1. Hiring a manager

When Workshop first opened, its shared kitchen space and tenants were supervised by Jonathan Ory, who also ran the food court’s resident coffeeshop. After he decided to give up food-and-beverage work, he was replaced by “someone with restaurant experience, but no management experience,” Shemtov says. Then the company briefly experimented with a cooperative structure, giving multiple managers oversight of its various outlets.

In February, Buist Rivers was appointed to run Workshop.

With Rivers in charge, tenants knew who to approach if they needed something. It helped that Rivers was physically at Workshop, so he could spell out goals in conversation instead of sending e-mails, which was the primary mode of conversation prior to his arrival.

He was also in a position to notice potential hiccups that wouldn’t surface in sales reports. For example, he encouraged the owners of Sushi Wa Izakaya to invest in decorative screens and chef coats so the look of their space would be more in line with the food they were serving.

“Michael made a good hire in Buist,” Zoukis says.

2. Implementing programming

Shemtov’s assumption upon opening Workshop was that people from nearby offices and planned residential complexes would flood the place. “I thought it if you build a food hall, you’d have foot traffic,” he says.

But nearby apartment buildings are still short of the leasing stage, and workers proved just as likely to get in their cars and leave the property when hungry. So Rivers pushed for Workshop to “activate the space” by inviting non-culinary artists to perform in the courtyard. Workshop is now the backdrop for open mic nights, drag shows and artisan bazaars. Zoukis describes the regularly scheduled hoopla as “jugglers, magicians and dancing bears.”

“That’s something I foolishly resisted,” Shemtov admits.

According to Rivers, audience-luring entertainment hasn’t driven up the cost of a Workshop residency.

“It’s never been, ‘we need you to chip in’,” Rivers says. “They need to prep, cook and serve.”

3. Focusing on a different kind of customer

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Because Workshop is situated in an office park, its backers were hyper-focused on lunch. When Zoukis first took a stab at generating more customer traffic, he created an array of solutions to the property’s perpetual short-term parking shortage, including a parking lot shuttle and valet stand, promoted by a flashy windsock.

Yet it soon became clear that Workshop was chasing the wrong clientele.

“We somewhat misidentified our customer,” Zoukis says.

It turned out Workshop’s counter-service format was highly appealing to young parents who didn’t want to be stuck at a table with screaming children, waiting for a bill. And the spacious dimensions of the courtyard were more interesting to large groups than individual workers on their lunch hours.

“Now we get groups of 30 having gender reveals,” Rivers says. “We’re seeing everything from college kids to folks in retirement.”

Zoukis says, “We were at the point of thinking, ‘Do we even keep this open at night?’ Evening sales now match afternoon sales.”

4. Focusing on a different kind of meal

How much would Workshop patrons pay for a meal? Surely not $24, Shemtov thought. And then Free Reign opened, trying out the kind of high-end dishes that its owners plan to serve at a pair of forthcoming restaurants in Mount Pleasant and Cannonborough-Elliotborough,

Kelleanne and Ryan Jones, veteran restaurateurs, had no trouble selling a wood-fired hanger steak for four times the price of a burrito.

“We didn’t feed the masses,” Kelleanne Jones says. “Most people were there for burgers and tacos, but we brought real silverware, real plates. People were spending $50 at a takeout window and busing their own food to tell us how much they liked it.”

Ryan Jones says octopus outsold every other menu item at Free Reign.

On some days, Shemtov says, Free Reign was selling more than $1,000 worth of mussels and other dishes that never would have made the Workshop cut when the food court was brand new.

5. Shaking up the drinks

It’s a basic principle of restaurant ownership that alcohol pays the bills, so Workshop allowed its tenants to sell drinks. But with the exception of current tenant Rebel Taqueria, owned by a pair of tequila enthusiasts who enjoy creating and promoting cocktails, nobody really took advantage of the opportunity.

“You want to shoot for 30 percent beverage,” Shemtov says. “Our tenants were under 5-10 percent.”

In response, Workshop took over the bar program, offering wines and ciders that patrons couldn’t buy at the adjacent Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. Rivers also worked with tenants to develop “limited and focused” drink menus.

Alcohol sales are up, Shemtov says, contributing to Workshop’s bottom line.

6. Lowering expectations

Tenants weren’t supposed to last long at Workshop. Shemtov at one point envisioned visiting chefs posting up in a Workshop stall for a few weeks at a time. That model didn’t pan out, though, because customers got annoyed when they couldn’t find a favorite stall from a previous visit. And short stints didn’t do much to advance chefs’ restaurant ambitions.

“An incubated restaurant looks different than incubated tech,” Shemtov says. “You need a year of (profit-and-loss statements) to take to the bank, so quick in our world is three years.”

He adds, “Not having a gun to their heads has let them hire and keep better staff.”

For Rivers, who keeps an eye on brand identity and promotion, it’s important that tenants have time to develop a commercial personality. “A year is when things come together,” he says. “It’s really cool to see.”

7. Heightening expectations

Remember Hutson, who struggled so mightily at Workshop? (She’s now happily running a food truck with a trained chef at the helm.) Shemtov says he’s since realized that Workshop isn’t the right venue for someone without any culinary background.

Workshop instead is at its best when it functions as a kind of halfway house for chefs with successful catering outfits or food trucks who need one last supportive push before opening a restaurant. Rebel Taqueria and Little Miss Ha, Workshop’s two top-selling stalls to date, both fit the bill.

“We had recipes ready and we had a following,” Rebel’s Lewis Kesaris says, adding that he and partner Paul Nettles embraced the challenge of making their menu work in a food court. They cite hustle as the most important characteristic of a successful Workshop tenant, noting they picked up a lucrative Boeing contract through their association with the project.

“I think if you go into it depending on Workshop for your revenue, then it might be a lot more difficult,” Janice Hudgins of Little Miss Ha says. “I say, ‘Make sure you do UberEats. Make sure you do delivery.’ But I could not have gone from doing private dinners to what I’m about to take on if I had not had the experience at Workshop.”

Hudgins will close her Workshop stall on Oct. 31; she plans to soon open a restaurant in Mount Pleasant. Her stall will be taken over by Nikko Cagalanan, who has hosted a series of Filipino dinners. Mansueta’s will open Nov. 1.

Also opening on Nov. 1: Julius Delicatessen from Jacob Schor. He describes the stall’s menu as a collection of “smoked, pickled and slow-cooked foods.”

And at the revised Workshop, patrons will be able to enjoy them in the evening with a glass of rose, perhaps while listening to a local musician strum her guitar in the courtyard.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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