On Thursday morning, two cooks are squeezed into Spotted Salamander's small catering kitchen mixing pesto pasta salad. A door frame away, three other cooks are in an equally small kitchen prepping for the day's lunch.
Across those two kitchens, executive chef and owner Jessica Shillato and roughly 11 staffers cater for at least one lunch each week day and three or four cocktail parties a week, while also serving daily lunch in Spotted Salamander's cafe, which holds about 70 people. At the start of its fifth year, the business has outgrown the space.
"I think we could do more if we had more space and more staff," Shillato tells Free Times. "We just don't have room here, but we're working on it."
Spotted Salamander's brick-and-mortar location is in the midst of its fifth birthday this week, but bigger milestones are on the way for the longtime caterer and lunch cafe. Shillato plans expand Spotted Salamander into a second restaurant and a second catering kitchen in 2020.
Shillato is aiming to open the second restaurant in Forest Acres, and it will feature much of the same fare as the Columbia location, but offer dinner service and a full bar. The food could draw from Mexican and Asian influences, too, she teases.
"It'll be a little bit different," Shillato says. "Keep it real southern, a nicer meat and three."
She lives in Forest Acres and says that there's a need for a Spotted Salamander-like restaurant there.
"I'm one of those parents that goes out to eat every other weeknight," she offers. "It's just limited dinner and dinner in a certain price point is limited as well."
The impending expansion is a far cry from when Shillato started the business in 2006 as a catering service that specialized in local ingredients. She had been working as a corporate chef, handling executive lunches or filling in for an absent cafe chef.
"I had a kid and i didn't want to go back to work, so I created my own job where I could take my newborn to work with me," she says. "In American you go back to work in six weeks, that's not enough time."
The catering business launched slowly. Every Saturday she would go to the All Local Farmers Market (which would grow into the Soda City Market) and feature things like cronuts, cakes or macaroni and cheese. At times, she'd work free events.
"That's how we got our name out there and we did that a lot," Shillato says.
That adventurous streak still peaks out in some of her dishes today. A menu linchpin is a salad that features sweet tea vodka barbecue sauced chicken, and the menu takes a hard turn into Asian cuisine, featuring a ginger-seared salmon with sesame-marinated vegetables.
Over time, though, she's learned to tailor the menu to the customer's wants, while also changing it regularly.
"You learn and you listen to your customers ... and give them what they want," she says.
Five years ago, Shillato grew her catering business into what was then an eight-person cafe and catering kitchen. Since then, the Richland Street business absorbed the connected building next door and expanded its seating.
Shillato has Salamander's birthday this week by donating a portion of sales to Epworth Children's Home and featuring a series of inventive daily fried chicken sandwich specials — from a Nashville hot variation topped with bacon pimento cheese, bread and butter pickles and more, to Friday's honey chipotle sandwich topped with shredded lettuce and avocado crema.
"When I opened this eight little table cafe, I didn't think anybody would come. I'm really glad they did," Shillato says.