CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ben Bebenroth is a thoughtful guy. For the restaurateur who formerly owned the acclaimed Spice Kitchen + Bar in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, a restaurant should not be simply any old business venture. It should have a sense of responsibility. So it’s no surprise to learn he has spent months planning his latest concept – Keep The Change Kitchen Collective – which will open in March.
Bebenroth is partnering with Jonathan Bennett on the venture, a multi-cuisine takeout restaurant that will be located half a block from his former space, at a newly constructed state-of-the-art production kitchen at 5601 Tillman Ave.
It’s billed as a “virtual food hall” offering online ordering, seamless curbside pickup and delivery options. Keep The Change’s initial concepts:
• Winner Winner, offering hearty chicken dishes and sides;
• Winner Winner Wing Shop, focusing solely on wings;
• Leif, a “burly” salad and grain bowl concept.
A fourth concept, Woo! Noods & Rice, featuring fresh takes on Asian noodle and rice bowls, is in the works. Other concepts are planned.
Bebenroth and Bennett, former vice president and executive chef of Red Restaurant Group and director of concept development at the Hyde Park Restaurant Group, began talking not long after the pandemic hit.
“We both knew the industry was changing,” Bebenroth said. “We both had these goals of trying to create a more balanced life for people in this industry and more balanced food offerings for the guests of this industry. Obviously, there’s been an enormous amount of changes in the last nine months.”
Those change became clear early on when Spice closed in 2020. Multiple causes dovetailed, but the pandemic – then squeezing its early grip on the culinary industry – helped push the door close on the eight-year-old restaurant. It gave Bebenroth time to think. And it didn’t take long for him to see the industry’s pivot to takeout was being “centralized around fried food and burgers.” Ghost concepts started popping up; most centralized around owning a fryer, he said.
“I can’t eat like that and still feel good,” he said.
Bebenroth – who said he was “two million (dollars) deep into the (Tillman) construction project” when the pandemic slammed the economy – said “having patient, thoughtful community-minded investors” offered a huge boon. The kitchen in the Tillman Avenue space is home to the virtual food hall but was originally constructed as Spice Hospitality Group’s administrative and culinary headquarters. He said after the pandemic hit, $4 million on the books for catering projects in 2021 disappeared.
“Everything came to a screeching halt,” he said.
But Bebenroth acknowledged he had to let go of the past. He kept his eye on the future, and that future encompassed more than just a bottom line for an industry at a crossroads. As he sees it, a cycle needed to be broken: Restaurant owners try to keep labor costs down. They find themselves siphoning costs from dinner to open for lunch, which adds more hours to an overworked staff, just to break even.
“We really wanted to keep the changes we made in our personal lives and business,” Bebenroth said. “The old world of fine dining and working 80 hours a week isn’t good.”
He added: “Time has become the new currency. I would pay double for quality takeout food if it were available.”
The need to break out of that gastronomic takeout troika of pizza, Chinese food and subs helped motivate the creation of Keep The Change Kitchen Collective. Food should be “accessible, moderately healthy, affordable,” he said. Employees should want to be excited to come to work, not drained from long hours.
He also said it would be hypocritical to be a flag bearer for healthy eating habits in kids – something he is a proponent of – while offering unhealthy food at his restaurant.
Keep the Change will be open 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday. Its closed, soft launch is scheduled for the week of March 17. The following week, it will open to the public. No dining room, but picnic tables will be available in warmer weather.
“We’re meeting people where they consume the majority of their meals – at home and at work,” he said.
The 10,000-square-foot space also will include a warehouse, and catering clients will be welcomed to a dedicated tasting room to plan their event’s menu. (The space also is available to rent for private parties and functions.)
“If we want to create something special,” Bebenroth said, “we have to own it.”
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. And tune in at 8:05 a.m. Fridays for “Beer with Bona and Much, Much More” with Munch Bishop on 1350-AM The Gambler.
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