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Feb 21, 2018
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Posts Tagged ‘Gerard Craft’

6 STL-area chefs, restaurants earn James Beard nominations

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

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{ Vicia }

 

It’s that time of year again. The James Beard Foundation announced its list of semifinalists for its annual awards recognizing chefs and restaurants today, Feb. 15, and once again, St. Louis’ food scene was well represented with six nominations, including some first-timers.

Vicia was nominated for Best New Restaurant. “It’s a huge honor. It was something we hoped to achieve,” said co-owner Tara Gallina. “When we opened – you know, you always set goals for yourself – this was certainly a high goal, so nothing we would be heartbroken if we didn’t get. But we’ve been really pushing ourselves and our team.”

This is the latest in a slew of local and national honors for the Central West End restaurant, which opened in March 2017. Gallina said she’s aware of what this recognition can do for Vicia’s business, since James Beard nominations are something people look at for ideas while traveling.

“I’m the same way when I go to a new city,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to attract people from all over. These types of things are amazing for your business … and will also help attract amazing talent.”

Longtime St. Louis fine-dining standby Tony’s made the semifinalist list for Outstanding Service.

 

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{ Privado chef-owner Mike Randolph }

 

The foundation also singled out four area nominees for Best Chef: Midwest: Elaia executive chef Ben Grupe, Sardella executive chef Ashley Shelton, Privado chef-owner Mike Randolph and Lona’s Lil’ Eats chef-owner Lona Luo. This is the first such nomination for Grupe, Luo and Shelton and No. 3 for Randolph.

“It’s a great and humbling experience,” said Randolph, who was a semifinalist in 2016 and 2017. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t weird to see Privado on there instead of Público, because we’ve done such good work there. But Privado has been a really special project for me. You never know who’s going to be sitting at the table.” He added that it’s satisfying to see the unique weekend-only concept recognized. “It definitely puts a pep in our step.”

 

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{ at left, Lona Lil’ Eats chef owner Lona Luo } 

 

Luo said she found out about the honor when people starting congratulating her this morning.  The fast-casual Fox Park eatery specializes in fare from Xishuangbanna in China’s Yunnan province, where Luo grew up. She prides herself on making every sauce and marinade from scratch without MSG or preservatives. “If people are happy, their body is happy and it’s making me happy” she said.

Luo credits her front of house and kitchen staff, particularly chef Jason Hummel, with the success of her restaurant. “My team is absolutely awesome,” she said. “I really love them. Without them I cannot make that happen. … They are my right hands and my left hands.”

 

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{ Sardella executive chef Ashley Shelton }

 

This is the second time the James Beard Foundation recognized Shelton; in 2017, she was a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, which recognizes promising chefs younger than 30. Shelton, who was a 2016 One to Watch, said the nomination validated her growth in the kitchen. “I’m actually doing good at this,” she said. “It’s not just about being young anymore – it’s about being a talented chef.”

Shelton credited her Sardella team for helping her reach this point. “It’s awesome. I think it’s going to be a huge lift for everybody at Sardella,” she said. “It’s going to fuel them and push us to keep working even harder than we already are.”

Sardella owner Gerard Craft said Shelton earned the honor. “We’re super excited for her, and this is very well deserved,” he said. “She works her tail off everyday, and this is the result.”

 

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{ Elaia executive chef Ben Grupe }

 

Grupe said he appreciated the recognition of his team’s hard work. “It’s a great honor. It’s referred to as the Oscars of the culinary world, so just being nominated is a great achievement,” he said. “We’ll see where we fall when they make the next announcement in March.”

Elaia owner Ben Poremba said the honor further proves that Grupe is doing something special at the Botanical Heights fine dining restaurant.

“It wasn’t easy for me to leave my position and trust my restaurant to someone,” said Poremba, himself a three-time James Beard Best Chef: Midwest nominee. “But Ben came in and took it to new heights. I’m proud of him, proud of his work and proud of our restaurant group. It takes a lot of work, focus and resilience.”

Tony’s and Luo didn’t immediately return requests for comment.

The finalists for each category will be announced at 8:30 a.m. March 14, and the annual James Beard Awards will take place May 7 in Chicago.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:20 a.m. Feb. 15 to include comments from Ben Grupe. it was updated again at 1:40 p.m. to include comments from Lona Luo. 

 

Ashley Shelton photo by Carmen Troesser, Ben Grupe photo courtesy of Grupe, Lona Luo photo by Elizabeth Maxson, Mike Randolph photo by Greg Rannells, Vicia photo by Michelle Volansky

Heather Hughes, Catherine Klene and Matt Sorrell contributed to this report. 

Related Content
• Sidney Street Cafe’s Kevin Nashan wins James Beard Award

• St. Louis food community reacts to James Beard wins

• James Beard Foundation names Kevin Nashan, Kevin Willmann Best Chef: Midwest finalists

Ones to Watch 2018: Evy Swoboda

Monday, January 1st, 2018

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Chef de cuisine, Pastaria
Age: 26
Why Watch Her: She’s the next big thing in the Niche Food Group empire.

Fresh-faced, 17-year-old Evy Swoboda arrived at The Lodge of Four Seasons at Lake of the Ozarks to accept a garde manger position on the word of a friend. There was just one problem: The chef had hired her, but human resources hadn’t.

Swoboda was undeterred. Armed with a resume boasting a two-year stint as Subway sandwich artist, she talked her way into the job and a career crash course.

“I didn’t even know how to cut a pineapple,” she said. “I just faked it until I made it, basically. Read a lot, pretended I knew a bit more than I did until I knew what I was doing.”

Confidence, dedication and a whole lot of practice eventually led her to the grill station at 44 Stone Public House in Columbia, Missouri, and then to Pastaria shortly after it opened in 2013. The eager line cook rocketed up the chain of command, landing at chef de cuisine under executive chef Ashley Shelton.

“She can read my mind,” Shelton said. “I can give her a look and she understands, ‘You need me on pizza.’ She understands, ‘That burned.’”

There’s no doubt Swoboda can cook. She creates daily pizza specials and recently took over the entire menu of the popular Clayton restaurant. However, it’s Swoboda’s deft leadership on the line that sets her apart.

“I can be a little more hammer, and she’s a little more honey,” Shelton said. “She has a way with the line cooks that is very friendly. … She can get her point across without having to yell or be stern.”

It’s a quality Niche Food Group owner Gerard Craft has noticed, and the reason he wanted Swoboda to help open Pastaria’s Nashville location. “That’s one thing a lot of people overlook,” Craft said. “They might be really good cooks, but they might be terrible, terrible managers. I think she handles herself really well. She’s really well organized. She’s a really good teacher.”

Swoboda’s rapid ascent at Niche Food Group won’t stop if she has anything to say about it. “I want to continue helping open other Pastarias and hopefully get my own one day,” she said. “I definitely want one of the restaurants.”

Photo by Carmen Troesser

Catherine Klene is managing editor, digital at Sauce Magazine. 

 

Rockwell Beer Co. partners with Niche Food Group for future food service

Thursday, December 21st, 2017

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It’s taken some time, but Rockwell Beer Co. has announced its final plan for its new location at 1320 S. Vandeventer Ave., on the eastern edge of The Grove.

Owner-brewer Andy Hille said the facility, which will include a 15-barrel brewery, tasting room and retail space, should open for business sometime in the second quarter of 2018. Hille first announced the project in early 2016.

Hille said Niche Food Group will handle the culinary program at the tasting room. Specifics of the concept, such as the name and type of cuisine, haven’t been revealed, but Hille said it would be a separate entity from the brewery, and the food “will be approachable, and fit into the beer culture.” Niche Food Group declined to comment on the upcoming concept.

Hille said Niche Food Group will serve bratwurst at a Rockwell open house event at Core at South Newstead at 4400 Vista Ave., later today, Dec. 21. He said the tasting room will seat 50 to 60, with double that number on the patio.

The brewery has partnered with Green Street St. Louis, the company behind Urban Chestnut Brewing Co.’s Grove Brewery and Bierhall, to redevelop the building, and architectural firm JEMA Studio is slated to design the space.

Photo by Greg Rannells

Matt Sorrell is staff writer at Sauce Magazine. 

Related Content

• Rockwell Beer Co. announces location in The Grove

• Brewer Andy Hille to leave Perennial Artisan Ales, open new brewery

• Sauce Magazine Guide to Beer 2016: Bold New Brewers

 

The Scoop: Pastaria’s Ashley Shelton is named Sardella exec chef

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

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Chef Ashley Shelton’s star continues to rise at Niche Food Group.

On Monday, Niche Food Group owner Gerard Craft announced that Nick Blue was stepping down as Sardella executive chef, and Craft wasted no time filling the role. Luckily, he had in-house talent to fill the bill.

Shelton, Pastaria executive chef and a 2017 James Beard Rising Star semifinalist, will take over the Sardella kitchen – and continue to helm operations at her current restaurant.

“Ashley is super talented, so that was easy,” Craft said. “She’s worked at Niche, Pastaria and in Italy, so I think that helps give her a distinct point of view. And she’s an amazing leader and operator. Honestly, it was an easy choice to make.”

In addition to her Beard Foundation nod, Shelton is also a member of the Sauce Ones to Watch Class of 2016 and won Eater’s Young Gun competition in 2016.

“I’m always ready for the next challenge and always ready to keep pushing and keep learning, so (Craft) asked me to do it, and how could I say no?” Shelton said. “I’m super excited about it.”

Logistically, Shelton said it will be easy to divide her time between the two locations, which are connected at their Clayton location in the Centene building.

“I’m in the building already, so I’ll be able to oversee everything on both sides on a day-to-day basis,” she said.

Shelton said she’ll start menu development and changes slowly, but she is excited about where Sardella is heading.

“Chef just got back from Italy, so he’s been spewing ideas and we’re playing with those,” Shelton said. “The kitchen staff at Sardella now has tons of ideas, so I’m just hearing everything out right now, and we’re trying to focus all of the creativity and come up with some great new dishes. But I’ve only been in the kitchen two days, so there’s nothing concrete yet.”

Photo by Carmen Troesser

Matt Sorrell is staff writer at Sauce Magazine. 

Related Content
The Scoop: Nick Blue leaves post at Sardella

The Scoop: 5 St. Louis chefs earn James Beard Foundation semifinalist honors

Ones to Watch 2016: Ashley Shelton

The Scoop: Nick Blue leaves post at Sardella

Monday, April 17th, 2017

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Nick Blue has left his executive chef position at Sardella.

“We wish Nick all the best of luck in the future and thank him for his time with our Niche Food Group family from Brasserie to Sardella,” said Niche Food Group owner Gerard Craft in a statement. He will announce a new executive chef in the coming weeks.

Blue helped open Sardella, the Italian-inspired restaurant that replaced Niche, in late 2016. He has worked at Niche Food Group eateries starting in 2009 with stints at Taste, Niche and Brasserie.

Blue said the two chefs saw the kitchen headed in different directions.

“I don’t really have a next step yet. I’m just going to enjoy this first week and take it easy and get physically and mentally rested, and we’ll go from there,” he said, adding that he intends to stay in the St. Louis area.

 

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 1 p.m. April 17 to include comments from Nick Blue. 

Photo by Ashley Gieseking

Related Content
What I Do: Nick Blue of Sardella

Best New Restaurant 2017: Sardella

Sneak Peek: Sardella in Clayton 

 

The Scoop: James Beard Foundation names Kevin Nashan, Kevin Willmann Best Chef: Midwest finalists

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

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{ from left, Sidney Street Cafe chef-owner Kevin Nashan, Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann } 

 

The St. Louis restaurant scene experienced a bit of déjà vu when the finalists for the James Beard Foundation Awards were announced today, March 15. Two St. Louis chefs moved on as finalists in the Best Chef: Midwest category: Sidney Street Cafe chef-owner Kevin Nashan and Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann. Both chefs were finalists in this category last year.

“I’m so grateful,” Nashan said. “You never know if you’re going to on the list again – it’s torturous! I’m just so grateful and really excited for the team. I just found out and I’m really blown away.”

Willmann found out about the news when Sauce called for comment. “Oh, no shit? Hell yeah!” he said. “I’m really proud of my team this year, we have an awesome groove going, and the sky’s the limit. “

As The Scoop reported in February, the James Beard Foundation named four St. Louis-area chefs as semifinalists in the Best Chef: Midwest category. Olive & Oak executive chef Jessie Mendica and Público chef-owner Mike Randolph did not make it to the final round. Pastaria executive chef Ashley Shelton, a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year, also didn’t advance to the final round.

Winners of the chef and restaurant awards will be announced at a ceremony in Chicago on May 1. Local eatery Gioia’s Deli will also be honored at the gala; the Beard Foundation honored The Hill sandwich shop with an America’s Classic award in January.

 

Related Content
• The Scoop: 5 St. Louis chefs earn James Beard Foundation semifinalist honors

The Scoop: James Beard Foundation declares Gioia’s Deli an American Classic

The Scoop: James Beard award eludes Willmann and Nashan

The Scoop: 5 St. Louis chefs earn James Beard Foundation semifinalist honors

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

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{ Pastaria executive chef Ashley Shelton } 

 

The James Beard Foundation announced its 2017 restaurant and chef award semifinalists today, Feb. 15. St. Louis’s recent run of recognition from the foundation continues, as five St. Louis chefs earned nominations for the esteemed culinary awards.

Pastaria executive chef Ashley Shelton was named a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year. This award recognizes “a chef age 30 or younger who displays impressive talent and is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”

“It’s pretty much every chef’s dream come true to be recognized in that way,” Shelton said.

The JBFA nod is the latest in a growing list of recognition for Shelton. She is a member of the Sauce Ones to Watch Class of 2016, and Eater named her a Young Gun of 2016. Shelton said the honors validate her leadership style in the kitchen. “For me, it keeps pushing me and telling that the path I’m on is the right path,” she said. “We’re trying to do something different in our restaurants – not screaming and yelling.”

Pastaria owner Gerard Craft, who won Best Chef: Midwest in 2015, said Shelton’s culinary future is bright, and not just because she’s a talented cook.

“Being a chef is being a chief. It’s being a leader. It’s one of the hardest parts of the job,” Craft said. “For somebody her age to lead a team the size that she leads and operation the size that she leads, I can’t imagine anybody doing it better. What she’s going to do in the future is sure to be amazing.”

 

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{ from left, Olive & Oak executive chef Jesse Mendica, Perennial Artisan Ales’ Phil Wymore and Olive & Oak owner Mark Hinkle }

 

JBF also named four area chefs as semifinalists in the Best Chef: Midwest region: Olive & Oak executive chef Jesse Mendica, Público chef-owner Mike Randolph, Sidney Street Cafe chef-owner Kevin Nashan and Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann. This category acknowledges “chefs who have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions.”

This is the first Beard Foundation honor for Mendica. Neither she nor Olive & Oak owner Mark Hinkle could immediately be reached for comment.

 

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{ Público chef-owner Mike Randolph }

 

This is the second semifinalist nod for Randolph, whose restaurant Público was named a finalist for Best New Restaurant 2016.

“Going into last year I had put so much emphasis on the restaurant getting the Best New nomination because I felt like that was kind of a loftier goal, to be honest,” Randolph said, crediting his team with the restaurant’s success. “But that being said, I look at this list – these are people that I admire and that I respect. Any time you get a chance to see your name thrown in that hat, it’s humbling. It makes me want to work harder – and go in and hug everyone at Público.”

 

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 { Farmhaus chef-owner Kevin Willmann }

Nashan and Willmann are no strangers to this prestigious honor. Willmann earned his first finalist nod last year. “It’s always an honor and always exciting, especially for the crew,” he said. “They go so hard to keep our standards up.”

 

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 { Sidney Street Cafe chef-owner Kevin Nashan }

 

Nashan has twice made it to the finalist round of this category. “It’s awesome and amazing,” he said. “I literally just found out. It’s an honor any time you’re mentioned — it’s just great to be on the bus.”

Finalists will be announced March 15, and the winners will be named May 1 in Chicago. A full list of the winners is available online.

 

Editor’s note: This post was updated Wednesday, Feb. 15 at noon to add comments from Kevin Willmann. 

Heather Hughes, Catherine Klene and Matt Sorrell contributed to this report.

Ashley Shelton and Kevin Willmann photos by Carmen Troesser; Kevin Nashan photo by Greg Rannells; Mike Randolph photo courtesy of Público by Greg Rannells; Jesse Mendica photo courtesy of Olive & Oak Facebook

 

Related Content
• The Scoop: James Beard Foundation declares Gioia’s Deli an American Classic

The Scoop: James Beard award eludes Willmann and Nashan

The Scoop: Chefs Kevin Nashan, Kevin Willmann earn finalist nods for JBFA Best Chef: Midwest

The Scoop: 5 STL-area chefs, The Side Project Cellar, Stone Soup Cottage all earn JBFA nods

The Scoop: Gerard Craft wins James Beard award

Ones to Watch 2017: Sam Witherspoon of Sardella

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

OTW_Sam_Blog_Jan17

 

Title: Executive sous chef, Sardella
Age: 27
Why watch him: He proves good guys can get ahead.

Sam Witherspoon’s resume reads like a cutthroat careerist’s: the New York Culinary Institute of America to Danny Meyer’s Maialino to Donald Link’s Cochon, then Gerard Craft’s Niche and now Sardella. The lineup may evoke a sense of cold-bloodedness, a ruthless master plan, but that impression would be wrong for the guy Sardella executive chef Nick Blue called his “softer side.”

“I’ve never really had a plan,” Witherspoon said. “I always just kind of go where I want to go and I figure it out when I get there.” He’s gotten where he is simply by aiming high, giving it a shot. He secured the job at Niche with a cold call – an effort that would seem laughable if it hadn’t worked. “I have the attitude of start at the top,” he said. “Because it’s easier to start there than it is to start down and try to move up.”

This strategy, of course, only works if you have the skills to support it. “He has a really playful sense of food … an ability to translate comfort food into modern food,” Craft said. Take, for example, Witherspoon’s recent special at Sardella: a pastrami-spiced brisket and squash agnolotti served with pickled and butter-braised cabbage. “It doesn’t taste like it’s just a riff [on a Reuben],” Craft said. “It is its own dish – something nuanced and unique.’”

But for Witherspoon, being a chef has as much to do with how you treat people as what you serve them. “It’s almost impossible not to smile when you see Sam. He boosts everybody’s mood,” Craft said. “He’s a very positive spirit in the kitchen. That’s totally separate from cooking ability, but almost more important sometimes.”

He learned this during his externship at Maialino, where it wasn’t just the high pressure or long hours that impressed him. “These guys were very serious about what they did, but they walked in every day, they shook your hand, asked you how you were doing,” Witherspoon said. “They really invested in you, and that’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my entire career.”

A focus on hospitality in and out of the kitchen may sound peripheral, but it’s something that sets Witherspoon apart. A lot of people with serious culinary talent don’t make it past sous. “To be a great leader, there’s a certain amount of positivity that has to be there for people to want to work for you,” Craft said. He was equally impressed by Witherspoon’s ability to interact with guests. “If you’re going to do your own thing, you’ve got to have it – or you better hire somebody who does.”

There’s no doubt Witherspoon will have a lot of people working for him someday. For now, aside from having his voice heard through more dishes on Sardella’s menu, his goal is simple: “I would love to be able to give Nick Blue a day off.”

Photo by Carmen Troesser

 

 

Extra Sauce: Top 10 Scoops of 2016

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

From big chef changes at Niche Food Group to new taco restaurants in Kirkwood and steakhouses in Sunset Hills, here’s the dining news you were most excited about this year.

Don’t miss out! Follow Sauce Magazine on Facebook and Twitter to get The Scoop on the latest St. Louis-area restaurant news.

 

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1. The Scoop: Kirkwood to see new taco restaurant

2. The Scoop: Owners of Sugarfire Smoke House to open burger joint this fall

3. The Scoop: Catrinas opens in Edwardsville

 

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4. The Scoop: Jimmy’s on the Park closes after more than two decades

5. The Scoop: Joey B’s fourth location to open in April

6. The Scoop: Twisted Tree to open in Sunset Hills

 

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7. The Scoop: Nate Hereford to exit Niche, Brasserie’s Nick Blue to take the helm

8. The Scoop: Old Standard Fried Chicken to close

9. The Scoop: Two Plumbers Brewery & Arcade to open in St. Charles

 

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10. The Scoop: Firecracker Pizza and Beer to open in The Grove

 

Related Content
10 Best New Restaurants of 2016

Extra Sauce: Top 5 Dishes of 2016

Extra Sauce: Top 10 Sneak Peeks of 2016

Best New Restaurants: No. 6 – Porano Pasta

Thursday, December 1st, 2016

To be the best, everything matters – atmosphere, service and food. Here, the places that dazzled us from the moment they opened:St. Louis’ 10 Best New Restaurants of 2016.

 

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{ ‘nduja pizza }

Porano Pasta is the fast-casual restaurant we have been waiting for. It took Gerard Craft, the chef mind behind Niche Food Group, to combine affordability and speed with such quality ingredients and consistently well-executed food.

Walk in and notice the restaurant’s towering ceilings and wall-sized illustrations of Italian and St. Louis landmarks. Sunshine pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows and upbeat pop music fills the air (Ace of Base, anyone?).

Queue up to build your bowl from a variety of starches, sauces, proteins and toppings. The possibilities are endless, but we’re loyal to a combination we call the Suzie Bowl (That’s Suzie Craft, marketing director of Niche Food Group.): a half-kale, half-farro base, anchovy dressing, spicy tofu, green olives, crispy garlic, herbs and a drizzle of Mike’s Hot Honey. Spicy and sweet with briny bites, fresh crunch and pops of intense garlic and herbs – it’s been hard to order anything else since she suggested it on opening day.

While such healthy options are available, comfort combinations should also be indulged in, like a strozzapreti pasta bowl with Alfredo sauce, grilled chicken, herbs and toasted almonds. It’s a version of fettuccine Alfredo also known as our Achilles’ heel. Or go for executive chef Michael Petres’ new Detroit-style pizza: square focaccia-like dough with edge-to-edge cheese that bubbles at the brink into a salty, crackling border. Pair that with a Negroni slushie, and you’re in for a good night.

Niche Food Group took a national, fast-casual business model and made it work. Will it ever be a franchise? The possibilities, like their bowls, seem endless.

 

Related Content

Lunch Rush: Porano Pasta

• Hit List: 4 new must-try restaurants in February

• Sneak Peek: Porano Pasta on Washington Avenue

The Scoop: Gerard Craft to open fifth restaurant downtown 

Photo by Carmen Troesser

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