Reinventing the way we eat out
By Sarah Wood
Photography by Elizabeth Hodges and Michelle Magdalena
Despite the explosion of dining options and the Internet-driven avalanche of information about them available to restaurant-goers in recent years, our approach to eating out hasn’t changed all that much, argues Andrea Mollenauer, a Santa Cruz chef, teacher and entrepreneur.
“There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in how we dine out,” Mollenauer says.
But if Mollenauer has her way, people on the Central Coast—and in Santa Cruz in particular—will change their restaurant-going routines a lot. They’ll think less about just showing up at one brick and mortar restaurant or another, and more about actively watching event calendars for special food happenings.
Mollenauer especially wants diners to pay attention to the event calendar for Food Lounge, a business that she and partners Sally Kane and Cat Hernandez opened at 1001 Center St. in downtown Santa Cruz in April.
Food Lounge is part event and classroom space, part food business incubator, part commercial kitchen and part restaurant, although Mollenauer says a better term than restaurant for it is “dynamic eating venue,” and she’s right.
That means that unlike a conventional restaurant, Food Lounge offers a changing menus of chefs and types of food from one night to the next. To let diners know who is cooking when, Food Lounge posts an event calendar online showing what’s planned for the next month or more and also promotes the events with social media and a weekly e-blast.
Most Food Lounge dining options are offered weekly or monthly, and community groups, chefs-at-large and other food or drink businesses are invited to schedule one-off events on other days. Also, Mutari Chocolate House and Factory offers its artisanal hot chocolate daily out of its own storefront within the space.
Food Lounge’s monthly events include a 2nd-Friday-of-the-month Artisan Food Market—think hip-cocktail-party-meets-farmers’-market, or a version of Sand City’s former beloved Indy Marketplace. Vendors include Fogline Farm, Ocean2Table, Ashby Confections, Belle Olive Oil and Farmer Freed salts. Food Lounge’s popular resident collaborators also offer prepared foods to eat along with drinks from a rotating roster of featured local wineries and breweries.
Three of Food Lounge’s resident collaborators, Mortal Dumpling, LionFish SupperClub and Ty’s Eatery, stage regular pop-up dinners with varied themes every week on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively. Ty’s Eatery also hosts an organic Sunday brunch each week.
“Portland has food trucks, but Santa Cruz has pop-ups,” said Lionfish chef Zachary Mazi at a recent event.
All three of the weekly pop-up creators run their operations out of Food Lounge’s commercial incubator kitchen. Importantly, they can also take advantage of the valuable restaurant infrastructure Food Lounge provides, such as tables, chairs, plates, cutlery and a commercial dishwasher. These essentials may sound obvious, but they can be expensive and logistically challenging to assemble for a one-night popup, as anyone who has ever organized a farm dinner, party or wedding in a place that didn’t have them knows.
“You’re not trying to turn an empty lot or warehouse into a restaurant,” says Noah Kopito, proprietor and chef of the dumpling maker, Mortal Dumpling.
The model also provides a home for chefs who might want to break out on their own and cook the food they’re passionate about but are not able (or inclined) to open an actual restaurant. And the kitchen provides an opportunity for camaraderie among the chefs who base themselves there.
“You think it’s going to be ego and mayhem and sometimes it is, but in general they’re all tasting each other’s food and laughing and really enjoying each other’s company within the confines of a small kitchen,” Mollenauer says.
A big benefit to Food Lounge’s diners is the excitement that any pop-up-style meal brings—a chance to experience an event and food that aren’t available every day.
A recent Lionfish Supper Club, for example, focused on Ancient Greece, with a five-course dinner using recipes from 4th century BC like tiganites Greek pancakes and octopus carpaccio. Diners were entertained with music, an artist painting a version of the Daughter of Dionysus and stories about the dishes recounted by Liz Birnbaum, founder of The Curated Feast, a new pop-up series which co-hosted the event.
So is the model working?
The nightly reinvention of both the food and the style of service offered at Food Lounge confuses some diners who walk in expecting the seamlessness and consistency of a more conventional eatery. But the dynamic format is of course a strong attraction for those looking to change up their dining experiences.
Mollenauer would like to boost the number of diners who show up, but it is rising gradually, and she says some patrons come back every night. “Our business has grown a lot since we moved in,” says Mortal Dumpling’s Kopito. “All of the tenants can cross-promote each other. It’s a lot of visibility.”
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