To open a restaurant, you need the concept, location, connections, funds and courage to make it happen. Or do you?
Taste Test York is trying to make the path to starting a restaurant a little less rocky by providing mentorship and a safety net. This kitchen incubator helps reduce the risk by helping aspiring restaurateurs hone in on their brand, concept and issues in an educational way.
Taste Test encompasses two pop-up shop locations, including the audition space and the restaurant and bar, as well as an outdoor bar and eating area known as the cantina. While the audition and restaurant space can house completely separate concepts, they both have one thing in common. Each menu has a QR code and a call to action requesting that customers provide feedback via an online survey about the food, service, experience and what could be done better.
That’s because, unlike a traditional restaurant, Taste Test York is a space for restaurateurs to test concepts and ideas for a short period of time without the financial burden or risk of opening a restaurant on their own.
Allison Witherow is chief marketing officer of ONE Hospitality and co-owner of Taste Test York. Her brand development and marketing expertise make up one-quarter of Taste Test’s mentorship team.
The rest of the team includes co-owner Toni Calderone, owner of Tutoni’s Restaurant and president of Taste Test, Robert Faucette, the director of operations, and Jordan Pfaultz, the director of finance.
Together, these seasoned industry veterans provide aspiring restaurateurs with the knowledge, know-how and skills to get started.
Witherow explained the inception of their unique business venture.
“[Calderone] had such a difficult time getting her restaurant started,” she said. “She always says she heard the word ‘no’ from 17 different banks because restaurants have such a high failure rate that banks aren’t lending to them right now.”
After Calderone successfully received private funding and opened her first full-service operation, a whole new set of rookie mistakes ensued.
“So, we got to thinking one day, there must be a better way,” she said. “There must be a better way for somebody who doesn’t currently have a restaurant to enter the restaurant industry as an owner. Both by getting financing, but also just a way for them to make all of their mistakes before it’s too late.”
Instead of having aspiring restaurateurs put their livelihoods, houses or futures on the line, Witherow and Calderone put their local connections to the test.
Fast-forward almost two years, and Taste Test has proven itself to be a staple in downtown York’s food scene. Chefs and entrepreneurs alike come to pitch their ideas to the four mentors in hopes of landing a spot in the audition space. From there, they are given one month, with a minimum of 15 days of service, to flesh out their concept and captivate local audiences.
The best part? Besides the guidance of four local experts, participants are given an opportunity to run with their concept without having to front the money.
“We actually are willing to put food costs up front so you don’t have to,” Witherow said.
For local chefs and restaurateurs, this concept has been a game-changer.
Chef Brando Diaz and his partner, Anisa Diaczun own Paco’s, a taco shop concept that’s been in Taste Test three times over the past year and will be back this month.
A former cook at Tutoni’s, Diaz explained the importance of this concept to him.
“[Tutoni’s] was probably the highest level of cooking I could get at, but it wasn’t what I wanted to cook,” he said. “It wasn’t Mexican. It wasn’t the things I wanted to learn.”
From the inception of a basic taco shop offering hand-pressed tortillas with meat and cilantro, Paco’s has transformed into a locally sourced, signature taco-based concept featuring exotic and authentic Mexican flavors.
“Our first pop up was completely different than our current pop up,” Diaz said.
Through Taste Test, Paco’s has created a following of customers eagerly awaiting their next move.
This is especially important because the co-owners of Taste Test and aspiring restaurateurs agree that customer feedback is one of the most important learning tools.
“We like Taste Test so much because it’s about the feedback,” Diaczun said. “We like getting the ideas of other people. What the customers like, what the area around you is like, it’s all really helpful.”
And, according to Witherow, it’s not just Paco’s that’s gaining local attention.
Known affectionately as “taste testers,” locals enjoy playing critic for the day as they try out every new concept that comes through the door.
“We’ve actually been blown away by the number of people who want to support Taste Test just because of the process, and they want to be invested in what’s happening next in downtown York,” said Witherow.
Taste Test is currently located only in York, and it will likely stay there for the time being. However, expansion is possible.
“What we would like to do is be able to distill our concept even further into other cities our size,” Witherow said. “Because what we want to do is use this as a revitalization tool for towns that are able to revitalize themselves through food because food brings people and different cultures together.”
Taste Test York is located at 101-105 S. Duke St., York. For more information, visit www.tastetestyork.com. Also follow Paco’s on Instagram at PacosTacos717.