Downtown Charleston food court Workshop to close; owner says underlying concept was flawed | Raskin Around

Following a two-year stretch that most restaurant owners would rate as successful, the Charleston area’s first latter-day food court is shutting down.

Workshop will close in late spring, owner Michael Shemtov says. Even though the upper peninsula operation “found its footing” by 2019, resolving problems related to parking, tenant turnover and on-site demand, Shemtov says its business model was fundamentally flawed.

Workshop in downtown Charleston was on the brink of closing. Here's how it turned around.

“We were trying to do something innovative, but the concept was crazy,” he says of the hybrid food hall and kitchen incubator which launched 10 current or forthcoming standalone restaurants, including several restaurants serving underrepresented cuisines; Little Miss Ha, Spanglish and Pink Bellies are among Workshop’s 30 graduates.

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When Workshop opened in 2017 with the goal of nudging stall tenants toward restaurant ownership, the food truckers, branching-out chefs and home cooks who set up shop were urged to move on within months.

While that timetable was later adjusted to avoid discombobulating aspiring restaurateurs and the eaters who came looking for them, shooing success out the door remained a cornerstone of the Workshop plan.

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Additionally, in order to limit financial risk for first-time food sellers, Workshop’s rental contract exacted a share of sales rather than full payment up front. But what Shemtov didn’t anticipate when he first sketched out the Workshop idea was the surge of local breweries, most of which would be on the hunt for itinerant chefs to feed their customers.

Shemtov says when potential tenants tell him that brewery owners are begging them to use their space for free, he can only respond, “I can’t tell you why you should come here.”

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One of the perks that Workshop offered its tenants was coaching, but Shemtov says it took a few hires to find the right person to help budding food businesses along. Even then, some headstrong tenants were resistant to what they considered meddling.

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Still, Workshop “was on track for double-digit growth” in 2020, with a strong lineup reaching and exceeding sales goals in January and February.

Since restaurants were again cleared for on-premise dining, enthusiastic crowds have clustered in the Workshop courtyard, particularly on weekends.

“If you visited us on a Saturday, you’d think there’s no way we’d be closing our doors,” Shemtov says.

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Yet the prospect of continued growth didn’t compensate for the work required to make the outlet profitable. Workshop’s recent turnaround was enabled largely by extensive hands-on management, a busy event schedule and bar program run by the Workshop team. Shemtov says he’d rather dedicate staff time and energy to The Daily and Butcher & Bee.

He also suggests Workshop would have reached the same end without the interference of a global pandemic.

“COVID killed our momentum,” he allows, crediting developer Raven Cliff with being a supportive and flexible landlord during the crisis. “COVID killed our pathway to being profitable.”

It didn’t stop Workshop short, though. The “exploratory food court” will keep up service for at least another month or two. Shemtov may add one last short-timer to the roster, which now includes Blazing Star Café, Ma’am Saab, which plans to reopen in the former Jestine’s Kitchen on Meeting Street, Saha Jordan, Sino Tacos and South Philly Steaks.

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Sushi-Wa, operating out of the detached building that originally functioned as a coffee shop, will remain open until its owners secure another permanent location.

As for the 10,000 square feet that formed the heart of the project, Shemtov says it’s likely to be taken over by a single restaurant not affiliated with his company. He declined to provide further details.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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