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COVID-19 Innovation Series: Keep The Change Kitchen Collective, A Virtual Food Hall

March 24, 2021

Less than 24 hours after Ohio’s governor ordered restaurants and bars to stop dine-in service due to COVID-19, Chef Ben Bebenroth announced the closure of Spice Kitchen, a farm-to-table restaurant he had run since 2012. In the process of building a 10,000 square foot headquarters for his catering business, Spice Catering Co., Ben took some time to re-evaluate what the Cleveland food scene needed. Now, a year later, he and Chief Culinary Officer Jonathan Bennett open Keep The Change Kitchen Collective, a virtual food hall more suited for the changing world. We chat with Ben about how this new venture came about and what lies ahead.

 

Please tell us about your culinary background and career path.  

I grew up in Strongsville next door to a farm, and I remember being in the woods all day everyday as a kid. I was introduced to wild foods at an early age and fell in love with them as I began my culinary career after I was awarded a trip to Australia in my final year of culinary school at Johnson & Wales. I had the opportunity to forage and cook with a few aboriginal women that owned a catering and wild foods company in Alice Springs called Kungkas Can Cook. Upon graduating, I worked in various kitchens around Cleveland: The Fulton Bar & Grill, Baricelli Inn, Sans Souci, Parker’s New American Bistro, and in a dash for cash and ego, opened the Foundation Room at House of Blues. During that time, catering was always my side hustle. I left my sous chef job at Parker’s and spent the next year as a stay at home and in-kitchen dad while I started my Spice journey between bottles, naps, and diapers. In 2006, we moved into my grandparents’ house, built a catering kitchen in the basement, and Spice Catering Co. (known then as Spice of Life Catering) was born. Josh Woo joined the team and moved into the attic. The following year, we sold to Marigold as a partnership and catered from their facility for I believe 3 years, and then moved to 5800 Detroit in 2010-2011. We opened Spice Kitchen + Bar on New Year’s Eve in 2012. My family and I acquired the lease for Spice Acres as part of Countryside Initiative in 2013, re-hired the attic chef (Josh Woo) and the rest is history.

 

What has influenced your cooking style and how would you describe it?  

My dad was a health teacher and my mom took a seven-year hiatus from teaching business administration and accounting when I was 7 and my sister was born. She cooked everything for the household. We spent a lot of time outdoors; my brother Brad and I would just go into the woods and cook soup over a fire and eat it in the snow on break from building forts. I took all of that in. We all do. We’re just cumulative beings. As I got older, I began to observe the norms in food - in military school and eventually in the Marine Corps – and I came home from that and just knew that food had to change. As I went through Tri-C’s culinary program and then Johnson & Wales, I was always focused on utilizing local and regional ingredients, and so much of that had been instilled in me from an early age.

 

What led you to open Keep the Change Kitchen Collective?

KTC is the outcome of a lot of reflection – not only over the last year, but even earlier than that as we observed changes in how people choose to eat and what types of dining experiences they prefer. We spent a lot of time cooking during the COVID lockdown, then getting sick of cooking and searching for the best carryout options, and we found a gap in the market for the foods we want to eat every week, made with quality ingredients, in a convenient ordering experience, with mindfulness for food and packaging waste. We felt we could meet our community where they are and help make it easier for them to eat well all week without the burdens of meal prep and dishes.

 Can you explain the concept of a virtual kitchen?

We’re actually calling Keep The Change Kitchen Collective a “virtual food hall”, because it’s home to multiple concepts under one roof. The idea of ghost kitchens, virtual restaurants, and in our case, virtual food halls, is based upon a carryout-only model. We are offering curbside pickup and delivery via Grubhub for our customers. While this trend is a result of COVID-19, it’s something that we feel will remain relevant long after the restrictions are lifted. People are busy and they want better food in a convenient experience.

 

Keep the Change will offer 3 menus to start - Winner Winner, Winner Winner Wing Shop & Leif. A fourth, Woo! Noods & Rice is planned to open later on. What made you decide on these 4 concepts and do you have any others planned?  

We looked at how we could take the stress out of family dinner so people could really maximize their quality time, and how we could make nutritious lunches attainable during busy weeks. We chose these concepts because we feel that they represent a lot of the things people want to eat each week, but don’t have the time to prepare themselves – or cannot find high quality options in the existing carryout marketplace. For example, we’re using Bell and Evans chicken, the sauce for our mac & cheese is 50% butternut squash puree, and there are lots of colorful veggie sides – easy, approachable, better-than options to keep you out of the drive-through. We’re working on adding more concepts; pizza, a frozen breakfast line of gluten-free and wholesome morning foods, and a super cool sandwich concept are among the concepts in the works.

 

How does choosing local and seasonal ingredients play into your menu planning and decision-making?

Honoring the region and the season is a driving force for us, but it’s also a challenge at the moment as the restaurant scene was so altered by the pandemic. We are rebuilding those bridges as we exit the R&D phase and enter operations. Availability of these local products through larger distributers is just less reliable right now due to reduced demand.

 

Thankfully, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline, things are looking up for the foodservice industry. That being said, the “norm” may have changed forever. We look to Ben and his team to map the way in this new culinary climate.

 

 

Interview by: Marianna Marchenko