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Ready to launch: The Q's Launch Test Kitchen about to debut three minority chefs

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Quicken Loans Arena (aka “The Q”) isn’t just launching the next generation of pro basketball stars—it’s turning out culinary power players as well. Today, the arena’s Launch Test Kitchen announced its newest lineup of local chefs, all three of whom come from minority-owned businesses.

The three food entrepreneurs who will take the spotlight this Thursday, January 25, at the Cleveland Monsters game are: Akia Booker and Eric Roman of Cleveland Mofongo Latin Grill, Tiwanna Williams of PearlFlower Catering, and Frederick Parks of Frederick’s Wine & Dine. The businesses were chosen on the heels of the Launch Test Kitchen Food Tasting and Business Development Experience held at the Q in December, in which 18 minority chefs competed for top honors.

According to Aramark’s Kelly Fortune, the event wasn’t initially supposed to be a feeder for the next round of Launch Test Kitchen chefs. “The Cavs had partnered with the Cleveland NAACP to host an event to give [people of color] an opportunity to network and get exposure [for their businesses],” says Fortune, general manager of Aramark inside The Q. “After seeing the great Cleveland culinary talent there who were so passionate about cooking, we decided we decided we wanted to partner with some of them in our Launch Test Kitchen. It ended up being a win-win for everyone.”

Starting this Thursday, each business will offer three signature dishes—ranging from empanadas to a catfish wrap to spicy spinach artichoke dip. It’s a far cry from the hot-dog-and-nachos concessions of yesteryear, and Fortune says that’s just how arena fans like it.

“Everyone’s a foodie now,” says Fortune. “In the past, we’ve partnered with people like Michael Symon and Rocco Whalen to offer fried baloney on burgers or pulled pork on top of bratwurst—things have definitely evolved. We want to continue to innovate and be forward-thinking to offer fans what they want.”

The Launch Test Kitchen itself is an extension of that goal. The concept first kicked off in 2015, with the Q Arena being the first in the NBA to pilot it. Throughout the Cavs season, a rotating lineup of chefs takes over the space, and the menus follow suit. The space is also designed to be a blank slate of sorts—electric equipment allows chefs to “plug and play” depending on their specific needs, and digital LED signage and menus make for swift switches as well.

"It's all about flexibility and variety and innovation,” explains Fortune.

Fortune adds that the Launch Test Kitchen relies heavily on fan feedback to determine its menu selections—so much so that they've placed a kiosk in front of the stand with two iPads to survey patrons. Feedback is often implemented in real-time, says Fortune: "The last chef we had, we ended up taking a menu item and replacing it with something else during her run; we've also had to swap out equipment for other more popular items because we were falling behind on keeping up with the demand."

The new trio of chefs is now ready to start their run, which will likely last through March, according to Fortune. After their stint, Fortune estimates there will be one or two more chef runs before the Cavs' season concludes—as the newly minted Launch Test Kitchen alumni go on to other new and exciting ventures. Says Fortune, “Partnering with us often creates other opportunities, whether inside or outside in the arena.”

Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

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