After a trying year—especially difficult for those in the restaurant, bar, and hospitality industry—Ben Bebenroth, owner of the now-closed Spice Kitchen + Bar
, is carving out a new path.
In March he opened Keep The Change Kitchen Collective
, a virtual food hall just down the street from his former restaurant at 5601 Tillman Ave. in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood.
The new space, which was
originally going to become Spice Hospitality Group’s administrative and culinary headquarters pre-pandemic, is now the new food hall
that offers curbside pickup or delivery of several meal options with portions big enough to enjoy for several days.
“Keep The Change came from the realities we all discovered during COVID,” says Bebenroth, who opened the operation on March 17 with Jonathan Bennett (JB), former executive chef at Red Restaurant Group and director of concept development with Hyde Park Restaurant Group. “When our whole world shut down, from a food and beverage perspective, it made us ponder this change.”
Keep The Change offers four food concepts: Winner Winner Spatchcokerie with crispy chicken and sides; Winner Winner Wing Shop with “crave-worthy flavor combinations;” Leif Burly Salads and Bowls with salads that will fill any Viking; and the latest concept, Woo Noods and Rice takes on fresh Asian flavors, launched on Thursday, May 4.
Bebenroth says their goal is to feed customers great food—bringing the takeout experience way beyond the drive-thru—yet he says his food doesn’t qualify as solely “special occasion” fare, as many Spice customers often saw the restaurant.
After two months, Bebenroth reports that business is booming. “It’s going really well,” he says. “We are learning a good bit about dayparts of sales and what people are wanting and needing.”
In addition to the addition of Woo Noods, Bebenroth and Bennett are beta testing a new pizza concept, Boom’s Pizza, holding pop-up pizza Fridays at Keep the Change—with their sights set on opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the coming months. The team has been on several real estate searches, “some short-term possibilities, some long-range, full-on development opportunities,” he says, although no decision has been made.
Meanwhile Bebenroth is testing different dough recipes for that perfect crust. “Our pizza crust is somewhere between Neapolitan and [New York],” he says. “The Pizza dough is a high hydration dough, [and] we are baking it at 650 degrees currently with a wonderfully blistered crust.”
Pie options include white pizzas—‘Shrooms + Garlic, Greens + Dates, and Ramps + Fennel Sausage—and red pizzas, including Pepps + Stuff, Sausage + Peppers, and Veggie Might. “So far, the best Pie is the Pepps + Stuff,” Bebenroth admits.
Shitake StormThe ideal solution
Bebenroth says closing Spice Kitchen was difficult, but he and Bennett realized the new virtual food hall model adapts to the times—and their customers’ needs.
“When JB and I came up with Keep The Change we were really happy and excited to innovate a way out of our old lives and out of the old problem with restaurant dining—waiting for the guest to come to you,” he explains. "We were excited because we acknowledged that the needs of the guests had changed, people didn’t really want long form dining and they are eating the majority of their meals at home or at work but still faced with the same problems—lack of time to cook, lack of knowledge to make it delicious and nutritious, and lack of ability to creatively avoid throwing away leftovers or neglected kale.”
Bebenroth says Keep The Change, with its 10,000-square-foot production kitchen, is the solution. “The thing about JB and I is that we are rarely satisfied,” he says. “That makes for great food, but it also makes for an amazing learning environment for our team.”
A dark time
After Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered the temporary closure of restaurants and bars last year, Bebenroth struggled with what the next steps should be—how to keep his thriving restaurant, catering company, and farm running, and what his future held.
“I really had a tough time reconciling my past many years of sacrifice for a business that went away at a moment’s notice,” he recalls. “All the sleepless nights and staff coaching sessions, early mornings prepping, gone in an instant. I was feeling lost, I was doubtful about the future and I was desperately needing someone that could help me see a future instead of dwelling on the past, what could be instead of what just ceased to be.”
Bebenroth says he wrote daily in his journal, exercised, and, of course, cooked. “I found ways to struggle physically to match what I was experiencing emotionally,” he says. “I wrote every day for 30 minutes and captured this journey as I knew I would want to remember this forever. I cooked at home more than I had in 10 years and fed the people that meant more to me than anyone, my family.”
There were financial decisions, too, and Bebenroth worried about the futures of his 30-person staff. “Most concerning was the new building at 5601 Tillman Ave. that we had been building and funding for the prior 18 months,” he says of the space that is now Keep The Change. “All of our future bookings just evaporated and the $3 million budget that supported this development was now delayed at least a year, maybe two.”
But ultimately, Bebenroth knew that was what he had to do. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Bebenroth permanently closed Spice Kitchen and moved on to Keep The Change.
“My feelings of closing Spice Kitchen + Bar were easy, I was in the very cut and dry world of survival, [and] my Marine Corps training was in full gear,” he says. “Prioritize and execute. Stop doing what isn’t working and reassess. I went into the spring fields on Spice Acres
and just farmed, took care of the family, took care of myself, took care of the land. There is something in the natural world that enables answers.”
Leif BowlsThe rainbow after the storm
Coming out on the other side of his angst, Bebenroth is feeling optimistic about the future of his culinary presence in Cleveland. “I feel amazing! I’m so happy learning with JB, I love solving problems, and I cannot say it enough, [Spice Kitchen + Bar] was a great chapter in my life,” he says. “That chapter has closed. I have re-centered my priorities on my family and the profitability and impact of the company in the community."
And Bebenroth admits he’s learned some lessons in his journey through the pandemic. “No more 80-hour weeks to just break even, but being too proud to make tough choices,” he promises. “We fix problems, we discuss issues and solutions, and more than anything, we are realistic about our path to success.”