We're looking for chefs that dictate with passion. … We're looking for younger, hungry chefs who are willing to push what we know as the standard.
Nate Michaels sees potential in Chattanooga's growing food and beverage scene. Not only enough for him to open up Five Wits Brewing Company on West Main Street, but enough to also showcase culinary talents in a research and development kitchen incubator there.
About a year ago, Michaels moved back to his hometown of Chattanooga from Denver. Out West, he fell in love with craft beers, but with the market being so oversaturated, it seemed impossible to make a name in town. Denver has six breweries per every 50,000 people, the 18th-most populous beer market in the country, according to market analysis company C+R Research.
Following the sale of his third-party distributing company, Michaels began looking for his next passion. That landed him at a Denver brewery where he met his current partners, Elliot Kehoe and Bryan Harris. When they tried breaking into the craft beer market, they faced some roadblocks.
"We tried to do it in Colorado a couple of times," Michaels says. "It's a smaller margin of error, and we were having a hard time finding the capital to open the type of project we wanted."
Following a trip home for the holidays, Michaels approached Kehoe and Harris about moving their ventures east. "We want to bring our technical expertise and be a part of the growing, thriving craft beer industry in Tennessee," he says.
Five Wits is expected to open sometime this month. The brewery will take up what was formerly Enzo's Market, which is desirable for its central location and size — which would allow them to do what they wanted and more.
"It was too big for what we originally envisioned," says Michaels.
In Denver, he says, breweries weren't too focused on being a food destination because local food trucks provide rotating menus around town. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation ranked Denver as the second-largest food truck city in the country in 2018. So for his Chattanooga project, Michaels floated the idea of building out a food truck pad. But Chattanooga's food truck industry is behind: There are few trucks, it's a smaller market, the sun doesn't shine 24/7, and the city's infrastructure doesn't allow for fleets of trucks to camp out, he says.
With the help of local restaurateurs and partners Mike and Taylor Monen, they instead landed on the idea of R&D Test Kitchen, which will give chefs access to a risk-free environment to test their menus in a fully equipped kitchen rent-free.
"It's like a food truck on steroids times 100," Michaels says.
The featured chefs' residencies can run between three and six months, and Michaels says they aren't just looking for local talent. He hopes to draw regional, national and eventually international chefs.
"We're looking for younger, hungry chefs who are willing to push what we know as the standard," he says.
Opening a restaurant is already tricky, and opening one when you don't have much capital or a proven concept is even more so. Chefs will be able to apply for the residency through the Five Wits website once it's up and running later this year, but for now, it's a word of mouth application to become part of the lineup of innovative chefs. "We're looking for chefs that dictate with passion," Michaels says.
While there are chefs around town who host pop-ups in various locations, Michaels says a permanent rotating kitchen isn't something he's seen in the area before. "It provides the chef/artist the ability to do anything they want, without limitations of space or equipment," he says.
Nationally, pop-up kitchens are loved for their unpredictability, many being hosted in borrowed restaurants or cafes. The added benefit of the incubator will allow chefs to test out their menus and serve as a crash course in running a restaurant.
"There are a lot of nuances that come to running a restaurant," says Michaels. "The cash is slim, so you need to know not only how to create a product that's delicious, but also know how to run it."
Five Wits will ultimately host more than just the test kitchen and brewery, but those plans haven't been announced yet. The name, Five Wits, is a reference to what Shakespeare referred to as humans' five senses, and with the food and brews, they have two senses down.
"We want to bring in all the sensory elements," Michaels let on.