Each Friday at Steel Rail, a new chef takes over the kitchen and rolls out an entirely new menu as part of the restaurant’s fall pop-up series, Off the Rails.
The full commercial kitchen is meant to be an affordable alternative for start-up food entrepreneurs who don’t have the means to either own or operate their own bricks-and-mortar location. Through November 18, a different chef will run the kitchen Friday nights from 5 to 9 p.m., replacing Steel Rail’s usual menu of soups, salads, sandwiches and bar bites.
The terms of the visiting chef gig are pretty simple: Steel Rails keeps the profits from alcohol sales while the visiting chef takes the food sales. There’s no rental fee for the kitchen or a required number of covers, or complete meals, the chef must serve. Chefs are expected to submit their menu a few days in advance so that it can be reviewed and programmed into the in-house point-of-sale system. They bring their own ingredients and cooking tools, but can make use of all of the amenities at the compact yet quaint standalone restaurant in Jack London Square. At full capacity, it can seat up to 75 guests, between seats at the bar and indoor and outdoor tables. Steel Rails uses their own wait staff for the Friday night event, but if the chef wants to bring support staff, they’re free to do so. Both Steel Rail and the visiting chef promote Off the Rails on their respective social media channels.
Steel Rail managers Shawn Walker-Smith and Brendon Eliason cooked up the idea during a meeting at the end of the summer, and continued the conversation through emails until Eliason came up with the name—“Off the Rails” is a reference to the deviation from the regular menu and, according to their website, a nod to “Oakland’s storied past” as the end of the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1800’s .
“We’re both keenly aware of how difficult it is to find a venue to present what you’re doing to the public,” says Walker-Smith, who, in addition to managing Steel Rail, crafts desserts for his own made-to-order artisan bakery, Tart! Oakland, out of the shared culinary space Kitchener Oakland.
Off the Rails officially launched on October 14, when chef Alex Retodo of The Lumpia Company (TLC) took over Steel Rails’ kitchen to serve four different types of his handcrafted Filipino style eggrolls and garlic fries. Retodo, along with two former college roommates, who dubbed themselves the Lumpia Brothers, started TLC in 2015. Aside from catering and other pop-up events, TLC now ships frozen batches of lumpia throughout the West Coast. They’re also members of Kitchener Oakland, where they manage their business operations.
“It was a good chance for us to do a dry-run to see what it looked like up and running in the space,” says Walker-Smith. “We learned how someone else will function in a kitchen that we’re in all the time.” He says he encourages chefs to familiarize themselves with the kitchen by visiting before their scheduled Friday or, if that’s not possible, an hour before the event begins at 5 p.m.
Tonight, it’s Eat Play Events & Catering’s turn. Gumbo’s on the menu—chicken Andouille sausage and shrimp gumbo served over rice—and “The Neighbor’s Mac,” which co-owner Aaronette King describes as “cheesy béchamel goodness folded into layers of macaroni.”
King met Elaison and Walker-Smith over ten years ago. “Really with Oakland, it’s not just about who you know, it’s who you continue to connect with,” says King. For over 25 years, King has worked all over Oakland’s food scene, from managing restaurants and their events to working as a chef, on the line or washing dishes. “In order to stay relevant and busy, you’ve got to participate in events where it’s a collaboration of people,” adds King.
King says she has witnessed others struggle with the difficulty of not only owning but maintaining a traditional restaurant. Several of the restaurants she used to collaborate with for events and tastings have either closed or been bought out.
She attributes closures to several factors—poor marketing, concepts that are too avant-garde, and financial challenges linked to Oakland’s rising real estate costs. “Doing pop-ups is what’s going to save you, it’s what’s going to pay the bills,” says King, referring to Off the Rails and Eat Play Events & Catering’s own weekly catered day party at Leige Lounge.
Next week, Miss Arepita and Chica SF are on deck for Off the Rails, combining Mexican street food and Venezuelan comfort food. Carolina Abolio, Miss Arepita’s owner, made her way to Oakland in 2004 by way of Boston and Venezuela, where she was born. She’s a civil engineer by trade but fondly remembers making arepas—a traditional Venezuelan corn cake that is fluffy yet crispy, and stuffed with combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables—when she was growing up and for friends when she moved to the United States.
In 2013, Abolio received help from Phat Beets, an Oakland-based food collective, to get her arepa business up and running. They provided kitchen space, legal training, a tent and space at three of their farmers’ markets throughout the week. Abolio continues to sell arepas at Phat Beets’ markets, events and pop-ups. She wants to acquire her own food truck, but she says that it’s been frustrating because of Oakland’s complicated regulations for mobile restaurants.
“This business is a tough business,” says Abolio. “It takes a community to grow a business and I’m really lucky to have Shawn [Walker-Smith] by my side.”
Like Walker-Smith and Retodo, Abolio experiments with new flavors and recipes while using the space at Kitchener Oakland. One day, she said, Walker-Smith suggested adding cinnamon to season some of the meat that fill her arepas. The vegetables that go into her arepas are grown at Castlemont High School, through a partnership with Phat Beets and the Sustainable Urban Design Academy.
“It’s not all about yourself and your food, it’s about how you play in the playground with the other kids,” says Abolio of the opportunity to participate in Off the Rails.
While Walker-Smith acknowledges that pop-ups don’t solve long-term challenges related to starting a restaurant, like being able to find and afford a physical space, he believes Off the Rails provides short-term financial relief. “It’s a way for us to be able to have a guest chef come in and offer something a little different for our guests who’ve been here before, expand that audience, hopefully help out the ‘foodtrepreneur’ in expanding their audience as well and making it a little bit easier,” he says.