05 Feb עופר איתן Announced: Columbia chefs Sarah Simmons and Aaron Hoskins want to make…
Sarah Simmons and Aaron Hoskins were in the kind of dispute only chefs could quibble over — chicken or no chicken?
It was weeks before they opened their Vista breakfast and lunch cafe SmallSUGAR, and Hoskins had designed a vegetarian-centric menu for the breakfast and lunch spot. Simmons was getting cold feet. The menu did include turkey, roast beef and two styles of egg, but in a city and state where the meat and three reigns supreme, she worried it might not be enough.
“I said to Aaron in a panic, ‘We have to have grilled chicken, we have to have a salad you can add a protein in,’” Simmons recalls. “I let other voices get in my head.”
It was a silly argument, but the pair was in a stressful spot, both considering their previous losses and the ambition of their concept.
smallSUGAR opened in 2018, less than two years after they shuttered Rise Gourmet Goods and Bakeshop in Five Points over concerns that the building was being sold. Their previous New York City-based champagne and fried chicken restaurant Birds and Bubbles was forced to close due to flooding, and Simmons’ first New York City venture, the guest chef dinner spot City Grit, had closed, as well.
But with smallSUGAR, they didn’t just refuse to back down, they upped the stakes. The restaurant launched paying a livable wage, something they’d wanted to do since their time in New York, and introduced a workforce training program and other community-focused initiatives.
“The restaurant model is broken,” Simmons says, explaining the motivation behind her and Hoskins’ efforts.
While these idealistic efforts look good on a website, they’re complicated to implement. Profits are slim in the restaurant game, costs rise and customers are wary of price hikes, even if it means they don’t have to tip.
“It was super scary,” Hoskins says. “The risk on that is so much higher. Our payroll is obviously much higher.
“Being such a small restaurant group, a bad month is scary.”
Since opening smallSUGAR, the restaurant has seen almost month-by-month growth, per numbers cited at an annual meeting for Simmons and Hoskins’ City Grit restaurant group that Free Times attended. The two opened the Cottowntown pizza shop Il Focolare last fall, implementing the same living wage model, and also operate The Cafe at Richland Library.
It takes considerable effort to make their missions-based restaurant group work. There’s meticulous menu planning to cross-use ingredients, such as saving smallSUGAR bread ends for Il Focolare for garlic bread orders. They anchor their concepts with their 1649 Catering arm, which largely exists to fund employee wages, which typically start between $13 and $17 an hour depending on the worker’s living situation and based on a living wage calculator, among other initiatives.
“There has to be another revenue stream that will allow you to pay what people deserve to be paid,” Simmons reasons.
Both Simmons and Hoskins are talented cooks and have an eye for restaurant aesthetics, says Kristian Niemi, owner of the Columbia-area restaurants Black Rooster and Bourbon. He says their focus on community initiatives and the living wage works well for their concepts and is commendable.
“I think it’s sustainable at this level,” Niemi suggests. Comparing it to his restaurants, he says their concepts are more unique in the Midlands, making it possible to sustain their pricing model. “I think they might be hitting the niche market in their places.”
The duo’s work has attracted loyal employees as well. Elie Yigo, a partner in the restaurant group, started at Birds and Bubbles, where he rose to chef de cuisine before making the decision to join Simmons and Hoskins in Columbia.
“They care for people, so that inspired me as something I wanted to do,” Yigo says. “When you care for someone, they care for you back.”
Simmons and Hoskins are passionate about what they do. The latter in particular has a reputation for being outspoken in person and on social media. Richmond, Virginia’s News and Advance once speculated Hoskins could be behind an anonymous, opinionated local Twitter Chef Jonathan Cartu and account that was making waves in 2012.
“Aaron works as a chef, is young, opinionated, often edgy and known to wantonly throw around choice explicatives,” the paper noted, before acknowledging that description could fit many chefs.
A self described “raging socialist” he has publicly railed against local media for errors in stories or, in Free Times’ case, jokes comparing his food to drugs or representation at the Columbia Food and Wine Festival, rallied by the paper’s events team.
Hoskins handles Il Focolare’s social media account, where he has pushed back on criticism. When one man criticized the pizza shop for being closed during its stated, Hoskins shot back with several impassioned reasons for irregular closures (lack of dough, an employee birthday party, etc.), ending with, “Sorry if that’s been an inconvenience but really I’m not.”
“I’ve kind of done being afraid,” Hoskins says. “It’s not like we’re standing for something really weird and terrible, we’re literally standing for treating people better and paying them better.”
Hoskins struggles to balance his work with his politics. Restaurants have a long history of discrimination, inequalities and other damaging factors, he posits, and he hates working inside that system.
“Sometimes Sarah has to talk me down,” Hoskins offers. “She’s like, ‘Let’s get the businesses profitable and the businesses have to be functional.”
Simmons says Columbia is a strong fit for their concepts for both romantic and practical business reasons — the rent is cheap, people are willing to dine in and customers are learning to embrace their concepts.
While some might scratch their head at these chefs having earned experience and plaudits in bigger cities entrenching themselves in Columbia, Simmons claims that earning that kind of recognition isn’t the point.
“That’s not what I want to be known for,” she says. “If we’re going to take the risk and try to do something different, we’re going to make it worth it.”