Article by Stacy Ross
Photo by Abbie Takes Pictures
Menus will be as inventive as the venue’s technology when Innovation Hall opens in the Cortex district this fall. 23 City Blocks Catering will be the exclusive caterer for Venture Café St. Louis’ expansion project, a 14,000-square-foot mixture of restaurant and event space at the heart of St. Louis’ burgeoning tech hub.
Innovation Hall will include The Chocolate Pig restaurant; The Assembly, an event space which can hold up to 300 people; three small pods which can accommodate 4, 10, and 20 people; the Civic Lounge, a free drop-in workspace; and an outdoor terrace. The Assembly can be broken down into three 100-person bays which can be rented individually, and all spaces include state-of-the-art technology at no additional cost.
The venue will help showcase the caterer’s creativity, said 23 City Blocks Event Manager Aubrey Howard. “One of the things I’m most excited about is adding an educational aspect to our events. We’ll be able to do demos and team-building exercises. We’ve brought on a really wonderful pastry chef whose background is in molecular gastronomy.”
The Chocolate Pig’s “show kitchen” will provide a stage to demonstrate the latest food trends including instant ice cream or food made on its “anti-griddle,” a microwave-sized appliance which flash-freezes ingredients spread on its smooth metal surface. Event attendees can wander by the show kitchen or they can also take the show on the road, Howard said, with the option for demos and classes in the venue’s event spaces.
While its name might lead people to believe it’s a barbecue restaurant, The Chocolate Pig will be much more eclectic, said 23 City Blocks Vice President of Operations, Nick Jovanovic. Barbecue will probably be on the menu, which is still in development, but he describes the restaurant as a sustainable, locally sourced concept with “approachable” price points offering “favorites with a twist.”
“We will have barbecue items. Maybe a cocoa-rubbed pulled pork,” Jovanovic said. “But we’ll also have vegetarian and vegan options and lighter fare as well. We want to be inclusive. We want to be able to satisfy the community around us.”
Mark Miller of Festive Couture Floral recently used 23 City Blocks Catering. “We hired them for the opening of our venue and have worked other events with their team as well,” Miller said. “The food was truly beyond everyone’s expectations. Our guests were blown away.”
Jess Star from the Cortex Innovation Community has been using 23 City Blocks for weekly lunches in another building in the Cortex district. 23 City Blocks provides casual “grab and go” options including soups and sandwiches, mac and cheese, and house-made chips. For Cinco de Mayo, the company made taco bowls. Prices range from about $11 for sandwiches, less for soups and sides like mac and cheese.
“They’re really easy to work with and the food quality has been really great,” Star said. “Their ingredients seem really nice and fresh. It’s been really easy.”
A Carafe of Coffee or a Seated Dinner
Depending on the event and the menu, food may be prepared in the Chocolate Pig’s kitchen or off-site by 23 City Blocks Catering, Howard said, which allows for tremendous flexibility. “It kind of takes the pressure off for having food and beverage minimums,” she said. “We can do anything from a carafe of coffee to a seated dinner.”
Clients will have the option to select the same menus offered at the company’s other event venues, the Caramel Room at Bissinger’s, or something completely different, Jovanovic said.
“You have the option to get the exact culinary experience as any of our other venues, in addition to menu offerings at all price points, in line with the restaurant,” he said. “It allows us to give a ton of options to our clients. If you’re looking for sandwiches or break-out snacks at a lower price point, we can do that. We’ll be able to do all kinds of different events. Your imagination is the only limitation.”
23 City Blocks also will offer a totally hands-off option for meetings: a grab-and-go market kiosk. “If you don’t want to worry about ordering food, you can take 15 minutes and everyone can go grab a coffee and a sandwich and come back,” Howard said.
Innovation Hall is on the first floor of a new five-story building under construction at 4220 Duncan Ave. in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, just south of the Central West End. The space is owned and managed by Venture Café and will allow the non-profit to extend the concept of its Thursday Gatherings throughout the week, said Jessica LaBozetta, director of Innovation Hall.
As many as 500 people attend the Thursday Gatherings, which can best be described as a giant networking happy hour with as many as 10 different break-out sessions.
“The Thursday Gathering is a completely different type of event that’s hard to describe,” LaBozetta said. “It’s the biggest gathering of innovators on the planet. Innovation Hall is a new platform that extends that idea. What happens when the next morning you want to continue that conversation? It’s a unique space, a really different way of looking at events.”
The Gatherings will remain in their existing space at 4240 Duncan, LaBozetta said, but the new space, which will be the largest in the Cortex district, will now allow for concurrent events on Thursdays.
Prices range from $25 per hour for the four-person pod, to $250 per hour for all three bays of the Assembly, on up to $5,000 per day for the entire space including all three pods, The Assembly and the Civic Lounge.
“It’s just really different than other types of events spaces,” LaBozetta said. “We’re really excited by the different types of events people have brought to us. They can come in and get a really cool event space, really cool tech, and really cool catering.”