‘Study Hall’ celebrates grand opening with special offers in former Tot restaurant location
By Anne Bellegia
A new café officially opening this week in Ashland’s Railroad District is known as Study Hall. If it seems like the partners have done their homework, they have.
Noah Werthaiser, the chef-owner of quirkily punctuated Food; With Pride, a gourmet meal preparation and delivery service, has had two years to perfect his product, thanks to his fantastic timing opening a meal delivery service just before the nation went into pandemic-related hunkering at home.
He and his Study Hall partner, Brandon McCowan, chose the 4,000-square-foot 310 Oak St. location formerly occupied by Tot Restaurant adjacent to Snap Fitness in Oak Street Plaza due to its large food preparation area.
“The kitchen is a chef’s dream come true. It’s spacious, well-lit and a treasure trove of kitchen equipment was already there,” said Werthaiser. “The space is perfect for our meal prep delivery business, and it was evident it could serve for future cooking classes and catering. As far as considering the front area for a café, keep in mind that when we moved in during July 2021, COVID was still an active threat. We utilized the dining area as an oversized pantry.”
Now, after a couple weeks in soft-opening mode, they’re ready to put the dining area to its intended use with opening of Study Hall café and bakery, which is billed on its Instagram page as “A quiet place to get stuff done.” During the grand opening week — Monday through Friday, May 2 through May 6 — special offerings include free coffee from Griffin Creek Coffee Roasters for all and a signature Food; With Pride cookie included with every lunch. Study Hall will serve breakfast, lunch, pastries, and beverages from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and expect to add weekend hours soon.
The indoor space adjacent to the counter for on-premises and take-out orders has been outfitted with cozy and comfortable seating. There is additional indoor seating in the annex within the large foyer and picnic tables outdoors just a steps away. Not only is Study Hall walkable from any part of downtown Ashland, but there is also ample parking, and the entrance is ADA accessible.
An email list of 700 current and prospective meal prep delivery customers has provided an enviable base for a month-long soft opening for Study Hall. Few restaurants of any size or style, however, can also boast that they were able to spend over two years fine-tuning the dishes and pastries its core customers consistently order.
In addition, the success of the delivery business means that the new café venture is not debt-burdened. Study Hall will be able to maintain the affordable pricing that Food; With Pride customers have come to expect. Existing customers can now access many of the dinner items they love during daytime hours and new customers will be introduced to dishes available for takeout or to be delivered for an evening meal.
Werthaiser, fresh out of culinary school at age 22, began Food; With Pride in August 2019 with the idea of “shortening the distance between chef and customer.” His meal-prep delivery model initially served about five families while he waited tables to pay the bills. Starting small, however, let him hone the basics of an approach built on both environmental and fiscal sustainability and to work toward its expansion.
Just a short time after attracting a growing base of Ashland customers, the lockdown in March 2020 might have ended Werthaiser’s hopes for close customer relationships. Instead, it was those very relationships that made him persevere. A number of his customers were in the vulnerable 65-plus age group for whom avoiding shopping and staying home meant that meal delivery from a trusted source was an imperative.
“Those first two years of the pandemic were so stressful,” said Carole Florian, a long-time meal prep delivery customer. “I was drawn to the simplicity of Food; With Pride. There is a single meal offering for each weekday. Customers can choose any, all or none. Delivery is free. In the beginning, Noah himself was often the friendly face behind the mask who delivered that night’s dinner. Being able to get a multi-course meal on the table with just a few basic steps, such as heating or assembling the various elements was a godsend during an anxious time. Friends and I had lunch at Study Hall during its soft opening this past month, and I can report that it did not disappoint.”
McCowan has provided additional operational expertise, upgrading the Food; With Pride website, streamlining order processing and accounting systems, and assuming employee management. Tighter controls helped grow the meal prep delivery business into a thriving, profitable endeavor, and McCowan is now officially operations director and a full business partner.
Grateful customers like Florian who told their friends about the consistently delicious and affordable meals, reliable service, and wash-and-return packaging helped create a loyal fan base with a personal connection to the owners that has since been exported from Ashland to Talent, Phoenix, and Medford.
Werthaiser and McCowan say they expect cooking classes and catering will soon be added to their entrepreneurial menu. But true to their insistence on sustainability in all facets of their business, from employee wages to the food they purchase to the customer relationships they nurture, slow and steady growth is their goal. Using a metaphor that reflects their culinary focus, McCowan said, “We don’t bite off more than we can chew.”
Longtime Ashland resident Anne Bellegia is active in the community, including at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), where she wrote this article for the Community Journalism Class being taught by Ashland.news board member Paul Steinle and Executive Editor Bert Etling.