New bar + incubator, Proof, boosts local restaurant industry

This is a sampling of food from Ethiopian eatery Adey. This platter includes injera, which is the flatbread, and stews. | Photo by Tim Moore

For about a year now, a Chattanooga business has been working to bring new food options to town while also supporting entrepreneurs and restaurant industry locals. 

Proof is a bar + business incubator, and its founders — Mike Robinson and Mia Littlejohn — are combining their experience to support an evolving food scene while also shaping it. 

New food at Proof’s brick + mortar 

Location: 422 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. 

About: The MLK Boulevard space features a bar menu + a team of servers and bartenders. That’s also where you’ll find the commissary kitchen, which hosts other entrepreneurs in the restaurant or packaged food business.

Current restaurant tenants:

The goal with Proof’s brick-and-mortar presence is to provide a relatively low barrier of entry for talented chefs who can test out their concepts and start building brand awareness without the high-risk expenses associated with starting a restaurant from scratch

Proof provides most of the equipment needed and the serving staff handles the customer-facing side of the business, allowing chefs to focus on their products + on building the business. 

Quoteworthy:

“We believe the community is becoming more open to and excited about unique concepts coming into the scene. The first weekend for the Adey Ethiopian Eatery pop-up certainly validated that belief, as the phone didn’t stop ringing the first night for tables and to-go orders.” Co-founder Mike Robinson 

Programs/consulting services

Proof works both with economic partners in markets statewide, offering coaching services (such as its Restaurant Recovery course), and one-on-one with teams who’ve already completed the programs. 

Founders initially had plans to focus more heavily on the brick-and-mortar space, but during the week of the grand opening, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted them to pivot. 

They pressed pause on the official opening and got to work focusing on the immediate problem, which was that restaurants were struggling with whether and how to stay open. 

In partnership with the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, Proof helped form the Restaurant Recovery course — a four-week course that covers everything from re-opening approaches to employee management. The course evolves as COVID-19 regulations and other factors change

Other work + by the numbers 

Throughout the pandemic, Proof has worked with both existing and new restaurants + it’s also helped individuals in the industry. 

For example, when restaurant workers were facing record-high layoffs, Proof partnered with other organizations + farms to get unemployed workers food boxes, eventually transitioning the program to the Chattanooga Area Food Bank. 

  • 30 restaurants got support from Proof in the past year
  • 50 hospitality workers were employed to bottle hand sanitizer for frontline workers 
  • 40,000 bottles of sanitizer created 
  • 6,000 meals provided to frontline workers who responded to last spring’s tornado 

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