There’s a photo posted recently in the Incoho restaurant Instagram feed that conjures a different time entirely.
That might seem odd for a dining room that’s been open only a short time — since March 2019 — but given how the world has changed since then, the image feels like forever ago.
The picture shows diners gathered around tables to celebrate opening night at the downtown restaurant owned by young chefs Selah Schmoll and Ray Syegco.
The caption is more of the moment, however. It talks of how 2020 hasn’t been what Schmoll and Syegco expected. But it also expresses gratitude for the support they’ve received and celebrates the 160 Thanksgiving dinners Incoho donated to various charities and first responders.
It’s heartwarming, yet rueful. But mostly it’s reflective of the Niagara College alumni’s goal to run a restaurant that does things differently, from ensuring staff have a work-life balance that eludes many in hospitality to forging close relationships with the community.
Pre-pandemic, Incoho carved a niche with nearby office crowds, serving them their breakfasts and lunches. At night, diners from all over Niagara would show up for communal, single-seating dinners.
Months into the pandemic, Schmoll and Syegco had adapted fully to slower, quieter takeout and patio service while keeping busy with other projects as they adapted to the new reality.
They bought excess food that farmers had grown to sell to restaurants forced to scale back inventory amid pared-down service. Schmoll and Syegco wanted to keep the pipeline open for local suppliers, so instead of putting those harvests on the menu, they turned them into meals for charities and first responders trying to stay afloat themselves in the new reality.
“We can either be negative or adapt. We chose to adapt,” Schmoll said. “We’re still around. It’s just trying our best to make it work.”
That’s meant putting on bake sales and offering all the carbs one could crave during hard times. There are fewer hours devoted to serving breakfast and lunch menus that change regularly, but the patio with new heaters and a covering is open for anyone who gets to Incoho for their morning or midday meals of breakfast sammies with egg, tomato, cheese, choice of bacon and seasonal greens or market bowls starring fresh vegetables and grains.
The dining room is open again, too, though the communal dinners have room for only eight these days instead of the usual 14. As a silver lining, two more courses of high-end comfort food with an intensely seasonal and local flair have been added to the set menu, bumping it to seven plates per person.
Still, the past few months have given the duo and their small team, which they’ve expanded, the chance to experiment in the kitchen. They’ve made their own vinegar, dry-aged meat, helped on the farm that supplies much of their produce and held those massively successful bake sales.
“It’s helped push creativity,” Syegco said. “During the slower periods, we had a lot more time to experiment. Usually when you run a restaurant, you don’t take the time to work on those skills. You have to put in extra time or go in on your day off.”
And then there are those Instagram posts with their nods to normalcy while doing things differently.
“Everything gets talked about in the kitchen. We’re all on the same page so everything’s a lot of fun,” Schmoll said. “The only difference is we slap on a mask every day.”