Their food is ‘just a way to tell a story’
Alumni write new narratives about what and how we eat
It hasn’t been long since Alexis Joseph and Abed Alshahal were huddled over organic chemistry books, cramming for tests on lactose dehydrogenase conversions. He was an ace at chemistry, but back then, Alshahal admits, he didn’t know squat about superfoods.
“Alexis taught me what kale was before kale was cool,” he said.
Both Joseph and Alshahal graduated from the College of Education and Human Ecology with bachelor’s degrees in nutrition in 2012. They now co-own three crash-hot, successful restaurants in the Columbus area. Alshahal helps to manage six more.
On the list: Alchemy on Parson’s Avenue; a second Alchemy, set to open this fall in Grandview; and TRISM, whose grand opening coincided with move-in weekend at Ohio State. Alshahal and his brothers, Ali and Ismail, also co-own the Crest Gastropubs in Clintonville and on Parsons; the Market in Italian Village; and the Ethyl and Tank bar on 15th Avenue across from the Ohio Union, among others.
TRISM opened with its full menu to a crowd of 500 in August in the South Campus Gateway. Customers eat up cookie monster smoothie bowls and avocado toast and do slow-burn yoga by day; they drink craft cocktails and pulse to live electronic dance music at night. The eatery’s gluten-free superfood donuts, lamb meatballs and turmeric latte might make a nutritionist swoon, but regular people seem hungry for them, too.
“This is a concept that people have been waiting for far too long,” Alshahal said. “It is not your hippy, grungy vegetarian café where you’re reusing old furniture. We found a way to modernize healthy, vegetarian and world-inspired food.”
But, Joseph chimed in, their brand of nutrition isn’t stifling. “We advertise our donuts more than our juice cleanses because we like to make nutrition — and the whole place — accessible and approachable in a way that’s fun and not overwhelming.”
From A to Z
Joseph was 25 and Alshahal, 26 when they opened their first restaurant together. Two years later, they’re opening more. If their daily responsibilities are any measure, all that acai berry and spirulina makes them superhuman.
Alshahal — the idea-guy and dreamer behind the A&R restaurant group — helps manage and develop all nine restaurants.
Minutia-minded Joseph keeps him grounded. With a master’s in dietetics and as a registered dietitian, she advises clients. She also handles branding and social media for the group, designs menus, hires and manages employees and writes a monetized blog that’s gaining traction among millennials — hummusapien.com.
They’ve each won Columbus Tastemaker awards and been named Slow Food Delegates. Joseph has appeared in Self, Huffington Post, U.S. News and World Report and Harper’s Bazaar and was named a top-10 RD in the country in Today's Dietitianmagazine.
“Alexis is an overachiever,” Alshahal said wryly.
Joseph: “Yes, I’m an overachiever, I mean . . . yes.”
Alshahal: “She’s an A-type personality.”
Alshahal: “I’m like . . .”
“Type Z,” they said in stereo.
There’s a healthy symbiosis between them; they lob ideas and concepts like ammo in an arcade gallery. They think it’s amusing when people assume they are a couple. They’re not.
Health beyond food
Their Ohio State professors got them thinking about the culture that surrounds eating and food access, quality and use.
“We started thinking about how these issues are systemic,” Alshahal said. “The reason that nutrition-related disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the country isn’t because of what these individuals choose to eat, it’s because of the systems built around these types of food.”
They’re out to change the systems.
“The way we look at food is very holistically: environmentally, socially, nutritionally,” Alshahal said. “What we’ve done and where we’ve had our success, whether it’s at Alchemy or any of the other restaurants, is how we use our restaurants as a platform to catalyze civic engagement and bring people together.
“The food is just a way to tell a story,” he said.
They weave those narratives throughout their restaurant concepts. Alchemy offers on-site nutrition counseling to individuals and corporate groups. The Crest pubs showcase local farmers, collect rainwater and grow herbs on rooftop gardens.
“Every single one of our concepts is different,” Alshahal said. “We pick a location, and we build a concept around that location and that forces us to understand the demographic, the needs of that community around it. It forces us to establish partnerships with the people around.”
After realizing that students were traveling five miles, often in groups, to meet and eat at Alchemy, Alshahal decided to look for a campus location.
TRISM, all 6,500 square feet of it, exudes sleekness, with stadium seating and polished wood and glass surfaces. The space merges elements of the other restaurants, Alshahal said: “The healthy food options from Alchemy, the farm to table and community-driven approach from The Crest, and the nightlife atmosphere of our campus bars.”
A stage spans the back so that comedians, musicians or speakers can perform. The restaurant doubled as a farmer’s market with local produce in late August.
“TRISM is, ‘Have a smoothie in the morning, have a drink at night,’” Joseph said. “Social environment is so important. It’s not just vegetables all the time.”
“We view health with a lens far beyond food,” she said. “Health is a positive mindset, a vibrant social life and a supportive environment.”
And so, the two EHE graduates are using their restaurants as “platforms of social change,” one slice of avocado toast, one downward-facing dog, one poetry slam at a time.