Family-style meals aren’t uncommon in Greenville, South Carolina. You can get Italian family meals, Spanish tapas, and of course the ever-present Southern-style family meal. But now, Greenville’s culinary landscape has added a new type of family-style dining: Georgian.
Keipi, located in the Hampton Station development in Greenville, serves family-style Georgian cuisine with a twist — the restaurant is a nonprofit that uses the profits to help fund the restaurant’s parent nonprofit organization, First Things Foundation (FTF), a seven-year-old foundation that, according to the website, was created “as a way to remind wealthy [W]esterners of what gives meaning to life and as a mechanism for serving the poorest among us.”
FTF was founded by John Heers, a Peace Corps veteran who spent his tenure working in remote Georgian villages. It was there that Heers was first exposed to the idea of the keipi (Georgian family-style dining) — as well as the more formal version, the supra. In thanks for the work Heers and his team undertook, the local women who lost their husbands would throw extravagant keipis for them. In an area where food or drink weren’t the easiest things to come by, this was a sign of respect and love that struck Heers deeply. He knew that whatever would come next in his life, he would incorporate the keipi.
Heers’s experiences in Georgia led to him establishing FTF, working in select places around the world to uplift the communities not by coming in and taking over, but by working with locals — “Impresarios,” as they call them: people who have ideas and charisma and want to help the community. FTF field workers work with the Impresarios however best suits the needs of the area.
After establishing FTF, Heers and his team decided that — outside of the actual work they were doing — they would need a home base.
“The foundation doesn’t have a corporate headquarters, but we decided we needed offices,” Beth Martin, who oversees marketing for Keipi, said. “But offices don’t fit the vibe of the foundation, so we came up with the idea to have a place where we can throw keipis. It then evolved from there. If we were going to have a place where we can have keipis, then we wanted to share those keipis.”
The idea of a keipi is simple. A tamada, or toastmaster, leads those gathered in a series of toasts throughout the meal. After each toast, participants can also add on to the toast, however they see fit. There are 16 main toasts, but these can be expounded upon or added to as the night goes on. Keipis can have as few as four people, but go up to 25 or more, according to Martin.
“These toasts are the things that bring us together, make us human,” Martin said. “We toast to God or a higher power, the journey, the chase, to parenthood — you name it.”
Steering away from subjects like politics, the toasts are intended to lead people to “focus on what connects us all.”
As the toasts go on, Martin says, anything might happen. There will be laughter, maybe some tears. People might perform poetry or sing a song. Whatever moves them in the moment. Everything is acceptable during keipi toasts.
The centerpiece of the keipi, and by proxy Georgian cuisine, is khachapuri — “cheese bread” —a bread bowl filled with cheese and topped with an egg yolk. While the traditional khachapuri is available, Martin says that they’ve also created a series of other khachapuri with a variety of toppings, including bacon and fig or apricot and brie. Beyond khachapuri, Keipi also serves khinkali (dumplings), mtsvadi (pork skewers), stuffed grape leaves, beet salad, charcuterie, mushrooms, and more. While the menu isn’t expansive, Martin says, the point is more to fill the table with what is available, not to go out on a limb in terms of experimental flavors or pairings.
For keipis, Georgian wines — some of the oldest wines in the world — are served alongside the food, which is intended to cover the table. Dishes are replaced as they are finished, and that continues until the end of the keipi.
Keipi also offers a cocktail program, which — in addition to a few classics — focuses on its “Flavors of the Foundation,” a set of four cocktails that feature ingredients from the FTF’s four locations — Appalachia, Georgia, Guatemala, and Sierra Leone.
The opportunity to do something new and different is exciting, Martin says, and they hope to build on it as Keipi grows.
“We’re definitely excited to be the only Georgian restaurant in Greenville and that will help us to stand out, but what we really think will set us apart the most is the keipi dinner,” Martin said. “I think that experience is something you can’t get anywhere else, and I think it’s the kind of experience people are starving for.”
Keipi is open Wednesday, and Friday through Sunday. Keipis — both public and private — can be booked through the website, keipirestaurant.org. For those that sign up for a keipi, you pay for your seat and all food and wine is included.