From the street it still looks like a schoolhouse. But inside the former Myrtle Banks Elementary at 1300 O.C. Haley Boulevard, the pieces coming together for the planned Jack & Jake’s Public Market augur a very different future for the historic Central City building.
Slated to open within the next six weeks, this multifaceted project combines elements of a grocery store and a farmers market. It will include two distinct restaurant concepts, a bar, an oyster bar and a coffee bar. And it will have a large teaching kitchen and numerous event spaces. It’s all under the banner of Jack & Jake’s, a New Orleans-based wholesaler that supplies food from regional farmers and fisheries to schools, hospitals and other institutions.
“I don’t call it a grocery, I don’t even like to call it a market, it’s a food hub,” said company founder and CEO John Burns Jr. “It will be the retail side of what we do.”
It’s certainly intended to serve as a grocery, though built to different specs than the conventional supermarket. It’s one where locally-sourced fresh foods predominate, where pantry staples play a supporting role (to round out the shopping basket with baby food, say, or foil wrap) and where frozen foods are minimal.
It’s also a market with restaurant and café seating built across its various indoor and outdoor areas and with its own chef at the helm in the kitchen. Ben Thibodeaux, most recently executive chef at Tableau, is overseeing the restaurant menus, the take-home fare at the retail counters and other culinary aspects of the operation that covers some 23,000 square feet.
“What I’m really excited about is that there are so many different ways to get local food here, different ways for people to access it,” Thibodeaux said.
Unlike multi-vendor markets, like the French Market or the new St. Roch Market food hall, Jack & Jake’s will run each aspect of its store, and there a lot of them. The building’s ground floor is arrayed with stations for a butcher shop and bakery, a seafood counter, a deli, a specialty cheese room, a “beer cave” and a wine and liquor shop and a cypress-lined dining bar attached to a marble oyster bar. Stretching nearly the length the building, freshly-fabricated wooden stalls and chilled displays will put produce front and center.
Upstairs, there’s a teaching kitchen under construction for classes and events, a bar called the Bourbon Room (furnished in the dark tones of a hunting lodge), and space that will become a restaurant called Island 40, which will serve a menu built around gluten-free, vegan and other dietary considerations. On the third floor are offices for other organizations and gallery space.
Approvals and inspections are still pending, and Jack & Jake’s still needs to hire 100 or so employees beyond the managers now on board. Work continues across an intricately designed space, which is also home to Jack & Jake’s wholesale business.
Most strikingly, part of the old school’s second floor has been removed to create a soaring, open hall lined by broad windows, iron girders and thick brick walls. Antique cupboards and buffets are interspersed between the new display counters, chandeliers shine from the high ceiling and custom millwork gleams everywhere.
Burns said the details and design features are part of making Jack & Jake’s appealing for events, which will be a big part of the overall business plan, and for drawing visitors from downtown to its Central City address.
“If we become a destination, then it’s not just about people shopping for groceries but it becomes a place for people from all over who want to see a local New Orleans food hub in operation,” said Burns. “It’s a way for us to engage the community too. When they come here, and see us doing our wholesale work and moving boxes, well some of those boxes of strawberries might be headed to their kids’ schools.”
It’s been a long road for Jack & Jake’s, which Burns named for a pair of mules that once worked his own family’s farm. He started developing a similar market in Gert Town that appeared to be on the verge of opening in 2010, but never did. Burns said that project ran out of money.
For this new market, he’s partnered with Alembic Community Development, the consulting and development firm that acquired the Myrtle Banks property from the city in 2011 and led its $17 million renovation. Closed since 2002, the school was gutted by fire in 2008 and sat as a charred hulk until Alembic’s renovation began. Jack & Jake’s Public Market is being funded by a mix of public and private dollars, including $900,000 from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and a $1 million loan from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. Other funds come from foundations and from private investors, who Burns described as “wanting to see a better social and environment impact from their investment.”
That’s one reason why the O.C. Haley Boulevard address is key, he said. Though Central City has seen a wave of redevelopment, fresh groceries are still lacking and Jack & Jake’s is out to fill this niche.
“Most people automatically assume local, fresh foods have to be expensive, they don’t,” Burns said. “The problem is distribution. The people growing these foods don’t always have access to the market, and that’s what Jack & Jake’s does. We’re a company that moves local food at volume and we’re doing it in a way that most people will have access to it, that’s the business model.
“You can look at the crystal chandeliers and say this is high end, but it’s not. If you can put inexpensive Creole tomatoes in a bin under a crystal chandelier in a beautiful historic building in Central City, I think that’s pretty cool.”
To fine tune their offerings and operations, Jack & Jake’s managers are drawing from a Healh Impact Assessment, a study commissioned by the city and other organizations to gauge how the new market could address community needs in Central City. Naturally, keeping food prices affordable is a big part of the equation, but the report highlighted other issues as well.
“One thing we got was that people want to see their neighbors working here, that this isn’t just a consumer opportunity but an employment opportunity for the neighborhood,” Daniel Mamont, food and beverage manager for Jack & Jake’s.
The report also underscored the potential for educational programs and outdoor activities at the market. Field trips and events in the teaching kitchen will be part of the programming, and Mamont said the market is planning “edible gardens” around the store to be cultivated with community groups.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.