A hot food bar with homemade smothered cabbage and catfish, a meat department with house-made duck rillettes, a seafood case, a raw bar, and a pasta bar featuring handmade spaghetti.
Those are all options shoppers will find at Dryades Public Market, a Central City food emporium that’s bringing a different approach to fresh foods to a part of town that has long been under-served by traditional grocery stores.
The market, located in an historic school at 1307 O.C. Haley Blvd., has technically been open since last year, and it got off to a modest start. Formerly known as Jack & Jake’s Public Market, the development was revamped when well-known local chef Daniel Esses took the helm, creating a new blueprint for a long-awaited food hub in a neighborhood undergoing significant change.
Esses started with a coffee bar and sandwich shop inside the huge old school house, and then he added to the business bit by bit until the space began filling with an array of groceries, cheeses, pastries, meats, seafood and even a bar serving craft cocktails.
The company’s slow roll-out was intentional, he said, as he got feedback from the community about what products best serve the neighborhood.
“I have a mission of supplying great products that are local and healthy to Central City residents,” Esses said. “I also wanted it to be an open show.”
The curtain is now rising on that show. Dryades Public Market will celebrate its grand opening on Saturday, during an all-day event featuring live music, free samples, full grocery offerings, cooking demonstrations and kids’ activities.
The event marks months of preparation, Esses said, and will spotlight the market’s multiple partnerships with Louisiana and regional vendors and purveyors.
Esses, co-owner of the Frenchmen Street hotspot the Three Muses, has long been part of the food scene in New Orleans. His brand of homemade pastas and sauces, Esses Foods, is now sold in Dryades Public Market, as well as farmers markets throughout the city.
He sees his newest project as part of a larger mission, one that steers consumers away from mass production and reliance on big-box stores and toward locally sourced, food-hub-centric markets.
“It’s something bigger than us. Not only are we serving Central City and giving the rest of the city some affordable options, but we’re making a difference in the food system throughout the country,” Esses said. “The more places like this there are in the country, the more affordable local food is going to be.”
The market also accounts for 45 new jobs.
The market’s Central City corridor has been changing, in part because of a 2006 Louisiana Main Street and Cultural Products District designation.
The label helped funnel $40 million of funding into the area following Hurricane Katrina, with developments such as a $20.6 million mixed-use project spearheaded by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.
More projects have taken root nearby. A block away, there’s the New Orleans Jazz Market performance hall and the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, which has its own restaurant and bar. Down the boulevard, the nonprofit Good Work Network recently opened its Roux Carre, a colorful food court and small business incubator.
As development boomed, however, the building that would become Dryades Public Market, the old Myrtle Banks Elementary school, sat undeveloped. Empty since 2002, the old schoolhouse was gutted by fire in 2008.
The company Alembic Community Development eventually acquired it from the city and led a $17 million renovation, complete with chandeliers hanging from soaring ceilings, shining new wooden floors and an open-air feel.
The funds included $900,000 from NORA and a $1 million loan from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative.
In October, Alembic hired Essess as a hands-on consultant to reboot the project, to replace the CEO of Jack & Jake’s, a New Orleans-based food wholesaler. Since then, Esses has brought in some other well-known names.
The local coffee shop is operated by French Truck Coffee, which specializes in small-batch roasts and is known for treating its coffee as a culinary specialty.
Kimberly Patton-Bragg, who directs the bar at the Three Muses, has created a cocktail menu for Bar 38, placed in the center of the market. Just on the other side is an oyster bar from the Curious Oyster Co., which used to be at St. Roch Market.
There’s more to come, Esses said, including a wine and spirits section, live music and cooking demonstrations upstairs.
But the chef says he’s committed to his original approach, rolling out each element organically and at his own pace.
“We’re focused on doing this right and not overextending ourselves,” Esses said.