The French Market, which today debuts a new weekly farmers market (see related column), was once part of a network of similar public food marts serving neighborhoods around New Orleans. It may be getting some of that old company back.
As French Market leaders continue efforts to make the historic site a food destination again, separate development plans are underway elsewhere to build more attractions based around the central idea of food markets.
At the St. Roch Market, a long-neglected remnant of the city’s old market system, a team of young entrepreneurs are now enlisting vendors for a new “food hall” concept, slated to open in the spring.
“The idea is a multi-vendor hall for retail, fresh and prepared foods, a place where you can buy your eggs or get an omelet,” said Will Donaldson, who along with business partner Barre Tanguis are leasing the market from the city.
At the same time, Jack & Jake’s, a local food distributor that once before tried to open a market, is converting a former Central City schoolhouse into a open-format food emporium, where shoppers can grab snacks to go, order small plates and drinks at dining counters or buy groceries for home. This Jack & Jake’s Public Market is on track to open soon after Thanksgiving, according to company CEO John Burns Jr.
“This is not a grocery store, though there are grocery store elements to it. It’s built in the proud tradition of public markets in New Orleans,” said Daniel Mamont, food and beverage manager for Jack & Jake’s.
These local projects align with a trend now raging in other cities for new multi-vendor food halls, or concepts that typically combine casual dining in communal areas with artisan and specialty groceries. There are longstanding templates for the model, like Grand Central Market in Los Angeles and Pike Place Market in Seattle. Newer examples, like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, have quickly become major attractions.
Donaldson, however, underscored that New Orleans heritage is fueling the new plans for the St. Roch Market.
“This is bringing back what once was,” he said. “This is asking why don’t we still have markets like this. It’s not importing some idea from elsewhere. This was part of New Orleans.”
Originally built by the city as an open-air market in 1875, and later enclosed, St. Roch Market served its surrounding neighborhoods for generations. The city-run facility fell into decline, however, and eventually became a single-vendor seafood shop that didn’t reopen after Hurricane Katrina. More recently the city redeveloped the property and in August officials approved a plan from Donaldson and Tanguis to operate it.
The market will have up to 15 stalls, each slotted between the soaring iron beams that divide the interior space, and has a shared kitchen and prep area.
The market is now accepting vendor applications through its web site (see eatatstroch.com). While the mix of food available will depend on the ideas prospective vendors submit, Donaldson said fresh produce, a delicatessen, a fishmonger and a baker would all be key components. He hopes to have a full slate of vendors confirmed by Thanksgiving and predicted the St. Roch Market would open in March or April.
Meanwhile, Jack and Jake’s is taking shape inside the former Myrtle Banks Elementary School at 1300 O.C. Haley Blvd., which had been closed since 2002 and was ravaged by fire in 2008. The building still looks like a school from the street. But inside, part of the second floor has been removed to create a soaring, open hall lined by broad windows, iron girders and the school’s thick brick walls.
On a recent tour, Burns showed areas that are designated for a cheese monger, a wine cave, a butcher shop, an oyster bar and gastropub and, in a nook under the stairs, a coffee bar.
“It’s not going to be aisles of cereal and pasta, it’s going to be a culinary destination with fresh and prepared foods, a place people can come to see what a Louisiana food hub looks like in action,” said Burns.
Jack & Jake’s will operate some of these market components itself, while Burns said he’s in discussions with several representatives from “well-known local brands” to operate other parts of the market. He said he was not ready to name any.
Jack & Jake’s was first poised to open a market along these lines in 2010 in a renovated factory building at 8300 Earhart Blvd. in Gert Town. But work on that project stopped later that year.
“When we went into Earhart, we planned it, we started building it, but we ran out of money,” Burns explained. “This time we took more time to develop it. That’s the difference.”
This second run at the Jack & Jake’s market is part of a $17 million project to redevelop the vacant school building, which was acquired from the city by Alembic Community Development.
The ongoing work, which will include office space for businesses and community groups in addition to the 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.
At St. Roch, Donaldson and Tanguis see their project as a stepping stone for the new wave of pop-up and cottage industry food businesses emerging around the city. The two men are also co-founders of Launch Pad, a shared downtown office space for start-up businesses, and they plan to use their small business development experience to help build up new food entrepreneurs at the market.
“The idea is, ‘Come here, develop a following for your product, build your brand and get help with some of the back end things,’ ” said Tanguis.
For instance, a uniform point-of-sale system for market vendors will track sales and inventory and could produce financial statements when vendors apply for loans to grow their businesses.
The intent, Tanguis said, is for vendors to eventually move on to larger locations of their own and open room at the market for newer prospects. In that way, it could help incubate new food businesses around town, and the partners also see the potential to expand their own model with more market.
“I doubt we’d find such a beautiful space again, but this could work in other neighborhoods that need more walk-ability, where people want to be able to hop on their bikes and ride to the market,” said Donaldson.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.