A historic school in Central City that was on the cusp of being reborn as a modern food hub and market is now being revamped once again.
Jack & Jake’s Public Market is now called Dryades Public Market, though the big signs out front have yet to be changed. Along with its new name, the market has new management with the well-known local chef Daniel Esses at the helm and a new blueprint for bringing the long-waited project to fruition.
This new Dryades Public Market will open incrementally at 1307 O.C. Haley Blvd., and this week it got off to a very modest start. Esses now operates a small coffee bar and sandwich shop here (currently open weekdays, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.). He plans to add a salad bar next week.
By December, he said, the market should be a more complete picture, with produce, meat, seafood, dairy and dry goods for grocery shopping, prepared foods for on-site or grab-and-go meals and many other facets of food and drink to come.
Esses is co-owner of the Frenchmen Street hotspot the Three Muses and created his own brand of fresh pastas and sauces, Esses Foods. Alembic Community Development, the company that has been building the market, hired him in October as a hands-on consultant to reboot a project that had been mired in delays and recently saw a shakeup in leadership.
“I’m here to get the place open and create my vision of a market in this space,” Esses explained.
That will require some renovations to the layout and fixtures, which are now underway. Esses said he was adamant, however, that the market should open whatever parts of the project were ready for business right away.
“Really it’s out of respect and a sense of obligation to the community here,” he said. “We’ve tied up a lot of real estate for a long time, and they’ve been waiting for something to open here.”
Remaking a market
The coffee bar, with its short list of sandwiches, barely scratches the surface for the plans and potential of Dryades Public Market, nor does it approach the expectations built up by its predecessor.
The market runs nearly the length of its city block inside the former Myrtle Banks Elementary and it encompasses some 23,000 square feet on three floors. The third floor is occupied by offices for community groups and other organizations, while the first two had been radically reconfigured for use as a market, with a portion of the second floor removed to create a soaring hall.
The old schoolhouse had sat empty since 2002 and was gutted by fire in 2008. Alembic acquired it from the city and has led its $17 million renovation. That budget included a mix of public and private dollars, with $900,000 coming from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and a $1 million loan from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative. During construction milestones along the way, public officials praised the project as a way to provide more fresh and affordable food in Central City and contribute to the economic revitalization of the area.
It was originally developed under the banner of Jack & Jake’s, a New Orleans-based food wholesaler. That company’s founder and CEO, John Burns, said the market would function as the retail side of Jack & Jake’s.
“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,” Burns said in an interview in May, when the market appeared ready to open.
But by September the doors were still shut and Burns was no longer in charge of the project. Benjamin Warnke, Albemic’s founder, took over operations of the market, and also became CEO of Jack & Jake’s.
“His skills were were more big picture and visionary,” Warnke said of Burns. “So it seemed like a good idea to bring in someone with more of an operational background.”
Burns could not be reached for comment today, but Warnke said he remains on Jack & Jake’s board of directors. Warnke said his company is committed to the market project that he’s excited to bring on a chef and restaurateur to move it forward.
Meanwhile, Esses said he has long been interested in the project, and he was ready to step in when Alembic approached him to create Dryades Public Market.
“We have lots of ideas here, but we’re not going to try to implement them all at once,” said Esses. “I think I look at this with a realistic eye. We started by looking at what we can do with the staff and the budget that we have and being patient.”
At its heart, the focus remains on food sourced from local producers, and Esses said he’s now working to connect with suppliers from across a three-state area. That doesn’t mean the inventory will be exclusively locally, however.
“We want to bring locally-sourced products to this community affordably, and one way we can do that is by using every bit of an animal across the market, so steaks and chops go in the butcher case, other parts for prepared foods,” he said. “Where we can’t offer locally-sourced items at prices affordable to everyone, we’ll offer an alternative that is affordable.”
Making more than groceries
Like its predecessor, Dryades Public Market is planned not just as a place to shop but also to socialize. It will have a full bar, Esses said, and eventually beer and wine for retail sale. The chef is now recruiting other vendors to run different aspects of the market, including an oyster bar and a juice and smoothie bar.
In a room previously designated for specialty cheeses, Esses Foods will have its own dedicated space, with fresh pasta, a pasta bar for take-home meals and other products. Elsewhere across the market, Esses said he’ll add a New York-style deli with house made corned beef and pastrami alongside a changing array of “meat and three” style lunch plates. The prepared food cases will have many Mediterranean flavors, and there will be a Korean rice bowl station, which are each familiar elements of the chef’s approach at the Three Muses.
That’s not the only cross-over potential. Kimberly Patton-Bragg, who directs the bar at the Three Muses, will create the cocktail menu at Dryades Public Market, and Esses said the market could host early evening live music at its patio space.
While plans for Jack & Jake’s called for a second floor filled with a teaching kitchen, a second bar and aisles of grocery shelves, the new plan for Dryades Public Market leaves the second level open for future development.
“When it’s all going, this will be a special place,” Esses said.
Dryades Public Market
1307 O.C. Haley Blvd.
Coffee bar and sandwich shop open Mon.-Fri.,7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.