Street food, food halls, public markets, fast-casual — these terms all carry buzz in the current American food realm. The term "operational efficiencies” does not.
But it’s the behind-the-scenes factors of the food business that get Lisa Brefere’s attention first in her work to bring a new clutch of casual eateries to a once-forlorn corner of the CBD.
Brefere is a chef and consultant and now also a partner in the Pythian Market. This is a new food hall taking shape within the Pythian building, a historic property at 234 Loyola Ave. that is now being redeveloped as a multi-use complex of apartments and businesses.
The ground-level food hall is slated to open in late summer, with room for up to 19 vendors. Just a few have been confirmed so far. That includes the South American-style food truck La Cocinita, grilled cheese specialist Frencheeze Food Truck and Squeezed, a new juice bar concept from the same operator, and the Broadmooor cafe Laurel Street Bakery.
Now, Brefere is working with her other partners in the Pythian Market project to “curate” a collection of food businesses. Before vendors can sling their first taco or press their first juices here, however, the planning process boils down to the basics.
“Our job is to make sure the market works, that what we promise the community and the vendors comes through,” she said. “Anybody can create a concept, not everyone can make it profitable and operate it right. When you see what else goes into the business, it’s like taking the blinders off, you see the whole operation.”
Piece by piece
Brefere once ran culinary operations for big hotels in the Northeast and she comes to the Pythian Market project with some unique experience in the growing field of food halls and modern food courts. Through her New York-based firm GigaChef, she consulted for Brooklyn Taste, the food hall within the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn stadium where some 55 local eateries now have locations. She did similar work for Long Island Taste, another collection of local food vendors in the revamped Nassua Coliseum on Long Island.
One of her tools is a customized template designed to show if a particular concept or business plan will work in a food hall environment. Input rent, anticipated check averages, customer volume and other variables, and it shows the potential income, or loss.
“The idea is to get a sense of what you might see in the market,” Brefere said. “There are a lot of good restaurant operators out there, though the market format isn’t for everyone.”
The food hall or market format is part of a trend playing out nationally. There are historic examples, like Pike Place Market in Seattle and new additions, like San Francisco’s Ferry Building, which has quickly become a major attraction.
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New Orleans has its own different iterations. There’s the conversion of the historic but long-empty St. Roch Market into a hall of walk-up eateries. In Central City, Roux Carre was designed from the ground up as a food court with a nonprofit business development mission built in.
The Pythian Market is bringing its own version of the food hall to the CBD as part of the larger Pythian building project, led by the New Orleans developers Green Coast Enterprises, the investment company ERG Enterprises and the Crescent City Community Land Trust.
Though first built in 1909, the property has been out of commerce so long, and adjoined by others in a similar state, that the once-stately building became all but invisible. But this part of the CBD is seeing a tide of redevelopment of older properties and new construction. As the Pythian’s own overhaul has progressed, paneling that once gripped its façade has been removed to reveal grand architectural details.
In the eyes of Green Coast president Will Bradshaw, the Pythian building’s location between the CBD and the medical district makes it a gateway, and one primed for a new social attraction as more apartments and hotels and hospital-related development comes together. Naturally, he wanted food to serve as a cornerstone for the project.
“Part of our vision all along is that we wanted a physical incarnation of our love affair with New Orleans food,” said Bradshaw.
He and his partners first approached groceries and restaurants to open in the building. But eventually they came around to the idea of a food hall.
“It gives a new set of opportunities to small entrepreneurs,” he said.
Making those opportunities viable is part of the early vetting and analysis that Brefere is putting into the plan. That can touch everything from the layout of a booth to staffing and menu planning.
“Our goal is to make this a destination and that needs to be twofold,” said Brefere. “For visitors, it has to be something you need to see on your visit, for the culture, for the food. For locals, it has to be a place that’s a regular draw, a place that’s comfortable and makes you want to come back.”
Achieving these goals, she said, requires building a collection of food vendors that represents what New Orleans is now and creating a variety of options, with different paces and different uses, to encourage different sort of visits.
“If you’re going to create a place that you’re calling a destination and people go there but there’s not enough variety, or people have to wait too long, then it’s not going to work,” Brefere said. “As market owners, we have to do everything possible to draw that traffic and keep it busy. That’s our responsibility.”
The Pythian Market covers 11,000 square feet, with three entrances around the building. It will have a commissary kitchen on site, and the hall’s ventilation is configured to permit some wood fire cooking. Brefere said the market is working on a plan to allow individual vendors to sell alcohol, perhaps limited to beer and wine.
Brefere said a multi-vendor market can be a lower-risk test bed for a restaurateur’s new concept, a home base for food truck operators or a cross-town outpost for established brands based elsewhere in the city.
“I tell people, let’s start small and grow. Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Be really good at a few things and then grow,” she said.
234 Loyola Ave., projected opening late summer 2017
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