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Farmers Markets And Food Halls Are Flourishing In Houston

Houston’s vibrant food scene is set for another injection of culinary concepts that could redefine how people think about grocery shopping and eating.

The classic farmers market has existed in some form for thousands of years. But in contemporary times, developers are thinking more about how they can offer a curated experience that engages people.

Railway Heights Market and Houston Farmers Market are two food market projects under development that are slated to open fully within the next 12 months.

A glimpse inside Finn Hall, the food hall located within The Jones on Main in Downtown Houston.

Food halls helped to kick-start a more modern approach to bringing people into large mixed spaces for the purpose of buying and consuming good food.

Midway Cos. is the developer of Finn Hall, a 20K SF food hall concept located within The Jones on Main building in Downtown Houston. The food hall opened in 2018 and has 12 food vendors, including ones selling gourmet burgers and pizza.

While food halls have been around in other major U.S. cities for years, they are a relatively new product in Houston.

The key to creating a successful food destination is getting the right tenant mix, and ensuring that the concepts don’t overlap too much, Midway Cos. CEO Jonathan Brinsden told Bisnow.

“The success of the food hall is to make sure you have the broadest possible offering, and the most variety,” Brinsden said.

Starting a brick-and-mortar restaurant can be very expensive, with substantial risk involved. However, food halls offer a useful bridge between launching a culinary concept in a food truck and transitioning to a full-size restaurant.

Urban density is necessary for the success of food halls, according to Brinsden. In particular, lunchtime traffic is important, as it drives much of the business and the activity in the space.

“Density and pedestrian access is key, which we obviously have downtown, and a certain level of vitality,” Brinsden said.

Besides offering a desirable amenity for office workers at The Jones on Main and nearby buildings, Finn Hall also has broader appeal beyond the Downtown Houston area.

“We have customers coming from all over Houston, to come to Finn Hall, especially on the weekends,” Brinsden said. “It does create a reason for someone to come to The Jones on Main, where they otherwise might not have had a reason.”

Company of Nomads partner Anh Mai

Farmers markets offer a slightly different food experience, prioritizing the sale of fresh produce. But for the two new projects underway in Houston, small businesses and vendors will also be able to showcase their culinary offerings.

One example is the Railway Heights Market, located at 8200 Washington Ave. The project will include 27K SF of indoor space, plus substantial surrounding outdoor green space. The indoor farmers market will have more than 50 vendors, combining food, retail and grocery store concepts.

“These concepts that we try to put together, we always try to be innovative and we always try to make an impact on the community, so the impetus for Railway Heights was to build a sustainable city market,” Company of Nomads partner Anh Mai said.

Mai told Bisnow that Railway Heights Market will have food vendors, as well as a hawker area that will feature experimental street food. Those vendors will start with three-month leases, and will only be permitted to sell three items. 

If the vendors can meet certain sales targets, they will be allowed to renew their lease, and improve until they are ready to venture out and expand their business into a proper food hall or restaurant concept, Mai said.

A rendering of Railway Heights Market in Houston.

Railway Heights Market is not Mai’s first foray into Houston’s food scene, but it is his most ambitious to date. Prior to the Railway Heights development, he worked on other milestone projects such as Conservatory, Houston’s first food hall concept in the Downtown district, which opened in 2016.

Mai was also instrumental in the creation of Bravery Chef Hall, a 9K SF food hall with five curated restaurant concepts under one roof, each with its own chef-owners and dining experiences. Bravery opened in July, and is the anchor tenant for Aris Market Square in Downtown Houston.

“When people think of food halls, the first thing they think is, well, food court, but that's not what we're trying to do. We basically want to create the same great experience that you have at other restaurants, but putting it in an environment where it's a little bit more exciting, and most of all, is a discovery,” Mai said.

Though most of Mai’s past projects have been developed in highly urban areas, Railway Heights Market is in more of an emerging area. Several residential developments are being built in the area, but grocery and dining options are limited.

Mai also noted that a project of its size would not be able to occur in areas like Downtown Houston or the Galleria, because of property values.

“We were only able to do this project because it had the right price point for us, that we can actually transfer to our vendors, to where they can actually start a business in a small space with relatively affordable rates,” Mai said.

Railway Heights Market is slated to open at the end of the summer. Mai is already working on other food hall concepts, such as Conservatory 2 in the Galleria, which is due to open in the fourth quarter. An Asian hawker market is also under development in Midtown, and is expected to open in early 2021.

A rendering of Houston Farmers Market.

Houston Farmers Market is another heavily anticipated project underway. Originally established in 1941 by the Farmer’s Cooperative Marketing Association of Houston, the site grew from 9.5 acres to 18 acres over the course of 77 years.

The market is located at 2520 Airline Drive, on the east side of the Houston Heights.

MLB Capital Partners acquired the market in 2017, with the goal of upgrading and modernizing the site. The new iteration of Houston Farmers Market will feature renovated facilities, modern infrastructure, diversified products and community programming.

There will also be dedicated green spaces, which will accommodate events such as chef demonstrations, wine tastings and local entertainment.

“These kinds of projects are meeting consumer needs by offering unique dining and culinary experiences,” MLB Capital Partners Managing Principal Todd Mason said. “We are simply building upon this cultural landmark to better serve the needs of our growing customer base.”

The completion of Houston Farmers Market was originally slated for late 2020, but could extend into early 2021, Mason said.

Lauded local chef Chris Shepherd is also involved with the project, previously announcing plans to develop an exclusive concept for the market, which has not yet been disclosed. In addition, Shepherd is overseeing the direction and functional design of the new build-outs, and will be influential in selecting the tenant mix.

“We have been friends for years. Given his success in the industry, we could not think of a better person to help us build a quality food and beverage service destination. Chris has also helped introduce us to the best operators and vendors in the region,” Mason said.

Like Mai, Mason is optimistic that the project will benefit the local community and draw in people from all over Houston.

“We hope the surrounding neighborhood develops organically. Great food and service generally attracts more people to an area,” Mason said.

Stream Realty Vice President Craig McKenna, Midway CEO Jonathan Brinsden and JLL Executive Vice President John Pruitt

Though farmers markets and food halls differ in design and execution, they have many overlapping qualities. Brinsden said the two different types of projects allow brands and small businesses to test the market in an informal way, and provide a lower-entry opportunity for the people who seek high visibility.

“We continue to see this sort of confluence, if you will, of food, hospitality, retail and community,” Brinsden said.

Midway Cos. is already working on two more food hall concepts: one in Houston, one in San Antonio. Neither project has been formally announced, but they may become public closer to the end of the year.

Brinsden said Midway is also open to collaborating on a farmers market concept, and had already been approached about implementing one at its forthcoming East River redevelopment project in East End.

“We've been approached with several concepts and we've certainly looked at them in detail,” Brinsden said.

“We didn't think it was the right fit for Phase 1, but in the future phases, once we've built more critical mass, it actually could be a great fit, especially with the added connectivity of being on the Buffalo Bayou Park trail system.”