In 2013, Jennifer Sherrod-Blackwell, Martinique Bistro’s veteran GM and sommelier, and her husband, Brandon Blackwell, a former sous chef at Upperline and butcher at Cleaver & Co., combined their culinary experience to launch a pop-up called Splendid Pig. A common first step for food industry entrepreneurs with dreams of opening their own restaurant, the pop-up provided the couple with a low-risk, affordable way to test out their concept and develop a small following.
Traditionally, the next step might have been brick-and-mortar restaurant ownership. But in a culinary market defined by competition-fueling restaurant openings, high commercial real estate prices and complex staffing challenges, other options have started to emerge.
Rather than invest all their resources into opening their own restaurant, the Splendid Pig team applied and was accepted to Central City’s Roux Carré, an open-air food market designed to support would-be restaurateurs in their efforts. When the mini–food hall found its opening delayed by construction issues, Sherrod-Blackwell and Blackwell launched a second venture, Elysian Seafood, at St. Roch Market in 2015. An outpost at St. Roch Market Miami, operated by the folks behind the market on St. Claude Avenue, followed in late February. Six days later, they opened a third location at Auction House Market (801 Magazine Street), one of two new food halls to arrive in New Orleans this year.
“They asked us if we want to open oyster bars in future locations as well,” says Sherrod-Blackwell, adding that they accepted the offer and hope to expand along with Will Donaldson and Barre Tanguis, whose St. Roch Market revitalization continues to grab national headlines and accolades.
The food hall trend dates back a decade or more in larger cities, but New Orleans, which was still in recovery mode 10 years ago, has definitely caught up—and not just because of Donaldson’s and Tanguis’ efforts. Shortly after Auction House debuted in the CBD, Pythian Market opened a mile and a half away at 234 Loyola Avenue. Both halls represent a larger trend the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield have dubbed “the sharing economy for restaurants.” After a few years of major growth across multiple parts of the country, including the South, the firm predicted in its 2018 report that the market for gourmet-style food halls “will have tripled in size” in the next five years if it continues growing at its current rate.
Like other food halls across the country, Auction House and Pythian Market occupy the ground floor of sleek and newly refurbished mixed-use buildings. They’re also both operated by industry pros who specialize in that particular format and have experience working with real estate developers as well as culinary entrepreneurs.
Both spaces feature renovated, spacious and bright interiors, plus local vendors scattered around an upscale, centrally located cocktail and wine bar. Recent weeknight visits to each hall revealed modest yet bustling crowds taking advantage of the bars, food stalls and laptop-friendly tables inside—even on a Sunday.
Both markets offer familiar New Orleans vendors, from established food trucks like La Cocinita—which offers an expanded menu that includes arepas and brunch options as well as tacos at Pythian Market—to Elysian Seafood, whose larger Auction House space combines the oyster and seafood setups that remain separate at St. Roch.
St. Roch Market staples EmpanadaNOLA, Coast Roast Coffee and the Mayhaw bar have stalls at Auction House, too, as do newcomers showcasing options like poke and sushi (Aloha Lei), North African and Mediterranean (Alpha), Louisiana-focused sandwiches (SoLA Deli) and health-conscious salads and breakfasts. Over at Pythian Market, which has expanded to 13 vendors since it opened, diners can choose from wood-fired pizzas to Vietnamese to fresh juices and salads.
“The food hall movement is just that, a movement,” says Donaldson. “A food hall represents a way for an entrepreneur to reduce the barrier of entry to the food and beverage industry. It’s really expensive to start a restaurant and there’s a ton of risk involved.”
Explaining that the mission behind St. Roch Market was to be the go-between for chefs and foodies interested in getting a business idea off the ground without losing their house in the process, Donaldson says more than half of his original St. Roch vendors now have stand-alone locations.
The Blackwells, however, seem to have found their sweet spot by juggling three locations within Donaldson’s and Tanguis’ food halls.
“It’s a low investment and the terms of the agreement are short so if your concept isn’t working out, you don’t have a multi-year contract or rent to deal with, so you can get out without losing a ton of money. That’s how we’ve been able to expand,” Sherrod-Blackwell explains.
They don’t bear the burden of paying for restaurant hardware like plateware, furniture or service to the cooking equipment. Combined, the advantages are far outweighing those of launching a stand-alone location right now for Elysian Seafood. At this point, Sherrod-Blackwell says, expanding their business within the food hall format seems like a stronger option than opening their own restaurant.
While Elysian Seafood’s food hall success has allowed them to set up shop outside the state, chef Lisa Brefere, the curator of Pythian Market, says she focused on maintaining as many regional connections as possible in the three years it took to open the food hall.
“When you go to a place and you’re like, ‘I’m going to create something,’ you have to know where you are, too. We used local furniture, reclaimed wood, we have this beautiful mural [by Bmike Odums] that celebrates the history of the building. You conform to where you are,” she says, noting that she’s also curated food halls in New York, California and other states, as well as Louisiana.
Looking ahead, Brefere cautioned that Pythian Market was still in “launch phase” as of the end of the summer and was trying out different ideas including happy hours and a jazz brunch. Over at Auction House Market, Donaldson was planning to launch a supper club.
While Brefere admitted food halls would have to continue reinventing themselves over time “so they don’t get stale,” she ultimately believes they’re not going anywhere.
Citing aspects of the concept like the communal vibe, open seating and the options for making food halls a social gathering place, she said, “I think they’re here to stay.”