The food hall movement has been slow to arrive in Houston, but that’s all about to change. At least four are under development in downtown, and the plans to transform the Houston Farmers Market (better known as the Canino’s market) include a food hall-style component, too.
Silent Theatre Group owners Anh Mai and Lian Pham have led the way by opening Conservatory, downtown’s first food hall, and developing the Bravery Chef Hall, which is coming to the Aris Market Square tower later this year. Together with Bravery partner Shepard Ross, they’re taking that experience to develop a much larger project near the Heights and Washington Corridor.
Slated to open in later summer or early fall of 2019, Railway Heights utilizes the partners experience in running Conservatory as the starting point for a dramatically more ambitious undertaking. Set on an undeveloped property at 8200 Washington Ave., the project will include a two-story market with up to 50 vendors, a promenade for events, a 14,000-square-foot beer garden, 15,000 square feet of co-working space, and, eventually, a 600-car automated parking garage. From Mai's perspective, the prime location just north of I-10 and just east of 610 should help the development attract customers.
“We went to this place in London called Brick Lane, and I was inspired by it. It was very grassroots. It had a mix of cultures and people,” Mai says. Later, he adds, “We felt like the central location with lots of residents that’s underserved has the potential to do what we want [financially]. It all boils down to economics. If I open up a $50 million food hall, I have to charge a lot of money. With this place, we don’t have to. We’re able to pack in a lot of vendors that can open and run a business much more cheaply.”
Although the property currently only contains the concrete and steel frame of a two-story building, Mai sees it as what it will look like in a year: a building with glass walls that overlooks the beer garden — complete with a shipping container bar and a stage — a dog park (fans of the shuttered dog park bar The Boneyard take note), and even a children’s playground. Upstairs, a second story mezzanine will extend out over the promenade.
“When you walk to the market [from the parking], you get a sense of scale. This whole wall [along the entrance] will be glass. When you’re in the beer garden, you can see right into the market,” Mai tells CultureMap. “[Downstairs] is the grocery story part of our market. That [upstairs] is everything else: food hall, retails, arts, and crafts.”
For the grocery store aspect, Railway Heights will lease spaces to businesses that include a butcher, a fishmonger, a cheese shop, and a bakery. The owners intend to court local farmers for a market on the weekends.
Upstairs will be more like Conservatory in that it will feature approximately 20 food concepts from first or second-time owners. Although it’s too soon to talk specific vendors, the partners want a mix that reflects Houston’s diversity: everything from Viet-Cajun crawfish to Polish food and a salad concept that will grow lettuce in shipping containers on the site.
Railway Heights will also go beyond a traditional food hall by incorporating a retail component for local artists and craftspeople to sell their wares to the public. According to Mai, the relatively low cost to build the project will allow him to keep rental rates low for the businesses that will occupy the stalls.
“We’ll look at your business and say what’s it going to take for you to thrive here,” Mai says. “It doesn’t make sense for us to price it where people can’t make it.”
That extends to farmers, too. Mai pitches the market as a platform for food-oriented businesses and boutique retail. If he and his partners provide a sufficiently attractive destination for customers and offer reasonable rental rates, they anticipate that vendors will start businesses to take advantage of the opportunity to sell to the market’s patrons.
Certain aspects of these plans sound a lot like MLB Capital Partners’ project to transform the Canino’s market into a food-centric shopping and dining experience, but Mai says he isn’t worried about a potential conflict — even if chef Chris Shepherd and his business partner Kevin Floyd are responsible for picking the food vendors at the market. He sees the space’s relatively compact footprint and mostly indoor shopping as competitive advantages that could make Railway Heights a local institution.
“We developed this in a vacuum before Canino’s announced the plans to remodel and redevelop,” Mai says. “We felt at the time that Houston needed a market of this caliber and this type.
“I want this to be here forever. Our goal is to make this a landmark in Houston. Of all the projects we’ve done, I think Bravery has a chance. I think this has a chance.”