The three year project to transform the Houston Farmers Market has taken some important steps towards completion. MLB Capital Partners, the local commercial real estate investment company that purchased the almost 18-acre property on Airline Dr. in 2017, announced that it has finished phase one of the renovations and signed some key tenants for the four new buildings it has constructed.
- A butcher shop from Texas wagyu purveyor R-C Ranch
- A fast casual restaurant from chef Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly Hospitality
- A sit down restaurant from Underbelly Hospitality culinary director Nick Fine, who will leave that role to become chef-partner of the new, still unnamed establishment.
Underbelly has been involved in the project since MLB purchased the property, and MLB founding partner Todd Mason is also Shepherd's business partner. Shepherd tells CultureMap that UBH hasn’t finalized the concept for either restaurant, but he acknowledges that Fine’s restaurant will draw heavily from the produce, proteins, and spices being sold at the market.
Some of the market’s existing tenants — including produce vendors Mazanos, Rivera’s, and Tierra Nueva — will also be leasing space in the new buildings, all of which run the length of the north side of the market. Mason tells CultureMap that the buildings range from 30 to 100-percent leased, and that they’re in active negotiations with a number of possible tenants for the remaining spaces.
Work is also underway on phase two of the project, which consists of an open air pavilion and a new building on the south end of the property that will be home to a coffee shop/cafe as well as retail vendors such as a yoga studio, bakery, and clothing store. Other changes include improved restrooms, more parking, and a one-acre greenspace. That construction will be completed by the end of the year, at which time tenants can start their work on individual spaces.
The pavilion will be the new home for many of the market’s approximately 30 vendors. Many will operate stands that are 20 feet by 20 feet (although they can be expanded), which will be separated by metal dividers. A metal roof and other coverings will make it possible for people to shop the market even when it’s hot or (lightly) raining.
Mason adds that he’s still working on leases for three new restaurants: a possible pizzeria with a 3,000-square-foot patio that would face airline drive, plus two restaurants that will look onto the greenspace. Finally, six food hall-style kiosks, each between 400 and 800 square feet, are also available. Shoppers should have access to the renovated facility relatively soon.
“The produce guys, we’re trying to have them open in December,” Mason says. “The restaurants and those who need a little more buildout, we’re thinking April or May. I think the rest of the restaurants by the end of next year.”
The R-C Ranch butcher shop looks to be among the most exciting of these new additions. In addition to its own Texas wagyu beef, the shop will sell heritage pork and lamb — all of which will be raised on family-owned ranches in Texas. Customers will be able to buy raw product as well as a range of prepared items such as burger patties, sausages, and even smoked meatloaf.
“We’re going to go all in on a really cool butcher shop that has a feel between the butcher shop you went to with your grandpa and something that’s new and innovative,” co-founder Ryan Cade tells CultureMap. “That’s our challenge, to come up with something that’s in between those concepts.”
All of these changes have come at a cost. Canino Produce, the market’s largest produce vendor, closed in early 2019 when its longtime owners decided to retire. Junior’s Produce, the company that replaced Canino’s, no longer operates at the market. Mason notes that other vendors, including those that have leased space in the new buildings, have expanded their operations in place of Canino and Junior’s.
Disruptions notwithstanding, Shepherd sees the market as a game changer for Houston: an all-day, all-weather venue for high quality, locally sourced produce and proteins that will not only cater to The Heights and surrounding neighborhoods but has the potential to become a prominent destination for culinary-minded tourists.