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All the great cities in the world have some type of showpiece market, a siren call to tourists and locals alike. Now, thanks to a rather unlikely collection of food entrepreneurs, Houston could soon have one too.
Houston’s near 75-year-old Farmers Market is set to undergo a $10 million revamp that will completely transform it into a market with world-class ambitions. The goal? To give Houston a farmers market that stands toe to toe with Seattle’s Pike Place Market, London’s Borough Market, Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and the rest of the globe’s most famous markets.
MLB Capital Partners, a commercial real estate investment firm that usually deals with lower-profile building projects, bought Houston Farmers Market from its shareholders (descendants of the original farmers who started Houston’s original farmers market at the 2500 block of Airline Road site in North Houston) and is spearheading the revamp. The firm’s tapped Houston celebrity chef Chris Shepherd and the city’s preeminent beer guru Kevin Floyd as primary consultants on the project, a sign they understand how important food and notable local vendors are for the market’s success.
But make no mistake, this is a very personal project for the guys in suits too.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to do something iconic for the city of Houston,” MLB Capital founding partner Todd Mason says. “(The market’s) not living up to its full potential right now.”
Mason gave PaperCity a private sneak peek of his plans in the gleaming glass conference room of an office tower across from the gilded St. Regis Hotel. But this is not just a suit looking to make a quick buck.
Houston Farmers Market means something to Mason and his MLB partners Jeff Lindenberger and Fred Baca. Mason remembers going to the Houston Farmers Market on Airline as a kid with his parents and being wowed by all the activity and trinkets offered.
He wants to make that experience better and more of a draw. With that in mind, the 17 and 1/2 acre site is being almost completely re-imagined. A large lounging lawn (the perfect place to cop a squat and have an impromptu picnic), a children’s play area, a distinctive towering sign from Studio Red Architects that can be seen from the freeway and much improved real restrooms are just some of the planned changes.
“I expect it will be almost entirely local. Never say never, but these will be local tenants. We won’t put a Starbucks in there.”
The market itself will be made much more walkable and more covered. While the 15 remaining current vendors will stay (yes, Canino’s is still in), there will also be a host of more upscale new vendors. Think a gourmet Houston coffee shop, a wine shop and a host of prepared food stands/mini restaurants from local chefs who are suddenly free to experiment without the overhead opening a new restaurant brings.
“I expect it will be almost entirely local,” Mason says. “Never say never, but these will be local tenants. We won’t put a Starbucks in there.
“It will be a Houston coffee shop.”
Mason’s visited many of the world’s most iconic farmers markets to get inspiration — and pick up some best practices.
Houston Farmers Market is looking at world-class markets like London’s famed Borough Market as models.
The Houston Farmers Market will remain open — 365 days a year — during the three year, $10 million project. That is one of the stipulations the farmer shareholders asked for and MLB Capital’s willingness to do it helped them win the purchasing bid.
Now the hard — and fun part — begins. Crafting together a vast market that becomes a legitimate destination spot for tourists and locals alike.
“I’m most excited to see all the families out there, making this a regular way to spend a day,.” Lindenberger says.
The idea calls for all the new vendors and potential restaurants to meld with the old staples in one memorable mix. Mason brings up Salvador Flores and notes that the “83 or something” old proprietor of Flores Spices and Herbs is raring to go. Flores is looking forward to seeing the market transform around him.
“People tend to think of him as this mom and pop guy,” Mason says. “But he’s been sending his spices around the world. And he’s very successful. But he’ll still talk to anyone who comes up to him at the market and try to help them for as long as they want.”
A farmers market to remember comes with characters. Houston has those. Now, a world class stage is being built around them.
“Other great cities in the world have markets like this,” Lindenberger says. “Why not Houston?”