TAMPA -- Maybe Jamal Wilson owes Richard Gonzmart a debt of gratitude, Gonzmart's Ulele restaurant just north of downtown one of the first signals that the suburb of Tampa Heights could be the next "it" place. Or maybe he owes that debt to the food halls that have proliferated around the country, places like the Source in Denver, Revival Food Hall in Chicago, Oxbow Public Market in Napa or Gotham West Market in New York City. Or just maybe he owes millennials, Gen Z-ers and young professionals who get it: repurpose a historic space and populate it with different vendors, cool places to sit and free WiFi, so everyone gets to eat and drink what suits their fancy.
Wilson did look grateful on Aug. 29 when the Hall on Franklin opened at 1701 N Franklin St., across the street from Ulele in a gorgeous yellow brick building built in 1920. It was swamped with the curious and the hungry, so much so that vendor Jason Cline, former executive chef at the Birch & Vine in downtown St. Petersburg, had to rush out after lunch and buy additional supplies for his Hawaiian poke bowl kiosk Poke Rose.
On the other hand, maybe Wilson, 42, is just a thankful guy. How did he get here? He started after college in mortgages and real estate, selling his company to a local credit union. After that he started flipping houses, and a friend of his was talking about the next big thing: food halls. Wilson had never been in the restaurant business, but by sheer enthusiasm and passion, he convinced seven local heavy-hitters to buy in.
"I sold everyone on the idea that this would be something intimate, 10,000 feet or fewer," he said. "It would be the first full-service food hall in the country."
MORE TAMPA HEIGHTS: Restaurant and ice cream shop join Armature Works project
By that he means that diners don't need to adopt the "hunter/gatherer" approach employed at most food halls. It's full sit-down service. He started talking up his idea at Anise Global Gastrobar, speaking to Kevin and Xuan "Sing" Hurt at the bar late one night.
"Leave your business card and the address of the project," Kevin said, sounding unimpressed. Wilson thought he'd blown it. Then Kevin drove by the building and woke his wife up late: "I want to do this."
It took many months longer than expected, with Wilson investing close to $1.5 million in the project. It's an 8,000-square-foot space, once an auto shop and later a dance hall, that has now been kitted out with cool roll-down garage doors and lots of lustrous leather furniture, brick walls and parquet floors. Close your eyes and think Oxford Exchange mated with the top floor of Restoration Hardware, only more casual and inviting.
But you're not coming for the furniture (but you could because it's all for sale). You want to know about the vendors, right?
In a way, the Hurts, whose Franklin concept is an Asian kiosk called North Star Eatery, begat two other vendors. Julie Curry, who started baking three years ago while on maternity leave with her son, Max, has been making the desserts at Anise Global Gastrobar for some time. When she heard about the Hall on Franklin, she decided to take the plunge. And her Bake 'N' Babes dessert shop, a kiosk right next to North Star, hardly required the financial outlay of a standalone brick and mortar bakery.
Ro Patel, a rock star mixologist who put together the cocktail program for Anise, Ciro's in Tampa and Station House in St. Petersburg, heard about the project from the Hurts as well.
"Jamal asked me what I needed," Patel recalled. "I said I needed total control and an owner with some patience. He said, 'If I gave you that, would you stay?' "
He signed on, staffing his kiosk, called the Collection, with a number of notable Tampa Bay mixologists. Patel himself is behind the bar, something that hasn't happened in the past five years.
So far we've got Asian small plates, desserts, Hawaiian poke bowls and sophisticated cocktails. What else sustains life? Coffee.
Ty Beddingfield is pretty much the Man when it comes to roasted beans in Tampa Bay — he was the chief educator at Buddy Brew and has consulted on coffee programs for loads of regional companies. His Bar Ko-fe takes up a central space at the Hall on Franklin, just inside the front door, with a white marble-topped bar and an ambitious coffee menu that right now features Salvadorian coffees roasted by Buddy Brew. He will feature only one Florida roaster at a time, along with house-made sodas, chocolate treats from Pinellas Chocolate Co. and collaborative coffee cocktails he's designed with Patel.
For Beddingfield, what makes the Hall something special is the dedication to full service: You can be seated at the coffee bar and order off of a menu from the other vendors. Food runners will run your order out to you with a special seat number system.
RESTAURANT TO TRY: Ballooning lavash bread and baked hummus at Bayshore Mediterranean Grill
"We're looking at it as a curated space, and we have to elevate the service," he said. "We don't want to serve you this wonderful coffee and then say, 'Go stand in that line.' Service has to be integrated so you can sit at the coffee bar and your order of anything in the hall migrates back and finds you."
This approach does not come without its headaches, said Lindsay Dixon, director of operations at the Hall. There are seven operators who function as discrete restaurants (I haven't even mentioned Dave Burton's two concepts yet, the seafood-centric Heights Fish Camp and the Melt Shoppe, an emporium for melty sandwiches and old-fashioned milkshakes). But then there are common spaces and common workers — food runners, hosts, bussers — who are employed by the Hall on Franklin. She thinks of it as an "ecosystem," not a dining hall: five restaurants and two bars that operate independently but collaboratively, with food and bev zooming all over the room. Bonus: You only have to swipe your credit card once.
What's interesting is that in just a matter of weeks a second, larger concept of this sort will open just blocks away: the Heights Public Market at the old Armature Works building. And developer Jonathan Daou has talked about doing a similar multi-vendor concept in St. Petersburg.
Wilson and his crew got there first with the Hall on Franklin, and it looks great. Stay tuned in a few weeks for a review on how it all tastes.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.
MORE DINING: Restaurant news and reviews -- find something new