Open table: Building community at White Star Market

By Maggie Heyn Richardson

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It’s a hot June weekday and friends Jason Wesley and Brandon Kelly are having lunch at White Star Market, the new food hall in Baton Rouge’s Mid City neighborhood. Sitting side by side at a sprawling table filled with other diners, the two men are hovered over metal trays that hold an arrangement of gourmet tacos and Mexican street corn from Gov’t Taco, the brainchild of food personality Jay Ducote. It’s one of 10 food and beverage booths inside the sleek, modern building.

Between bites of soft tacos stuffed with molasses mustard fried catfish and coffee-rubbed beef, Kelly weighs in on the food hall concept.

“I like it,” he says. “I’ve tried food halls in New Orleans and you’ve got options for days. Everybody gets what they want.”

Throughout the 6,000-square-foot marketplace, patrons mill about, sizing up vendors and perusing menus. Orders placed and transactions completed, they head for available seats at two large communal tables, smaller individual tables or counter seats.

They carry steaming bowls of golden ramen studded with soft boiled eggs, trays of bacon-topped chargrilled oysters, wood-fired pizza and crawfish poutine, a dish featuring crawfish gravy ladled over roasted potatoes. Once seated, diners dive into their meals, sometimes exchanging thoughts with their neighbors about what they’ve ordered and how it tastes.

“We’ve been here before, and really enjoyed it,” says Central resident Jason Bryan, who works downtown. Today, he’s met his wife, Virginia, and their two children Jack, 9, and Lily, 6, for lunch. “The food is so interesting, and you always get into conversations with people about what’s good.”

Gov’t Taco is joined by Asian street food booth Chow Yum Phat, the wood-fired pizzeria Dat’z Italian, Lafayette-based coffee house Rêve Coffee Roasters, and the craft bar Mouton. The market is also home to Fete au Fete, which also has locations in two New Orleans food halls, St. Roch Market and Pythian Market. Two other booths, the Big Squeezy and Jolie at the Market, are additional locations for existing Baton Rouge businesses. Rounding out the group are Counterspace, a new artisan bakery, and the vegetarian eatery, MJ’s Café.

White Star Market is the brainchild of Clark and Whitney Gaines, native Louisianans who wanted to bring a modern food hall concept to Baton Rouge. Among their goals was to create a space that offered imaginative food and drink in an atmosphere that felt disarming. The couple and their children live in the Capital Heights neighborhood nearby, and they see the facility as capable of stitching new relationships among Baton Rouge residents.

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“We wanted something that was comfortable, and wasn’t intimidating,” says Whitney Gaines. “We wanted a place where you weren’t forced to spend a certain amount of money, and where you could come in your yoga pants after a workout, or come with friends, grab something to go, or stay a while any time of the day.”

Whitney grew up in Lafayette, and met Clark, a New Orleanian, in Baton Rouge. After they married, they relocated to Columbus, Ohio, for Clark’s job. There, they fell in love with the city’s North Market, a former public market-turned-food hall with about 30 merchants and eateries selling everything from fresh produce to Nepalese dumplings. Columbus has embraced modern food halls. A second, Short North Food Hall, opened in March, and a third, the Budd Dairy Food Hall, will open by the end of the year.

While Columbus has about three times the population of Baton Rouge, the two cities have a lot in common, says Whitney.  “It’s a capital city, home to a big university with a great football team and is a river town,” she says. “We saw things there, like the growth of food halls, and thought, that could be the direction that we’re heading in.”

Baton Rouge saw an earlier generation food hall 17 years ago with the opening of BREADA’s Main Street Market, which is located in Galvez Parking Garage on Fifth and Main streets and is a significant component of the downtown revitalization plan.

Home to eight eateries and retailers, the market is a popular weekday lunch destination. On Saturdays, it works in tandem with the Red Stick Farmers Market. Patrons buy from farmers and producers outside, then head indoors to eat breakfast, watch cooking demonstrations and purchase additional items from permanent vendors as well as Saturday-only booths.

“The original concept of the Main Street Market was to look at public markets around the country and see how they were impacting the local food scene,” says Copper Alvarez, executive director of BREADA, which manages the market. “Markets, in general, are a gathering spot. They’re so important for the public and for the economic development of the small businesses inside.”

Modern food halls with edgy food, culinary retail and a bar scene are on the rise nationwide. According to research conducted by global real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield, the number of food halls in the United States is on pace to triple between 2015 and 2020. By then, the country should see about 300 such facilities of varying size and scope. They range from larger spots like well-established Chelsea Market in New York City to smaller facilities of less than 10,000 square feet, which the report refers to as mini food halls.

Done right, the facilities offer a palpable upside. They’re sensory playgrounds, replete with modern design, intoxicating smells and enough vendors to encourage return visits. They provide opportunities for chefs and restaurateurs to reach new patrons and experiment with offbeat concepts for less overhead than full-scale locations. And they appeal to a new generation of diners who crave inventive food and a sense of community.

“You know, sometimes we’re not as communal as we need to be in Baton Rouge. But I think a place like this is one way to build the city.”
— Brandon Kelly

White Star Market, under development for the last three years, is part of a mixed-use development fronting Government Street called Square 46. The 25,000-square-foot space will soon feature apartments, office space and a retail pod on the ground floor across the breezeway from White Star Market. As the first tenant to open, White Star Market has surpassed expectations, says Gaines. Patrons are pouring in. At peak times, the parking lot can be at capacity, encouraging patrons who live nearby to walk or bike to the facility.

The idea of food vendors amassed in one location isn’t new. It springs from the ancient tradition of open air central markets where farmers, fishers and artisan producers gathered to sell their goods to local shoppers. Even food courts in American malls carry some of this DNA.

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But the modern food hall aims to be different. It eschews chain eateries and defines itself as a playground for farm to fork cooking and current culinary trends. Moreover, modern food halls are seen as that “third place” where residents can gather and connect, due in part to design features that chip away at boundaries.

One is the communal table.

“As soon as we walked in, I thought, ‘wow, this is kind of like a church fellowship hall,’” says Wesley. “The long tables down the middle are actually my favorite thing about it. You can sit down, meet your neighbors and strike up a conversation with someone new. You can’t do that in a regular restaurant.”

Gaines says she wasn’t sure how Baton Rouge would receive White Star Market’s seating plan, which demands consumers tolerate a bit of uncertainty about seating.

“We knew communal tables were risky, but we felt it was worth it,” says Gaines. “Maybe you’re naturally sitting closer to a stranger than you normally would have, but it’s working. I think people are connecting and enjoying themselves.”

Across from Wesley and Kelly sits Matthew Taylor, a pharmacy worker who has made a habit of coming into the market every few days to read and dine alone while his wife finishes her shift at Dat’z Italian.

“Sometimes I’ll talk to the people around me,” Taylor says. “It’s a comfortable place.”

Several spots down the table, friends Kris Gregoire and Olivia Knapps are noshing on a “fig and pig” pizza and a bowl of ramen.

“I travel a lot for work, and eat out everywhere, all over the state,” says Gregoire. “I think the food here is great, but I also like how you get to know different people.”

The lunch crowd eventually subsides. Throughout the afternoon, patrons will stop in for a midday snack. Some will tap away on laptops. Others will grab a magazine from the rack or sip coffee or a cold-pressed juice. By evening, a bustling dinner shift will bring a hum of chatter as expectant food enthusiasts decide on what to eat.

“You know, sometimes we’re not as communal as we need to be in Baton Rouge,” Kelly says. “But I think a place like this is one way to build the city.”  • 

Maggie Heyn Richardson