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What’s better than heading to one restaurant for dinner and having just the one cuisine available? Heading to one destination and having a plethora of cuisines at your reach. Restaurateur Jamal Malek Wilson tuned into that sentiment well with his restaurant group The Hall, slated to open across multiple locations now through the later part of 2022.
From only one venue in 2017 to now five in the works and possibly a few more in the next few years, it appears Wilson has found a sweet spot for the gastronomically inclined.
No overnight sensation this, as he spent months traveling the country visiting food halls to ensure he understood the ins and outs of the business before he jumped in full steam ahead. Coming from a pro athlete background (he was a former NBA player), then working in real estate and owning a mortgage company, Wilson certainly had his work cut out.
Starting With Space
Traveling to every food hall from Denver to New York to Atlanta to avail a firsthand experience, Wilson quickly observed, “I was scrambling around trying to grab the food, grab the table, run up to get the buzzer, run back to get the food, and I realized the experience wasn’t great for the customer. That got me to understand what I wanted to create.”
Selling his former businesses provided the finances to get the food hall ventures started. His passion for flipping houses provided the creative impetus.
“I enjoy design and taking something from nothing and building it up,” he says. “I was confident in design as I have flipped over 100-150 houses in my life.” But it has been a long road getting the projects to fruition, adding to it the twists that the pandemic brought. “It took me from 2015-17 to craft what I wanted to do.”
Wilson shares, “We opened our first food hall in August 2017 in Tampa (The Hall on Franklin) … Then through COVID and having the opportunity to move into a bigger, better location in midtown Tampa, we closed that and moved out. Orlando, because of COVID and supply chain issues and building up that location, was to be our second location but will be our newest one opening first.”
The Hall on The Yard in Orlando is a two-story food hall with nine restaurants in a 12,500-square-foot space. The Hall on Ashford in Atlanta has a 17,000 square-foot food hall and ten restaurants.
Another project in Georgia, The Hall at the Grove in Snellville, will be a 19,000 square-foot food hall that will have a marketplace inside and 12 restaurants housed in a two-story building with an event space and entertainment area. And that’s barely scratching the surface of all the amenities at each location.
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Curating the Food Experiences
Among the restaurant concepts at the Orlando location are a plant-based pasta eatery by executive chef Mathew Kenney who is well-known in California and New York; elevated American fusion fare; southern fried chicken and some down-home comfort southern food; a poke and Hawaiian barbecue spot; and a Caribbean concept local to Orlando by a mother-daughter duo opening their first restaurant.
Wilson is fully involved in selecting each restaurant, undertaking an elaborate food tasting process. This includes a tasting at the prospective restaurant’s premises but also one at his home, where he has a chef’s kitchen and can observe chefs’ culinary prowess in real time. “We call our restaurateurs and chefs taste architects. It’s a true curated experience, so not only are they curating their menu but also curating their menu in relation to the other restaurants there,” he explains.
This makes way for multiple restaurant concepts under one roof and no competing menus while providing an overall complementary experience. “Take into consideration the bar is also curated, so we are curating different drinks and cocktails to different menu items. It’s a collaborative process,” he says.
To that end, the business model entails a membership fee, so restaurants in each venue pay rent and a pro-rata share of other costs, sharing expenses as a team.
“That brings down the cost for each member and also increases the margins,” says Wilson. He has two-year license agreements with restaurants with the option to extend for an additional two years, and that includes a 90-day notice clause for either party to exit should they find arrangements do not align with their expectations. He also offers a financing program for chefs to begin their entrepreneurship journey with the restaurant group.
Delivering the Experience
Considering the time and effort spent sourcing the lighting, flooring and furniture for each venue, it seemed only reasonable to Wilson to also offer those items for purchase in a retail setting within The Hall. “Atlanta was our first opportunity to have a space big enough where we could have a showroom within a showroom … We can escort you to the showroom right in the middle of our space, and you can order then and there to reach you at home,” he shares.
Given his design flair, it is no surprise that Wilson feels a hotel might be on the cards too. “I always felt that food halls would be a great lobby for a hotel, 75-150 rooms … Ian Schrager has always been one of my heroes. Post Studio 54, the way he has been able to recreate himself and build a lifestyle brand out of hotels that you not only visit, but you entertain and feed all within one house. I feel that’s the next level for our company.”
Irrespective of the challenges posed by the pandemic, from shutdowns to supply chain issues, delays in shipping to increased costs for materials and furnishings, Wilson is pragmatic in navigating business across pre-COVID to post-COVID realities. He is optimistic about the launch of the different The Hall locations and excited to expand to other areas in the South as he builds out his network of restaurant collectives.
Future cities Wilson is eyeing include Miami, Charlotte, the Virginia-D.C. area and Alabama, with a goal of 20 food halls in 5-7 years. He adds, “I am excited to establish our brand in a way beyond our expectations. I want to grow this and grow it the right way and open up beautiful spaces. For us, everything starts with the space and then curation of food and delivering the experience.”