TAMPA — "This project will change the DNA of Tampa."
Bold words from Ferdian Jap, co-owner of Zukku, one of 14 vendors who began selling their food and drink to the public Thursday at the anticipated Heights Public Market at the Armature Works in Tampa. But looking around the 22,000-square-foot market, part of a $20 million project from developers Chas Bruck and Adam Harden, it sounds right. Food halls are among the fastest-growing restaurant categories nationally, playing to trends like quick-serve, customizability, communal seating and multiethnic cuisines.
With Tampa's first food hall, the Hall on Franklin, having opened last fall, the time seems right for a project of this ambition level.
"I actually think we're behind — look at cities like Atlanta," said Kevin Enderle, president of BE1 Concepts, which has three projects in the market (B'n'B Butcher and Barbeque, Fine & Dandy Cocktail Emporium and the soon-to-open full-serve Steelbach)."I think since the advent of cell phones, everyone is more impatient, we want things right away. And this suits."
Enderle acknowledged that a project of this size — they anticipate 1,000 visitors a day, perhaps many more on weekends — will draw customers from other Tampa restaurants, at least for a while. But tourism is up, housing values have doubled in nearby neighborhoods and loads of apartment, condo and commercial projects are on the horizon for downtown and Tampa Heights.
"Tampa needed an event space, not a banquet hall," Bruck said on Thursday as lunch was gearing up in the space that was once a maintenance bay for Tampa Electric trolley cars. "But this space is 44 feet wide and 280 feet long — we thought, what are we going to do with this?"
Food stalls, he thought, vendors covering the gamut of cuisines, not duplicative, with two anchor restaurants at either end, a rooftop bar, giant chess games and Jenga for families, courtyard seating, a demonstration kitchen for classes and private parties, co-working spaces upstairs. A walk-around revealed a tremendous lineup of vendors, many of them longtime restaurateurs opening second locations. But several are rookies at helming their own place. Frequently, food halls function as incubators, allowing new restaurateurs to refine a concept at a more manageable price tag.
"We are full," said Bruck. "Well, we have a single stall left." It's not just millennials who want food halls, he said. "In this day and age, everyone is looking for a social environment. My dad is 72 years old and he wants to come here because it's a place to be social."
Here are highlights, most dish prices hovering around $10 to $13:
• Graze 1910, breakfast all day; avocado-egg salad tartine, brunchwiches, prosecco on tap. "It's how I choose to eat, all day long. American fare, diner style," said co-owner Ray Menendez.
• Cru Cellars, small-production, artisanal, largely organic wine. "When I was thinking about this program, I wanted to amplify and highlight what we do at Cru. It's wines that don't normally get a lot of attention," said wine director Zach Groseclose, who will be starting Wine University classes in the demonstration kitchen.
• Ava, wood-fired pizza. "We're doing some pizzas here that you can't get at Ava in South Tampa, and vice versa," said chef Joshua Hernandez. "I've had to learn this oven, which is 10 centimeters bigger and can cook a lot more pizzas at a time." On the oven is taped a picture of King Leonidas, the Spartan leader who faced legendarily terrible odds.
• BnB Butcher and Barbecue, fried bologna sandwiches, chicken biscuits, pulled pork. "I've always been interested in the art of butchery," Enderle said. "We're putting that together with barbecue, and we'll do three or four regional sauces and a daily grind burger.
• Union Coffee and Tea by Commune + Co., pressure brew, full espresso bar, drip coffee, collaborations with local businesses like Urban Canning Co. "Everything we've done for three and a half years has been a collaboration," said Joel Davis.
• Imoto, little sister to Ichicoro Ramen in Seminole Heights; shio ramen with chicken broth, tori asado, yuzu, fried garlic, negi, menma, ajitama and nori. "We're trying some new things," said chef Noel Cruz. "We're texting people when their order is ready. And this kiosk is cashless, just debit or credit, less room for error."
• Swami Juice, acai bowls, cold-pressed juices, prana shots. "The Armature owners wanted variation, and some smaller vendors," said owner Kim Dionisio. "Our other store is more of a neighborhood place. This will establish our brand."
• Inside the Box Cafe, the brainchild of Cliff Barsi and a fundraiser for Metropolitan Ministries that employs formerly homeless people and trains people for careers in the culinary arts; N.Y. strip pastrami sandwich, roast porchetta sandwich, smoky Cobb salad. "All of the meats we make are made from scratch (smoking, grilling), and all of our food is locally made," said Barsi. "And we have a little grocery side because there's not much retail at the market."
• Surf and Turf, a 4-month temporary vendor in the "guest vendor spot;" Maine lobster roll, rosemary steak sandwich. "We run a food truck," says Beata Browne. "If this works out, who knows? Maybe we'll go brick-and-mortar."
• Hemingway's, Cuban soul food, build-your-own Cuban bowls, housemade chicharones, dulce de leche cake. "This is my first brick-and-mortar of my own," said chef Felicia Lacalle. "I'm out of my comfort zone, but I want to show Tampa what Cuban food is all about."
• Astro Ice Cream and O Cocina will open soon, as will the full-service Steelbach.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.