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As Excitement for City Foundry STL Grows, Its Food Hall Works to Find Its Footing 

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One of the three floors where Fassler Hall will serve craft beer and brewpub eats. - TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
  • One of the three floors where Fassler Hall will serve craft beer and brewpub eats.

When the RFT contacted Smith for this story, he extended an invitation to tour the project. Late on a recent weekday afternoon, we took him up on his offer.

It's 4 p.m. on a Friday, and rush-hour traffic has already started to pile up on the stretch of Vandeventer Avenue across from IKEA. From behind the wheel, idling behind cars at a red light just a few car-lengths away from the Foundry entrance, there is a clear view of the edge of the property and the owners' trailer that serves as the headquarters for the project's field office.

Although we usually still have a couple more hours of daylight this time of year, it's cloudy and overcast. The area surrounding the trailer is still very much a construction site; nearby, the uneven, rocky surface dips low enough to have formed massive puddles of rainwater reflecting the unfinished Foundry buildings just beyond the trailer.

Smith is waiting near the trailer's front door when we arrive. He is a warm and gracious host and certainly no stranger to site tours, something he notes with enthusiasm. The tour begins inside the trailer with a scale model of how the finished Foundry will look when all phases of construction are complete. Although it's a spiel he must be constantly unspooling, Smith does so with a palpable passion.

Exiting the trailer and walking through the expansive campus alongside Smith, it's easy to understand his excitement and vision for the Foundry. It stands to bring significant commerce and revenue to a previously blighted stretch of Midtown that is fast becoming a new shopping, entertainment and business district, including plans for a new Major League Soccer stadium to the east.

As we walk, signs of the building's former chapters are still visible throughout the property and will be preserved in the finished space, Smith says. Inside the ground-floor level of what will be Fassler Hall, guests will be able to sit beneath large vaults with suspended tanks that hang almost like space-age chandeliers. From the brewpub's large rooftop patio, the views stretch clear across the metro area.

Touring the property recalls visits to the City Museum — there's something to marvel at in every direction and corner. Smith says that other pieces of equipment were removed and put in storage; eventually, the Foundry might feature them in an exhibit on-site.

"With the Foundry building itself, what we decided to do is almost what I call archeological — we just left it," Smith says. "The old peeling paint, the graffiti — we just left it. We're not going to make it antiseptic. This building has been here almost 100 years, so we've tuck-pointed it and restored it, but we didn't want to make it suburban. That's part of the history of the building. A lot of the tagging is quite artistic, I think."

Stepping into the 30,000-square-foot food hall, you'll spot other vestiges and old foundry equipment, all of it staying in place. In the entryway, large industrial heaters formerly used by Century Electric hang overhead while disintegrating paint and graffiti act as reminders of how long the building sat vacant.

Even as the history of the space surrounds you, a shock of shiny bright yellow cuts through the food hall — newly painted steel beams that will soon frame each food stall. Renderings of the final food hall are displayed amid the construction. The space can fit as many as twenty stalls, and Smith hopes to debut with twelve to fourteen vendors.

Newly painted yellow steel beams will soon frame each City Foundry STL food-hall stall. - TRENTON ALMGREN-DAVIS
  • Newly painted yellow steel beams will soon frame each City Foundry STL food-hall stall.

Standing inside the unfinished food hall, it's easy to imagine vendors collaborating and coalescing as hungry patrons hop from one stall to the next. You can picture droves of people lining up for a drink at the bar before snagging seats in the spacious open room. During the day, office workers will surely grab lunch from the food hall, creating a captive audience for vendors; late at night, revelers and students from nearby Saint Louis University can fuel up in the space, which can seat up to 500, before seeing a movie at Alamo Drafthouse.

It's the same picture that attracted former food-hall vendors to the project — and the reason that their exits are so bittersweet.

Smith is candid about the challenges these vendors experienced. He reiterates that the Foundry has changed its agreements as a result and that vendors are no longer responsible for any of the buildout costs. Every tenant is now receiving the same deal, he adds.

"We have changed and evolved our whole program here over the two years we've been marketing the food hall," Smith says. "We're learning too, quite frankly, and so, for instance, now we're effectively building out the space for our tenants. They bring their equipment and they can decorate the way they want, but we're putting in the hood, the hood system, the plumbing, the electrical — because we know, especially the younger people, their financial resources are limited. And really what we want from our food-hall partners are their talent, their passion and their creativity."

Plans were also abandoned to offset those costs by increasing stall rents and the percentage of annual profits retained by the Foundry, Smith says.

"We talked that through with a couple of our partners and at the end we decided not to do that," Smith says. "We had a 10 percent revenue deal at the beginning, and it's still a 10 percent revenue deal. We kicked around the idea of having an additional amount after you hit a certain point, because we're putting in a lot more money, but at the end of the day, it's a relatively small part of the [overall] project, so we found a way to get that done."

Despite past struggles to make the numbers work for some small business owners, Smith says the food hall will still feature a cross-section of the culinary talent in St. Louis, including chefs of all experience levels and financial abilities.

On February 7, the day of our tour with Smith, the Foundry issued a press release announcing a new lineup of food-hall vendors. The revised roster features impressive and established names sure to draw crowds — yet doesn't currently reflect as many replacements for the smaller brands and start-ups that have dropped out.

New recruits include Mike Johnson of Sugarfire Smoke House, the St. Louis-based barbecue chain, and Hi-Pointe Drive-In, as well as Paul and Wendy Hamilton, owners of Hamilton Hospitality, which operates Vin de Set, PW Pizza, Eleven Eleven Mississippi and other concepts. Smith says Johnson will open a burger stall while the Hamiltons will debut Pig Iron Pizza in addition to running a bar for the food hall.

"Paul Hamilton and Mike Johnson are not doing the exact same thing they're doing somewhere else — this is the only place where you'll get that twist of what they're doing," Smith says. "[Most] of our chefs have other locations right now. We have talked to some [partners] where it would be a true startup, which we're interested in — we do want to help young, aspiring talented chefs get a chance to have their own place as well as having the really experienced, successful people."

By integrating these seasoned, big-name operators into the food hall, Smith hopes to create collaboration and mentorship with younger chefs and newer brands.

"We think of this whole space as co-working for chefs, where you have people who have been doing it for 20 or 30 years successfully, and then you have someone who perhaps is very young and they can learn from one another," Smith says.

The food hall currently has seven vendors with eight concepts total (including two run by the Hamiltons). Smith hopes to have another four or six vendors committed by the end of February. He says concepts focused on Italian fare, fried chicken and a deli or sandwich shop would be welcome additions to the current lineup.

Jonathan Schoen and Brian Schmitz of Polite Society and the Bellwether, who have been planning to open their concept, Good Day, for more than a year, remain on board. So do Oscar and Ainara Farina of Los Gauchos Parrilla Argentina in O'Fallon, Illinois, who will open Buenos Aires Café at the Foundry. Sue Wong-Shackelford and Mark Shackelford, owners of Kalbi Taco Shack, meanwhile, will debut City Taco Shack.

"We have been looking for a location in Midtown for a long time because many of our customers come from Saint Louis University and [the] Central West End," Wong-Shackelford said in the release. "We wanted to be convenient for them, and with City Foundry being built in an old industrial building and bringing it back to life along with their vision of food, drink and entertainment all under one roof, this was a perfect fit for us."

Two vendors don't currently operate brick-and-mortars in town: pastry chef Tyler "Tai" Davis, who will bring a dessert and baked goods stall to the Foundry, and Amy Guo and Daniel Jensen, who will open Hello Poke.

"We wanted to be a part of the City Foundry project because of the creativity and potential that we saw in it," Guo said in the release. "We haven't seen anything like this project yet in St. Louis, in particular, the establishment of a food hall. We love the concept of food halls and believe that St. Louis is ready for its first one."

Back in the field-office trailer, talking through the events of the past year, Smith acknowledges the frustrations and financial concerns of former food-hall vendors, and his comments sound genuine. Still, at the end of the day, he is a developer and a businessman — he acknowledges the past, mistakes and all, while remaining firmly focused on the future.

"We think we're creating something really special," Smith says. "We think it has the opportunity to be another feather in St. Louis' cap of doing creative, interesting, unique things. We're not a dowdy old manufacturing city anymore — we have an enormously creative food scene here and a wonderful innovation community, and people are taking notice. Hopefully that gets momentum to change the narrative of what an exciting community we're building on here."

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