Restaurants / Openings

Revitalized Houston Farmers Market Comes Into View — Restaurant Opening Dates, Green Events and More to Know

An 80 Year Tradition Gets a $10 Million Revamp

BY // 06.07.21

It is open, but not close to done. That is the best way to sum up the Houston Farmers Market, which has been open for nearly 80 years at 2520 Airline Drive in the North Heights, but has never looked like this. On a sunny Sunday, there is a steady stream of foot traffic.

People stroll the new wider paths under the gleaming metal awnings of the open-air pavilions. Check out the two small silos near the back pavilion. Kids run on the green lawn with two small hills on each end of it. And plenty of produce is bought. You can see where the new restaurants are going to be. Note the location of the showcase butcher’s shop to come. And what mostly comes through so far is how Houston centric this entire renovated and reimagined farmers market is going to be.

“We’ve been very deliberate going about how we go about picking the vendors,” MLB Capital founding partner Todd Mason tells PaperCity in an exclusive interview. “All the way to who the produce vendors are — and to who are the restaurants. And everything in-between.

“We’re trying very hard to have local artisans. People who are known and well respected in this community for bringing their art, their craft to the food industry. We have no nationals in other words. Everybody’s from Houston.”

Mason and his MLB Capital partners started with visions of giving the nation’s fourth largest city its own version of Seattle’s Pike Place, London’s Borough Market or Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market. (A vision which PaperCity was first to report on back in 2017). But this $10 million-plus project has grown into much more since.

The goal still centers around creating a world class market, but also a very Houston one.

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Hence, no nationals. This revitalized Houston Farmers Market will be a very Houston place. The first four new standalone entities expected to open in the market — Underbelly Burger, Wild Oats, R-C Ranch Texas Craft Meats’ butcher shop and The Egg House — all boast serious Houston bonafides. As does Crawfish & Noodles, which will follow those first four.

Mason tells PaperCity that he anticipates that Underbelly Burger, Wild Oats, R-C Ranch butcher’s shop and The Egg House will most likely open sometime in September with Crawfish & Noodles following by November 1.

“It’s not done,” Mason says. “The restaurants have not moved in — that kind of thing. But you can see where they’re going to be. You can tell what’s happening. The proof is in the pudding. And the proof is out there when you see families with a bunch of little kids running around the green space.

“That’s probably the No. 1 thing to measure for me.”

Houston Farmers Market Means Houston First

Wild Oats — an Underbelly Hospitality restaurant helmed by chef Nick Fine, a Chris Shepherd protege — may be the most attention grabbing new restaurant at this reimagined Houston Farmers Market. But Underbelly Burger, a much more casual counter service restaurant with only 12 seats inside, could be even more vital. In a very different way.

“It will be very high quality because it’s Underbelly,” Mason notes. “The other thing is accomplishing our goal of making a very symbiotic market out there. A market where all the tenants out there are working in conjunction with each other.

“Now you have a burger spot that’s going to buy premium meat from the butcher shop next door. . . Same thing with now we can buy our onions and tomatoes — and potatoes for the French fries, and everything can be sourced right there (from the market).

“That’s the point of doing this. And a big point of doing this. That’s what the burger shop does.”

Houston Farmers Market
Houston Farmers Market still has the fresh produce that’s made it a Houston institution for nearly 80 years.

Shepherd’s presence means something too. He may be one of Jimmy Kimmel’s favorite chefs, but the fact he’s a longtime supporter — and customer — of the Houston Farmers Market means more.

“Chris brings so much credibility to it,” Mason says. “By this time, Chris and I have toured all his chefs and most of his front of house through there. Taking them through and introducing them to a lot of the vendors. Just trying to get our chefs to establish relationships with those produce vendors.”

Those vendors are hawking everything from prawns to vegetables to seeds to gleaming steel pans to intricate ceramics and pottery. One vendor even has a small selection of toys for the kids running through the place.

The vendors and aisles are separated by wire frames that help give everything a sense of some order. (A good farmers market needs a little sense of chaos and the chance for unexpected discoveries.) One thing that is currently missing is the seating and benches that will be outside for people to take their food to and linger for a while.

“One thing is our furniture is on the slow boat from France or something,” Mason jokes. “The picnic furniture and all that will eventually be out there.”

Events — whether it’s a local musician on the lawn or a chef leading a cooking demonstration — will start to trickle out later in the summer. But fall, when the restaurants open and the weather cools down some, will be when the events truly start picking up. Mason is currently working on hiring a director of fun & events.

“We’re trying very hard to have local artisans. People who are known and well respected in this community for bringing their art, their craft to the food industry. We have no nationals in other words. Everybody’s from Houston.” — Todd Mason

This reimagined Houston Farmers Market is not close to done, but it’s very much alive. And that’s what counts for now. This H-Town institution, which first opened in 1942, is still going strong as it takes on something of a whole new life.

“It’s valuable as an overall market to get the energy going out there,” Mason says. “Getting people to learn where to park and how to access this stuff. The most valuable thing is for our vendors, who really, really been patient and suffered through the construction and COVID, and everything we’ve gone through over the last couple of years.

“The valuable part is they’re open for business. And they’re telling me they’re seeing more business than they’ve ever seen out there. I had one lady tell me she did as much business on a Saturday the other day as she used to do in a month.”

This is a new thing for Houston — even if it’s been around for almost 80 years.

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