Po’ Richard’s has chopped ties with Marble City Market, becoming the first vendor to leave the downtown Knoxville food hall after just six months.
Sunday was its last day in business.
Rick Simek, owner of Po’ Richard’s, told Knox News he reached a boiling point with food hall operator Hospitality HQ after dwindling foot traffic left him needing roughly 30% more business to be financially viable.
“I don’t have any more money to run my business,” he said. “The first two weeks were gangbusters. … And then it went down drastically.”
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Hospitality HQ co-founder Michael Wetherbee told Knox News each vendor has a different level of success and “like any business, ones that are very involved … that have visibility with guests and customers do better than others.”
Wetherbee pointed to Smash Knoxville as a shining example. The local burger vendor has already opened at a food hall in Omaha, Nebraska.
Then there’s Myrtle’s Bakehouse, whose owner, Dustin Cochran, recently purchased The Donut Theory at Marble City Market to further expand his presence in the food hall.
“I’m in love with the concept. I think it’s genius,” Cochran said about Marble City Market. “I do think there are some opportunities for the overall management of that place to improve.”
Cochran said he would like to see improved marketing strategies, better vendor-wide communication and some shared amenities, including a station with napkins and condiments for all food hall customers.
HHQ ‘disappointed’ it didn’t work out
Simek has been frustrated with what he considers a lack of advertising for the food hall, which Hospitality HQ is tasked with handling.
Wetherbee said 25% of vendors’ gross sales goes toward things like rent, utilities, equipment maintenance and marketing.
“We’re disappointed that Rick wasn’t pleased, and it sounds like it wasn’t a good fit for him,” Wetherbee said. “We have a robust marketing schedule and activation schedule.”
The food hall hosts trivia, classes and the occasional live music. But Simek still feels it wasn’t enough.
Cochran added that vendors are sometimes out of the loop when it comes to entertainment at the food hall, and better communication could go a long way.
Simek also believes a lack of signage kept the food hall hidden.
“We still get 50% of the people saying, ‘Wow, we didn’t even know this was here,'” Simek said. “We’ve really had zero from (Hospitality HQ). We haven’t had a general manager from them in a month and a half, maybe two months.”
An illuminated sign for the food hall’s bar, Frank & George’s, was recently added to the building. And while Wetherbee confirmed the food hall has been without a general manager for about four weeks, he said Hospitality HQ has been sending experienced team members to fill in.
Four managers are still employed at the food hall, he said, and a new general manager is expected to start next week.
“If I had a food truck involved as well, I would have had two incomes instead of just one place,” Simek said. “That’s my downfall. Almost everybody in there has some other business that could help them, and I didn’t.”
Finding replacement before busy time
Wetherbee said Po’ Richards, which sold a variety of sandwiches and gumbo, won’t be penalized beyond the security deposit for leaving prior to the end of its food hall contract — contracts that typically have 18- to 24-month commitments.
A handful of prospective vendors are being considered to replace the concept, Wetherbee said, and the food hall could announce its selection within a few weeks.
“Like any business, like any restaurant, it ebbs and flows. It’s seasonal,” Wetherbee said. “We think this summer is going to be really busy for us.”
Marble City Market opened in November at 333 W. Depot Ave. as Knoxville’s first food hall. A second food hall with separate ownership plans to open at the former Kern’s Bakery site just south of downtown.