It all started with a question from Baltimore-area chefs: how could we help lower the barriers to opening your own restaurant while leveraging the camaraderie that comes from putting like-minded people under one roof? Could we do for them what we had done for teachers and non-profits, providing plug-and-play and collaborative space that increases efficiencies and becomes a community hub? In 2015, encouraged by our chef friends, we set out to re-imagine the food hall experience, transforming a former auto body shop on the corner of Remington Ave. and 29th St. in the neighborhood of Remington into R. House, a launchpad for chefs and a gathering place for all of Baltimore.
Opened in 2016, R. House is a 25,000-square-foot, 11-vendor food hall with a central bar. Our chef friends came together to dream up some incredible concepts, and now, you can munch on everything from tacos to breakfast sammies to sushi – and enjoy it in a central space that we like to think of as Baltimore’s living room, dining room, and front stoop, all in one. Given that restaurants often have start-up costs exceeding $500,000 and have a higher closure rates in the first year than any other service industry business, we wanted to help take some of the less glamorous tasks – like bussing tables, advertising events, and purchasing new plates and silverware when things get broken – out of chefs’ hands so they can focus on what they do best: making delicious food. We even included a rotating pop-up stall that provides opportunity for food businesses who might want to take a shot at selling to R. House customers for a week or a month at a time, lowering the barriers to entry even further.
R. House might be the project that we’re most known for (so far!), but it was 10 years in the making. From increasing collaboration, to providing accessible entry points into important industries and professions to creating inclusive space for Baltimore, it checks all the boxes. Thanks for making it possible, Baltimore.
The ability to start something, with the support of this community, that’s the difference of this place [R. House].
J.J. Reidy (right) is one of the co-founders, along with Christian De Paco, of two stalls in R. House, Stall 11 and Molina, and a Baltimore urban agriculture business, Urban Pastoral. They now employ more than 30 people between their two R. House businesses and are focused on growing their urban agricultural sites to be able to directly supply their stalls.
What were you doing before you got involved with R. House?
We have an urban farming company called Urban Pastoral. We were born out of a partnership with the Abell Foundation and Humanim, and are focused on bringing an economic model for next generation urban farming. We use technology like hydroponics and sensors in controlled environments and place these systems in underdeveloped areas like East and West Baltimore. We want to see if we can grow food, actually make money, and be able to train returning citizens and youth to work with us. We started out with a distribution model - selling to universities and restaurants. We wanted to eliminate packaging and also the carbon footprint that comes from regular delivery. We knew that if we ever had our own retail or restaurant outlets, we could sell to ourselves and minimize much of that environmental impact.
And how did you hear about R. House, and what made you want to open a stall here?
We were working with Green Street Academy to try to set up a farm with them and got to know Seawall because they had done that project. We heard from them about R. House, and kind of bluffed our way into doing a vegetarian restaurant there. We had realized pretty quickly with our farm that at our scale and with the technology we were using, we couldn’t sustain the business or employ as many people as we wanted to. So when the opportunity to do a stall at R. House came up, we started to explore how we could add value to our produce and model through a restaurant.
What does your first stall at R. House, Stall 11, focus on and what was it like to open in R. House?
We do authentic vegetarian food made from many local ingredients. From the beginning, one of the biggest benefits of opening in R. House was a lower barrier to entry when it came to cost of opening. A normal brick and mortar restaurant can cost anywhere from $300,000 to $1,000,000 to open, and here, being really scrappy, we were able to do it for under $100,000. When we opened, our team of three people was working around the clock, but we were immediately taken by the number of people we could employ in the stall. That was the biggest surprise. And also, we saw the capacity for the restaurant industry to hire people with backgrounds that might prevent them from normal employment. Once we got our feet under us with Stall 11, that realization was one of the reasons we wanted to open Molina.
How many people do you think you’ve been able to employ through your two stalls since you’ve been open at R. House?
We have about 15 employees at each stall at any one time, so 30 total. And many of them have been with us for over a year. When you talk about job opportunities we’ve created since we opened, I think it’s around 150 opportunities, and whether or not people stay with us, they have that experience on their resume. Our farm and our restaurant cost the same, but the restaurant’s created 30 jobs, and the farm created two. Agriculture is hard as a job creator, but when you combine it with restaurants, you’re able to have a major impact. You take these two risky concepts, but when you combine them, they de-risk each other.
Awesome. So now having two stalls at R. House, what do you think the benefits are of being part of this community?
I think that also goes back to the de-risking. When we first opened in R. House, we didn’t know what was going to happen. Neither did Seawall. But it takes all of these risky concepts, and when you put them together, it creates this really interesting destination. And now that we’ve been open for awhile, we have our regulars who come to Stall 11 and Molina because that’s what they want, but in many cases, you get people from all over the city and neighborhood who are just hungry, and they maybe never would have walked into your restaurant, but they’re walking into R. House because it’s this interesting destination. The value of getting that many impressions and opportunities to show our food is incredible. And we really have a great collegial environment in here. It was very thoughtfully designed, so we are not directly competing with each other, because our concepts are different and complementary. We’re all benefiting each other.