When Will Smith first stepped foot into the abandoned Century Electric building in Midtown seven years ago, the scene could have been a soundstage for a post-industrial, dystopian film. Dirty and dark, the only light filtered through windows coated with decades of factory grease, Smith had to watch where he stepped for fear of being swallowed into the building’s depths through one of the massive holes on its dilapidated floor. Planned for demolition to make way for a big box store, there was nothing about the factory complex that made a large-scale rehabilitation effort seem attractive, or even feasible – nothing except for Smith and his father’s vision to create a world-class entertainment, retail and culinary destination that would be unlike anything St. Louis had seen.
“We wanted to create something that day in, day out is a space for all St. Louisans to come together to celebrate our incredible food culture,” says Smith. “And, as we continue to grow, celebrate the small businesses that are going to be located here.”
Now, seven years after their initial walkthrough, that condemned warehouse is seeing new life as the vibrant City Foundry STL, a 300,000 square-foot mixed-use development envisioned as a hub of work, life and leisure for St. Louis. Consisting of office, retail, residential and entertainment spaces, City Foundry’s crown jewel is its Food Hall, which is quickly becoming one of the city’s most vital dining destinations thanks to its diverse selection of offerings.
That the Food Hall is the anchor of the complex is no coincidence. As Smith explains, the Food Hall idea was the spark that gave birth to the project in the first place.
“I was living in Atlanta at the time, and my dad came down to visit me, and we went to a food hall,” says Smith, who now serves as managing director of City Foundry’s parent company, New + Found. “Just sitting at one of the tables there and seeing individuals from all over the Atlanta community come together around food made us realize, ‘How come we don’t have something like this in St. Louis?’ and ‘Where could we create something like this in St. Louis?’ That kicked off a search in St. Louis for the space, and very quickly it came together.”
Smith’s father, Steve Smith, was the right person to be inspired by such an endeavor. As CEO of the development and construction firm, the Lawrence Group, Steve Smith had the vision, experience and means to execute such a monumental effort. A year after that initial tour with his son in 2015, he and his team announced the City Foundry project, then had the site registered to the National Register of Historic Places before beginning construction on the ten-acre site in 2018.
Finally, in August 2021, City Foundry officially opened for business with the launch of its Food Hall, a unique culinary destination that serves as the development’s heart and soul. Inspired by that visit to Atlanta’s food hall, as well as other top food halls around the country, the space is a culinary extravaganza, which will consist, over time, of twenty independent food stalls called “kitchens,” and a central bar called the Kitchen Bar. Intentionally curated so that each kitchen represents a unique style of cuisine, the Food Hall is a vibrant mix of established names in the St. Louis culinary scene and up-and-comers launching their very first concept. Visitors to the Food Hall can choose from Buenos Aires Cafe, Chez Ali, Chicken Scratch Rotisserie, Good Day Cafe, Hello Poke, Kalbi Taco Shack, Patty’s Cheesecakes, Poptimism, Press Waffle Co., Subdivision Sandwich Co. and Turmeric Street Style.
As acting director of operations for the Food Hall, Susie Bonwich has had a front row seat to the exciting creations and collaborations that have come out of the Food Hall’s kitchens.
“One thing I have loved about just walking around is seeing the proprietors sitting down talking to each other saying, ‘Oh, I’ve tried this. Have you tried this?’ They are thinking about how they can combine their menus together like, ‘This week I am going to do a special on this flavoring. I think it would mesh well with yours,’” says Bonwich. “You’d think that they’re just going to focus on their own kitchens, but that’s impossible here since we have our common area. It’s definitely just accelerated this environment of creativity.”
Bonwich sees the Food Hall as an indicator of great things happening beyond its four walls as well. She believes that the energy coming out of the Food Hall is contagious, catching on all around the area and making a once-neglected slice of the city into a buzzworthy destination with impressive growth.
“Now, with the combination of the Foundry, you are seeing Union Station get revamped; you’re seeing the MLS stadium come in; you’re seeing Saint Louis University adding renovations to their buildings as well,” Bonwich says. “In this central corridor, this revamp is making people want to come back to the city. Now you’re seeing the crowds come, but just wait. In five years, it’s going to be hopping. We’re going to have the apartment building come up, and Great Rivers Greenway building the Brickline Greenway, so a lot of the area is going to be more pedestrian-friendly. This is an exciting time to be living in St. Louis.”
The vendors at the Food Hall echo Bonwich’s sentiment.
“I think it’s wonderful that there are so many options for everyone to come and enjoy,” says Jackie Gasaway of Press Waffle Co. “All ages. This is a great hangout spot, pre- and post-Cardinals and Blues games, and soon, soccer games. It’s a great place for everyone, and soon, we’re going to have a lot more events and activities and things for people to do in addition to coming down here and enjoying a great meal together.”
Gasaway co-owns Press Waffle Co. with her husband, Ryan, and they were thrilled when the opportunity presented itself to become a part of the Food Hall’s inaugural class of restaurants. Self-described foodies, the Gasaways first experienced a European-style food hall on a trip to Philadelphia and – like Smith and his father – wondered why something similar didn’t exist in St. Louis. When they heard City Foundry was going to change that, they knew it was the place for them, not just because it would offer their nascent business venture exposure, but it would provide them with a community that would be imperative to their success.
“I’m so thankful for this opportunity,” says Gasaway. “I’ve never been in the food industry before; I’ve never worked in food service, so I welcome learning new things and challenges. This has been an awesome challenge for us, and the best parts I have gotten out of it are the relationships and connections. We’ve really made some great friends, and to be a part of that family, specifically in St. Louis, to feel more tied to St. Louis – our home where we were born and raised – to have that pride on a different level than we had before is amazing.”
That sense of community, as well as access to a large audience, was one of the reasons Sue Wong-Shackelford decided to sign on for the Food Hall project. Though she’d enjoyed success with her restaurant, Kalbi Taco Shack, in its initial home on Cherokee Street, she felt compelled to move her business to City Foundry because of how much she saw it as being a hub and destination that would draw from all over the area and capitalize on the energy that the surrounding neighborhood brought to it.
“Being at the Foundry, we are reaching a larger demographic, from office workers to hospital employees and students from the colleges,” Wong-Shackelford says. “It’s just a wider group of people from all over – the county and everything. They’re all coming, and it’s been great.”
And it’s only getting started. As Smith notes, the Food Hall has several additional concepts to come online and is still seven stalls away from its full capacity of twenty kitchens. Add to that the Alamo Drafthouse movie theatre, Fresh Thyme grocery store, miniature golf course, an event space, winery, beer garden and secret watering hole, he feels that what people see now when they walk in is just a delicious taste of what is to come – for City Foundry and the city itself.
“In a few years from now, where do I want to see it go?” asks Smith. “I hope that this can be a catalyst for creating the city that we all know it can be.”
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Learn more about City Foundry STL and its Food Hall on its website.