When the news broke of the Oakland Assembly’s Food Hall in 2019, it was announced with a line of bustling Bay Area chefs and predictions that the development would turn Jack London Square into a vibrant restaurant.
In a press release from Port of Oakland at the time, Matt Horn from Horn Barbecue, Reem Assil from Reem, Preeti Mistry from Juhu Beach Club, Abram Plaut and Tomoharu Shono from Mensho Tokyo, Satoshi and Sachi Kamimae from Oakland okonomiyaki pop-up Okkon and listed Anthony Kresge of Shadowbrook in Santa Cruz among the “celebrity chefs” who “have already signed the project”.
But the pandemic has thrown a wrench into the future of nippy, highly anticipated development. All but one of the previously announced chefs confirmed they are not opening at the Oakland Assembly or considering retiring due to uncertainty about the future of the Food Hall.
“When I think of Grand Central Market in Los Angeles or Chelsea Market in New York or Ponce City Market in Atlanta, all of these businesses depend on being filled with people who eat and drink to survive,” said Mistry, who is on the fence about opening two planned street food concepts at the Oakland Assembly.
John McEnery IV of real estate firm Kinzie Bridge Holdings, the group that runs Oakland Assembly, said the group has been on hold since the coronavirus lockdown last spring. Construction work on the 35,000-square-meter project has not yet started, postponing the promised opening for summer 2021 for at least six months.
“We all made up our minds to step back and see what happened and of course we’re still waiting here,” he said.
Matt Horn, who searches for meat at the Horn Barbecue in Oakland, is no longer involved in the Oakland Assembly’s food hall.
Noah Berger / Special on Chronicle 2020
In the meantime, most of the notable chefs involved in the project have decided to move on. A PR representative from Horn confirmed that he is no longer involved in the food hall. He’s still opening up KowBird, the highly anticipated fried chicken concept that was slated to be the anchor tenant for the Oakland Assembly, though Horn’s rep didn’t say where or when. The Kamimaes cited the pandemic as the reason for their decision to withdraw from the dining room.
The same was true of Kresge, who busily devised a concept and worked on designing the kitchen for the grocery hall, traveling from Santa Cruz to Oakland several days a week before the pandemic derailed his plans. He has since opened a friendly take-away sandwich shop in Capitola, Santa Cruz County, instead.
“I was so overwhelmed working in Oakland, but things do happen,” said Kresge. “Hopefully one day it will bear fruit and I can come to visit as a colleague and diner.”
Plaut meanwhile said he was surprised that Mensho was headlined in 2019 as they hadn’t officially committed to the project. Plaut and Shono met the developers on site and then received a draft contract. The duo asked for revisions, but the talks ended after the pandemic, Plaut said, and he hadn’t thought about it since then until a Chronicle reporter asked him to comment on the story.
“I can’t remember that we ever took this project seriously,” said Plaut.
McEnery said the Mensho co-owners had a letter of intent for the Oakland Assembly; Plaut said he didn’t remember if they signed one. The chef’s announcement, McEnery said, was “a general comment on interest rates.” MoUs are not enforced contracts, but basically an informal promise to move the terms of the negotiation and design forward. “
For her part, Assil has not yet made a decision about her future Oakland Assembly kiosk.
“We’re leaving everything open,” she said. “Reem’s has shifted its focus to focusing on the things we have right now, and in a post-pandemic world we’re going to reassess what makes sense.”
The Oakland Assembly’s Food Hall project was touted in 2019 with a promise to make Jack London Square a dining destination.
Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle 2019
It is now unclear who will open at the Oakland Assembly. McEnery declined to share an updated list of verified vendors, but said the grocery hall still has “critical mass that will make this an exciting place”. He acknowledged the delays could mean losing more chefs who have been grappling with disruptions in the industry for months.
“If we need another year, these people will surely find other options,” he said. “When a restaurant comes back and they get financially healthy, some of them who were on the fence might decide to get involved again.”
According to McEnery, CIM Group, which purchased the Oakland waterfront property in 2016 that the Food Hall is involved in, understands the delays and remains “very positive and excited” about the project.
However, one of the chefs slated to open in the Food Hall is more concerned about the success of the Food Hall model after COVID-19. Mistry, who had signed a letter of intent for the Oakland Congregation “in good faith” prior to the pandemic, planned to open the Yuhu Chinese menu and snacks and candy there. But Mistry said they hadn’t heard from Kinzie Bridge Holdings since last spring when the lockdown halted lease negotiations that depended on serving hundreds of customers every day.
It is hard for Mistry to imagine reaching the same volume of customers now, even as the economy recovers and vaccines become more widely available.
“There are so many strangers. Who knows if this fall will be great and life will be back to normal, or just the opposite, and we’re all locked up again, ”said Mistry.
Mistry hopes the market operator will adjust the leases in light of the effects of the pandemic. McEnery said the company wants to be flexible with tenants and is open to both short-term and long-term leases.
Mistry also moved to Sonoma County last year and isn’t sure when or if they’ll be returning to Oakland, where they previously ran the Juhu Beach Club. Running a grocery store from more than an hour away is not feasible, Mistry said.
Developers have wanted to make Jack London Square a Ferry Building-like food destination for more than a decade, ever since a $ 55 million food hall that was supposed to open in 2009 but never did. Prominent tenants have come and gone over the years: In 2019, Tartines Coffee Manufactory, an anchor tenant, quietly left his roastery on the property by the water. Assil separated from Dyafa in Jack London Square that same year. However, there are still a few high profile restaurants, including Belcampo Meat Co. and Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine.
McEnery’s firm also operates San Pedro Square Market in San Jose and Abbott Square Market in Santa Cruz, both of which were temporarily closed in 2020. Markets have since reopened, but several vendors in San Pedro Square are temporarily closed and indoor food is still closed.
Despite the roadblocks, McEnery remains optimistic about the revitalization of the food hall.
“We’ve been huddled together for so long now that I think there will be a big setback when everyone is comfortable and we’re in control of COVID,” he said. “I think they will thrive again.”
The San Francisco Chronicle employee Janelle Bitker contributed to this report.
Elena Kadvany is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]