When Chris Henry was approached about buying a rundown property near Charlottesville’s downtown mall in 2016, he was ecstatic. The Stony Point Development Group president looked at the five-acre site and saw a beautiful new $80 million complex of offices, restaurants and apartments. But there was a catch.
“It was centered around a [30,000-plus-square-foot] building with significant local history,” says Henry. The decaying brick structure dated to 1936 and formerly housed the Charlottesville Dairy Market, which sold locally sourced farm products. Its ice cream parlor was once a favorite gathering place for area residents on hot summer days.
Henry pitched his colleagues on revitalization. Reflecting on experiences in Europe, it dawned on them: An Old-World-style food hall would make the perfect anchor for a mixed-use community.
“The idea was to highlight the building’s farm-to-table roots and create a unique culinary destination for the city,” says Henry. It would also help attract innovative businesses and youthful residents to 50,000 square feet of connected office space and 200 luxury apartments.
The team brainstormed ways to overhaul the building and populate the Dairy Market with artisan vendors. They envisioned stalls for craft beer and cocktails, baked goods, fine wine, fresh meats and cheese, organic local produce, ice cream, gourmet coffee, restaurants and more.
Shops would open onto a capacious communal seating area where visitors could eat, drink and hang out. A public terrace running the length of the building would bring further opportunities for socializing. Spaces for events like weddings, conferences and musical performances rounded out the plan.
“We quickly realized, if done right, this project could do much to boost Charlottesville’s cachet as a world-class city,” says Henry. To be truly successful, the Market needed to embody the spirit of the region’s culinary culture and offer visitors a curated experience thereof.
To make it happen, the team researched acclaimed food halls around the world. But reading about them online wasn’t enough—they wanted to experience spaces in person and see how they captured a city’s comestible essence. Reconnaissance missions ensued to vanguard locations in Europe and spinoffs in South America and the U.S. There was Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid, Berlin’s Markthalle Neun, Chile’s Mercado Central de Santiago and Oxbow Public Market in Napa Valley, to name a few.
“The Dairy Market became a signature and a passion project combined,” says Henry. He invested heavily and spent about a year on concepting “because we wanted to create a destination that was on par with some the world’s best.”
Moving into the design phase, the team looked at favorite features of other food halls and used them to flesh out plans for the Dairy Market. They retained the Monticello-esque historical columns, massive windows and classical feel of the red brick façade. Main doors open onto a grand entry with vaulted ceilings, tiled walls, soft seating, wooden picnic tables and modern light fixtures. Corridors spill into one another, blending 18 vendor spaces and shops into a continual environment that feels like a brewpub, coffee shop, farmer’s market and tapas bar rolled into one.
Selecting vendors, says Henry, was the best part of the project. It started with making a target list of culinary categories like brick oven pizza, Caribbean cuisine, coffee and so on. Next came looking for local purveyors that fit the bill.
“Basically, we started stalking owners we liked and tried to woo them into coming onboard,” says Henry with a laugh. Upward of 100 separate discussions have since yielded a gastronomical ecosystem that is as impressive as it is diverse.
Despite the pandemic, the Market launched this past December with a dozen vendors (remaining spaces are currently being built out). They include a Starr Hill taproom and pilot brewery focused on seasonal and small-batch releases. Brooklyn, New York craft-java-roasting staple, Eleva Coffee, brings farmer direct, sustainably sourced coffees from Nicaragua, Guatemala and Ethiopia.
Renown local mixologists River Hawkins and Mike Stewart have teamed up with restauranteur Will Richey at the Milkman’s Bar—which offers primo craft cocktails in a space done up like a ‘50s-era drugstore soda shop. At Chimm Street, chef Jay Pun pays homage to Thailand’s robust street food culture. Bee Conscious Baking Company provides fresh pastries and baked goods made from ingredients sourced entirely from area farms.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Looking to the future, Henry sees the Dairy Market becoming a pillar of the Charlottesville community. He envisions weekly farmer’s markets, block parties centered around outdoor musical events held in a private street behind the building, art cinema viewings on big-screens, pop-up gallery showings, top chef cookoffs and more.
“The food hall is meant to be a launching point,” says Henry. The goal is to establish it as “a center of culture where people can gather and socialize and experience what this city is all about.”
Patrons of the Dairy Market will agree, Henry is unmistakably on the right track.