Food halls are pretty uncommon in Detroit, which makes the few that have launched in the city in recent years worthy of a fair amount of hype in local media. But Detroit’s newest food hall opened completely under the radar. Whatcha Wanna Eat — said to be the first Black-owned food hall in the city — revealed itself on Detroit’s westside over the weekend to massive crowds, despite very little to no promotion to the public ahead of time.
In its first weekend in operation, the the single-story space on McNichols attracted a steady stream of Detroiters clamoring to get a taste of what the food hall had to offer. For the most part, visitors in line said they’d learned of the opening just hours earlier on social media or through word-of-mouth.
Founded by husband and wife duo Bobby and Gena Bailey, Whatcha Wanna Eat features nine food vendors: a barbecue spot called Detroit Wild Pit, Borderline Tacos and Things, Poon’s Hibachi Grill, Crazy Burger, Your Perfect Blend Smoothie Shop, Delectabowl (which is also a food truck), Heavenly Chicken and Waffles, Life is Sweets ice cream parlor, and Wing Fellas.
Gena Bailey tells Eater that her husband had been daydreaming of such a concept — where several food vendors could come together under one roof to sell their unique offerings — for several years. He had owned one property on the block — a former rental hall — for going on 25 years and when the neighboring storefront in the brick building came up for sale, he jumped on the chance to make a move.
“This was his opportunity to bust the wall open and make it into the food hall,” she says.
Building out the interior came over the past few years, says Gena Bailey, with the Baileys paying for the renovation costs out of pocket, though she did not disclose the total cost. She says that the couple financed the project with revenue generated from the other small businesses in the area that they own, including Cafe 6, the Beauty Cafe, and Spud Headz — all situated a short distance away from the food hall on McNichols. To recruit food vendors, the pair published a post on Instagram, encouraging folks to apply.
No two businesses are alike, Gena Bailey says, giving customers a variety of cuisines to taste. Vendors pay a deposit, plus $3,000 a month, and are responsible for supplying their spaces with any additional equipment, like refrigerators.
Food halls have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity nationally in recent years, for the relatively lower barrier to entry that it provides food vendors looking for a permanent space. But so far, the food hall trend does not seem to have caught on in Detroit. The Fort Street Galley, founded by the Pittsburgh-based Galley Group in fall 2018 in downtown’s Federal Reserve Building, likened its model to that of a tech incubator, where instead of requiring a down payment, security deposit, or rent, vendors were required to participate in a profit-sharing approach in which about 30 percent of each business’s revenue is returned to the company. That concept flopped, with vendors complaining that they struggled throughout their tenure there to turn a profit or break even. The other food hall within city limits is the Detroit Shipping Company in Midtown, which since opening in mid-2018, has offered a variety of global cuisines and a communal dining room with a bar.
Gena Bailey tells Eater that the couple did not look to other food halls locally or elsewhere for inspiration. Rather, she says her husband kept his vision in the back of his mind and when the opportunity presented itself, he moved at the chance to make it a reality.
The only complaint among customers and surrounding neighbors so far: the crowds. Each food stall is packed tightly together in narrow hallways, resulting in long wait times and confusing lines. Like other business districts that butt against residential areas, parking is also an issue. Eventually, Gena Bailey says, the couple would like to renovate a small outdoor patio to the rear to provide outdoor seating for diners.
The organic chatter the food hall has garnered thus far attracted TikTok food reviewer Keith Lee, who happens to be a native of Detroit and is in town visiting family this week. “There’s a new Black-owned food hall here in Detroit. During the grand opening, there were no news or media outlets here, even though this is the first food hall in the middle of Detroit,” said Lee to his 13.8 million TikTok followers.
Aside from being reviewed by Lee, Bailey says she’s heard from other local media and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office about doing a possible ribbon-cutting event.
As for the community response, visitors on Sunday expressed gratitude for having such a diverse dining option in a neighborhood, as opposed to having to travel downtown.
“They love what we did to the community, they love [that] we made it the way we did,” says Bailey.
Whatcha Wanna Eat Food Hall is at 10625 West McNichols and is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.