Interview: Jose Morales & Jonathan Valdez / Transcription: Danielle Schneider / Intro and Editing: Jose Morales
New York City, USA – This September 2019, a new culinary destination is opening its doors in the historic Garment District of New York City. The Deco Food + Drink food hall is the brainchild of business entrepreneur Doris Huang, a California native who has fallen in love with this city she now calls home. Huang’s mission is to create a culinary experience that elevates the food hall scene to one of luxury and hospitality. One that will revive the long-forgotten Garment District while shining the spotlight on the diverse culinary DNA of New York City.
As CEO and Founder, Huang has overseen every aspect of the project, from design and branding to construction and day to day operations. Huang herself carefully curated the nine vendors who will call The Deco Food + Drink their home, including rising chefs and New York City favorites (see list of vendors below).
We had the opportunity to sit down with Huang to discuss her journey through this project and the concept behind it. A journey that takes us from a time when Huang had no knowledge of this industry she had always wanted to be a part of, and how her strong belief in her idea brought together the team that has allowed her to make this dream come true.
1- Can you tell us about your experience and background in business and the food industry?
Believe it or not, I actually don’t have direct experience in service or hospitality, other than as a customer myself. I have a Masters in Business Administration, and my background is in general business management. My corporate training was with Godiva Chocolate. While there, I was fortunate enough to see various aspects of the business. I spent time in the finance department, some in corporate strategy, and also some in marketing. It also allowed me to gain some insight into the luxury industry. I managed to have all of these different experiences that I can now bring to The Deco Food + Drink.
While working there, I realized that I’m not a products person. I’m a service person. Some people get excited about the actual making of a physical product. That was ok for me while at Godiva. However, I wasn’t as passionate about it as I am about creating an experience. I love the idea of creating a physical space that people are going to come and use. I really wanted to work in service, which is kind of how The Deco Food + Drink came about.
2 – When discussing entering the food and service industry, a new experience for you, how did the concept of The Deco Food + Drink come about?
Much of the idea comes from the subject of hospitality. I love visiting new hotels and seeing which experiences really stand out in people’s minds. Several food halls have opened up in the United States and abroad in the past few years. Visiting these establishments as a customer, I started to develop an interest in the details and experiences that I had while visiting them. When coming up with the concept for The Deco Food + Drink, much of it was thinking about the point of view of my future guests and customers. What it is that I want them to experience when they walk in through the door, place an order and sit down, or when they bring friends and coworkers. I wanted to elevate the food hall experience into a hospitality experience.
With some food halls, a client might have ten minutes to grab lunch during break time. It may not be that attractive of a place, or may not be of good quality, but it might be convenient. That is the opposite of what we are trying to do. We want you to step in the door and really feel that you’re in an exceptional environment. Even though it will be counter service, I want you to feel as if you are walking into an actual restaurant or hotel. This brings into play a lot of my own experiences as a guest.
3 – So, The Deco Food + Drink will not only be a place where to grab a bite but also one where the client can sit and enjoy their meal.
Exactly. The trend now is that people like, and want, flexibility. Maybe you do have to go back to work, and that’s why something fast and casual is ideal. People today, working professionals, and especially Millenials, do not want to be too strained. They want options. I don’t mean just in terms of the cuisine that they’re going for, but also in terms of how they consume. For this reason, I strongly believe that “fast-casual” lends itself to the new trends in the food industry.
4 – Growing up in Silicon Valley, and as someone who has studied or lived in many other cities, why did you choose New York City for this project?
I definitely did consider doing this in San Francisco. At the time I started this concept, I had already been living in New York City for some time. I already knew the New York City scene a lot better than I knew the San Francisco scene. Though I grew up in California, it has been years since I lived there. I don’t know the customer there. I have always been very convinced of the opportunity in New York City. I know it, like it, live it, and breathe it every day. I already know the customer in New York City, and this was the tactical reason behind my decision.
New York City is the beating heart and soul of the global culinary scene. There is such incredible talent, ambition, and drive in the food industry here. Moreover, this is not only driven by the locals, but also by immigrant communities. From what I’ve learned and experienced, there’s such a fantastic patchwork of culinary richness in this city, and I want to celebrate it in a very focused way, and put the spotlight on that as well as I feel this is not often done. For example, Italians have done a phenomenal job celebrating and elevating Italian cuisine in all its aspects. I don’t see many people doing that for New York City and its culinary scene. I want to really celebrate what New York City has to offer, especially in the Midtown location of Manhattan we have chosen for this project.
5 – When discussing the art influence behind your business concept, what was the reason for choosing Art Deco as the form of art to drive your branding?
I love this question because the culinary side was really a statement of self, and speaks for itself. Approximately three years ago, when we started talking about this project, the direction that I gave my branding team and design architects was that I wanted the space to feel inherently New York. Many of the food hall spaces in the city and other places in the country have a very 2015/2016 aesthetic: an industrial vibe of wood, concrete, and exposed walkways. It is very generic. You could walk into a food hall in Portland, Chicago, or here, and they all feel the same. You really don’t know from stepping inside the space that you are in a different city. I feel this trend already had its moment. It is dying out, and I did not want that for The Deco Food + Drink.
For our concept, I wanted a situation where the moment you walked through the door, you knew, and you could feel that you were in New York City. The original interpretation of this was what I call the “Old Boys Club New York” – oriental rugs, dark wood and banisters, upholstered leather furniture, etc. However, it started to feel very heavy. It just didn’t feel fresh. We continued to play with the concept of “What else is very New York?” and Art Deco came up – the 1920’s, Jazz Age, Gatsby, etc. New York City has a remarkable history of art and architecture, so it just felt right. The beautiful thing about this form of art is that it’s so geometric and there are so many beautiful colors used in Art Deco. It feels very contemporary.
When coming to this place, the goal is for you to feel captivated, and to realize that there’s something extraordinary about it, that it is unique and very New York.
6 – Besides offering a food experience, and taking into consideration the name of the food hall, are there future plans to incorporate an art experience for people that may be attracted to your location based on its name?
I believe that the forms of art that we dovetail most closely with, taking into consideration the space that we have for the establishment, are music and film. In terms of music, there are a lot of fun things we aim to do, focusing on the Art Deco period and the era of Jazz. Down the road, we will have a space available for private events which will be beautifully decorated, and I can picture live musicians being present during these events. They would be an integral part of the experience.
When discussing films, besides the nine kiosks that will be operated by third parties and vendors, we will have a full bar operated by my team and me. I do not want a television there because we are not a sports bar. We will be using a projector to feature special events such as the Oscars. We are also planning to do film nights.
I noticed that this year many locations were doing big Game of Thrones-themed parties. For our events, we would go the route of filmmaker conventions or something from the Jazz era, while our bartenders revive cocktail recipes from the ’20s and the Prohibition era. There are many fun ideas that we can play with here!
7 – What differentiates The Deco Food + Drink from other similar business concepts such as Hudson Yards, Chelsea Market, Essex Market, Gotham Market, or Dekalb Market?
I recently read an article stating that New York City has the highest number of food halls, which isn’t too shocking considering how large we are. How are we different from everyone else? There are a few things that I think are the top differentiators.
One, Deco Food + Drink’s concept is that of a hospitality experience. We put a lot of thought and investment into the design and the aesthetic of the place. It is a genuinely elevated concept aiming to amaze the customer the moment they walk in.
Two, I put much thought and invested much time in finding our food vendors. I’m trying to find a balance between two different extremes. On one extreme, New York City has some wonderful food markets where you get many modern mom and pops; many people who are selling their goods for the first time. On the other extreme, you have some very successful chains with multiple locations around the city. It was vital for me to strike a balance between those two.
For the modern mom and pop’s, the reality is that if you’re going to enter the Midtown lunch-rush, you need to be a very experienced operator. On the other hand, I didn’t want to have a situation where we would have all the same restaurants that you see in all of the other food halls. I put much thought into finding independent restauranteurs who already have one or two locations in the city, are experienced and sophisticated operators but remain below the radar. They might be guys you’ve never heard of, or they could be guys you have heard of but never got around to visiting them at their locations. We wanted to find these hidden gems from all over the city and bring them together under one roof. For this reason, our lineup of vendors is very different from what you are used to seeing in a food hall.
The third essential reason why we are different from other food halls is the location. The Garment District has been a forgotten neighborhood for decades. At the beginning of this project, I spent much time trying to convince people that the Garment District is not dingy. I had so many people say to me, “Why are you looking in the Garment District? Forget about that! Look to SoHo!” I think that the Garment District is so unique. That’s where all the potential is. We are looking forward to reviving the neighborhood because there’s a fantastic history behind it, including the fashion and textile history of this city.
8 – As a business entrepreneur, and the opening of The Deco Food + Drink in the horizon, what thoughts and feelings cross your mind now that this grand moment is so close?
This is an emotional question. It’s definitely been a long road. The question that I hate the most is when people say, “Oh! You’ve been working on this for three years. Why aren’t you opened yet?” It drives me nuts because people might not understand all the work that goes behind a project like this. They’re well-intentioned, but they don’t understand the complexity of all the different pieces that have to come together to make this project work.
I’ve been reflecting lately on how many different individuals and teams have jumped on this train with me. How much they’ve contributed to this shared dream. It sounds so cheesy and trite, but it’s one of those things that started as just me and a dream. I’ve been reflecting a lot about how all of these people have given so much of their time and expertise. It’s been such a privilege to be a part of this group of people.
As we enter the last leg of the race, one thing that I’m very excited about is the moment we open the doors and have customers come into the space for the first time. I’ve already been showing the space to friends and family. The food vendors have come to see the space at various points during the development with their own teams and investors. It’s really cool to see the people involved in different parts of this project coming by to visit. It’s a little tester for when we have actual customers coming to the space, ordering food, walking around the kiosks, and even using the bathroom amenities. That’s a little teaser! We’ve put a lot of thought into the bathrooms. I can’t tell you much more now, but I hope that you’ll come in and check out the bathrooms!
9 – What advice have you received in your business career that you feel is important to share with aspiring entrepreneurs who may also want to start their own food-related business?
I’m delighted you guys have asked this question! The first thing – and I don’t remember if I was given this advice at one point or if this was something that came naturally – that became really clear to me is that you have to be the number one believer in your idea. Many aspiring entrepreneurs will ask, “How do I come up with an idea for a business?” It’s a very valid question. However, for me, I don’t have a clear answer for that, other than you better be a thousand percent convinced on your idea, almost to the point of being delusional! Do the research to validate your idea, to convince yourself that you aren’t delusional and that you really do have an opportunity.
I think many entrepreneurs will say, “Well, I’m not too passionate about this idea, but I think that it makes sense, so I’m just going to go with that.” I’m a little skeptical of how successful that would be. I think the founder of founders need to be very convinced that they’re going to succeed. You’re going to meet so many nay-sayers along the way that if you don’t have that rock-solid confidence in your idea, you will not be able to sell people on it. They’ll read the doubt on your face or in your voice. It has to be an idea that really moves you. Again, it sounds cheesy, but for me, that was my experience. My ideas were something that I was deeply convinced about. You should have a real emotional connection to your plan to allow it to really flourish.
The second piece of advice is: fake it until you make it. This is real! I do not mean to fake it until you make it in the Silicon-Valley sense. What I mean is, when you start a business in an industry that you know virtually nothing about, do your research and believe in yourself.
I felt like an imposter early on when I entered this industry. When people asked me about my professional background, I would feel like a fraud because I didn’t have experience in the industry. However, I did my research. I went to many food halls, many restaurants, and took a lot of notes. There were clear ways of how to learn about this industry. I then learned that “fake it until you make it” meant, to me, that people reflect back to us what we send out to the world. If you send confidence out into the world, people will project it back at you. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You send that energy and enthusiasm out into the world, and people will really believe in you, and your ideas.
After being in the industry for some time, I finally realized that I am now part of it. It is legit. When I did not know this industry, I spent a lot of time putting on a brave face, while always acting frankly. I was not selling snake oil to those I needed to listen to my idea. I truly believed in what I was selling, and here we are today! – GM
- Mademoiselle by Maman: Making its debut, Mademoiselle is the new daughter concept of Maman; the French café will serve coffee, baked goods, tartines and sweet treats passed down by French “mamans.”
- Antojitos El Atoradero: Born in the South Bronx as a bodega selling street-style tacos and tamales, Antojitos El Atoradero is known for its homestyle approach to Mexican cooking, including their handmade tortillas and authentic Mexican recipes passed down from the owner’s mother, grandmother and aunt.
- Huli Huli: Specializing in Hawaiian cuisine (from rotisserie chicken to Spam fried rice), Huli Huli makes its debut at The Deco; partners of the venture worked together at per se before striking out on their own.
- Little Tong Noodle Shop: The contemporary Chinese restaurant that gained fame after opening in the East Village two years ago, Little Tong Noodle Shop will bring Chinese breakfast to The Deco, exposing New Yorkers to Chinese staples that are hard to find in Midtown Manhattan. In addition, they will also be serving mixian rice noodle dishes.
- Papa Poule: A new concept from the Maman team, Papa Poule compliments Maman with heartier fare, including French-style rotisserie chicken.
- Beach Bistro 96: With its original location in Queens’ Rockaway Beach, Beach Bistro 96 brings authentic Brazilian fare (Pasteis, Pão de Queijo, etc.) to Midtown with its new outpost at The Deco.
- Mani in Pasta: Known for their traditional Roman style pizza, Mani in Pasta is creating an exclusive “Pizza Deco” just for this location.
- Jeepney Filipino Specialists: A spinoff of Jeepney Filipino Gastropub in the East Village, this location will offer traditional Filipino cuisine to locals, tourists and office workers seven days a week.
- Tipsy Scoop: During The Deco’s first month, Tipsy Scoop (a liquor-infused ice cream shop) will be hosting a pop-up concept in the front of The Deco, serving a mix of boozy and non-alcoholic sweet treats.
231 WEST 39TH STREET | NEW YORK, NY 10018 |