In a year that has included a restaurant expansion to New Orleans as well as a Time Out Market offshoot of his original Brooklyn-based Mexican concept Alta Calidad (all while working on a cookbook that is set to be released in the spring), chef Akhtar Nawab opens Inner Rail, Omaha’s first food hall, on October 3.
The project, which includes ten vendors, six of whom are local to Omaha, includes a creperie, a pizzeria, and banh mi stand, all of which were curated by Nawab’s company, Hospitality HQ, after a rigorous scouting process. “It required moving to the city a little bit, so from Thursday to Saturday, I’d be in Omaha checking out a neighborhood, and I’d do that until I hit all of the neighborhoods,” he said.
Inner Rail, which occupies a former horse racing track, has three concepts from the chef himself, one of which is a topping-centric ice cream parlor conceived by his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ela. “I got her to ask her five best friends for their favorite toppings, and we ended up with an Excel spreadsheet of 75 line items. We’re doing homemade brownies, eggless cookie dough, goat’s milk caramel, mexican chocolate, tahini sauce, and a lot more,” Nawab said.
Omaha is Hospitality HQ’s first foray into the food hall space, but it won’t be the last: the team is considering locations in both Salt Lake City and Nawab’s home state of Kentucky. While the appeal for consumers––access to high-quality culinary concepts at approachable price points and in a casual setting––is more immediately obvious, Nawab believes that the draw for chefs to open up shop in food halls is also significant.
“One million dollars buys you 48 seats in a shitty part of Manhattan," he said. "Three million dollars is what you need. It’s a really big number, and it’s one I don’t think most chefs can raise [even though] a lot of them are really talented.” Projects like Inner Rail, he said, gives both new and experienced chefs the opportunity to open hyper-specialized concepts around fried chicken, sushi, or ramen.
“I know so many people who would be interested in taking these types of deals, where they’re not financially crucified on these restaurants,” Nawab said, excitedly. “I will say it’s been a little difficult these last two months trying to get everything buttoned up, but I feel pretty confident that this is going to be a great success.”