Despite yearlong construction delay, owner and vendors excited to open the doors of much-anticipated attraction
Eighteen months after plans were announced for a food hall inside Carlsbad’s iconic windmill building, the long-anticipated Windmill Food Hall is finally set to open this weekend.
Pending the venue’s final inspection on Friday night, founder James Markham said he plans a soft opening sometime between Saturday morning and Labor Day. Visitors are advised to visit the venue’s website, windmillfoodhall.com, for the latest updates before they arrive.
On Thursday afternoon, the 12,000-square-foot hall was abuzz with activity, as new hand-tooled leather bar chairs were lowered into place, painters did finishing work on the building’s exterior and vendors organized the kitchen equipment in their individual stalls. Markham, and his wife of 19 years, Tisha, were rushing around multitasking by juggling phone calls, consulting with suppliers and taste-testing new cocktail recipes.
Markham said it’s been a frustratingly long wait to open the hall, but he’s optimistic about the project’s future, based on the public’s pent-up interest in the project.
“It feels pretty good to be almost at the finish line, but now the work really begins,” he said. “We wanted to make sure this is a complete destination for everyone, young and old, kids and construction workers. We wanted it be something cool for the community. Tourists are cool, but we live in Carlsbad, and we want Carlsbad people to love it.”
Windmill Food Hall occupies the entire bottom floor of the two-story windmill building along Interstate 5 at Palomar Airport Road. The wood-frame structure was built in 1982 for the Danish-inspired Pea Soup Andersen’s hotel and restaurant. The hotel changed hands, and the Pea Soup restaurant closed in 1988. For most of the past two decades, the restaurant was occupied by a TGI Friday’s, but that, too, closed in early 2016.
Initially, Markham hoped to gut, remodel and open the space in six to eight months, but the project was stymied with problems related to the aging building, including wood rot, water damage, creaking timbers, a leaky roof. The building’s owner, a division of the Southwest Carpenters Pension Trust, agreed to make all the repairs, but the top-to-bottom renovation took nearly a year.
Tisha Markham said despite the challenges, her husband never gave up on the project, always finding ingenious workarounds to keep it moving forward.
“It has taken longer than we anticipated, but he’s made it happen,” she said. “He’s not the type to get discouraged. He just keeps plugging away until it’s done.”
The hall’s decor is eclectic, with mixed materials, vibrant designs and colors and elements from different eras. There are Craftsman toolboxes behind the bar, antique newspaper prints over the Skee-Ball games, old closet doors from the Markhams’ home repurposed as dining tables, and a full-size shipping container now being converted into an indoor pizzeria. The walls and some tables are covered with pop art graphics and custom-designed artwork by muralists Carly Ealey and Brett Crawford and graffiti artist Wordsmith.
The Markhams also restored the engine for the windmill’s fan blades, which haven’t spun in more than a decade. They’ll flip the switch on the windmill this weekend and hope to add lights to the fan in the coming months.
“James doesn’t like cookie-cutter anything. He’s always thinking outside the box and everything’s a little edgy,” Tisha said.
The food hall has extensive seating areas, an outdoor fenced yard with corn hole games for adults and children and a children’s play barn with Lego toys inside. Inside there are old-fashioned coin-operated video games, Skee-Ball and basketball toss games. There’s also a library seating area with wingback chairs, leather banquettes and a wall of bookshelves, where singles events like Bumble date night and dance events are planned.
Hall general manager Ali DeLaune said the indoor/outdoor bar — with 18 plush leather swivel seats inside and 13 stools on the patio — will serve 15 custom cocktails, 10 local beers on tap and a variety of bottled beers and wine.
The hall’s main attraction is its 14 food vendors booths, each unique in design and decor. The Markhams, along with their two children, hand-picked all the operators by taste-testing their food at farmers markets, festivals and other locations.
They include: Mesteeso Brazilian Coffee Co.; Bread & Cheese Eatery; Lobster West; Cross Street Chicken & Beer; The Fry Fix (Belgian frites and waffles); District 1 Pho; Rolled Up Sushi Burritos; Thai Style; Bing Haus Desserts; El Puerto Street Tacos (and breakfast burritos); Friend’s House (Korean hot pot cuisine); Doughballs Pizza; RJ’s Sizzlin’ Steer; and Notorious Sliders & Salads. A few vendors, including Doughballs and RJ’s, which will be a barbecue restaurant inside the base of the windmill tower, will not be open for a few weeks.
On Thursday, Bread & Cheese partners Justin Frank and Devon Gneiting were eager to get the doors open to their gourmet grilled cheese sandwich shop, which will be the catering duo’s first brick-and-mortar location. They hunted down Markham after reading about the food hall early last year and asked to be a part of the project. They said anticipation about the food hall among their customers and friends is very high.
“It will do great,” Frank said. “It’s a great spot, it’s in an iconic building, it’s near Legoland and the beach, and it’s got good parking. What more could you want?”
Notorious Sliders booth owner Brian Gruber runs Carlsbad’s popular 6-year-old Notorious Burgers restaurant. He has created three East Coast-style sliders for the food hall, including a Cubano version with pulled pork and another featuring “Cardiff Crack,” the famed marinated tri-tip from Seaside Market in Cardiff.
Gruber said he expects the hall to be successful for two reasons: He has tasted every other vendor’s food and"they’re all delicious” and he can’t go anywhere in town without being stopped with questions about the hall’s opening date.
Bing Haus owner Nancy Chi said the delay in opening the food hall allowed her focus on stabilizing and growing her first location, which she opened in 2016 on Convoy Street in Kearny Mesa. Now she’s ready for the crowds at her stand, which will sell Asian-style rolled ice cream desserts, matcha teas, soft-serve and boba drinks.
“I couldn’t wait to be a part of this. I’m so excited,” Chi said.
Despite the headaches associated with the long-delayed food hall project, Markham said that he’s now looking to the future. He plans to open more food halls in future years, as well as more locations of Crackheads, his coffee-and-breakfast-sandwich concept now operating in Carlsbad Village.
The Markhams got into the restaurant business 18 years ago when they opened Knockout Pizza. From there, Markham developed the national chains Pieology, Project Pie and MOD Pizza, as well as several other quick-service food concepts. His ahead-of-the-curve thinking has led to glowing write-ups in numerous trade publications, including Restaurant Hospitality, Business News Daily, Fast Casual, Pizza Marketplace and PMQ Pizza Magazine. In 2015, Entrepreneur magazine called Markham “the Johnny Appleseed of custom quick-serve pies.”
Tisha said that no matter what type of restaurant project her husband opens, he always follows the same rules to achieve success.
“After he creates the atmosphere, he relies on good quality, good service and good food. That’s his formula,” she said.
Windmill Food Hall
Opening: Labor Day weekend. Visit website for exact opening details
Hours: 7 a.m. daily for coffee, pastries and breakfast burritos. Food booth hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The bar and some food booths will be open until midnight
Where: 890 Palomar Airport Road, Carlsbad
Phone: (442) 287-8485