San Diego’s first food hall is the brainchild of Coronado restaurateur David Spatafore
Over the years, David Spatafore and his company, Blue Bridge Hospitality, have given Coronado diners a choice of inviting establishments, ranging from such casual eateries as Village Pizzeria and Lil’ Piggy’s Bar-B-Q to the “urban, modern and reclaimed” Leroy’s Kitchen + Lounge to the sumptuous Stake Chophouse & Bar.
Now his two decades of culinary acumen coupled with business savvy have led Spatafore to cross over that blue bridge to the San Diego side to open Liberty Public Market. Two years in the making, the city’s first food hall opened in March at Liberty Station, the former Naval Training Center San Diego, and was an instant hit.
For the uninitiated, food halls are largely indoor market spaces with a collection of vendors — mostly local artisans — selling prepared foods and grocery items all under one roof. Among Liberty Public Market’s 25 artisans are Mastiff Sausage Company (specializing in all-natural, hormone-free meat), Cane Patch Kitchen (authentic Southern cuisine), Stuffed! (grass-fed burgers stuffed with cheeses), Wicked Maine Lobster, Liberty Meat Shop and FishBone Kitchen, specializing in fresh sustainable fish.
Spatafore added his own brands to the mix: Scoop (featuring Mootime Creamery ice cream), Grape Smuggler wine bar (under the direction of Blue Bridge Hospitality’s beverage director Greg Majors) and Crafted Baked Goods, conceived by Blue Bridge’s executive pastry chef Francis Laureano.
Plus Spatafore opened a full-service restaurant, Mess Hall, so-named because it sits exactly where the former Navy Training Center’s mess hall once served sailors. In creating Mess Hall’s menus, Blue Bridge’s executive chef Tim Kolanko (chef de cuisine at A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines for 10 years before joining Blue Bridge Hospitality) and chef de cuisine Colin Murray (formerly with Brooklyn Girl) draw upon the fresh offerings of all the market artisans and work with local farmers in creating farm-to-table dishes.
Business was brisk when the market opened over spring break. Said Mastiff Sausage Co.’s co-founder Jacob Bartlett, “We were slammed, which we expected on the weekend. But when the crowds kept pouring in on Monday, we knew this was really something.”
The market is a collaboration of the Corky McMillin Companies, developer of Liberty Station, and Spatafore’s company.
Spatafore has been friends with fellow Coronado resident Scott McMillin, chairman of the board of the Corky McMillin Company. “Scott and I would talk and he asked me if I might have an interest in opening a restaurant there. Then I’d talk with his agents, but for me the light didn’t go off about a restaurant. Instead, as I walked through the space I kept thinking about the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, where I had spent a bit of time, and other public markets, like Pike Place in Seattle and Granville Island in Vancouver.”
Name a city and Spatafore has been to its public market, including Chelsea Market in New York, and Mario Batali’s new Eataly, his second, in Chicago, and the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco.
“I’ve found that the most interesting food halls are housed in historic buildings,” Spatafore observed.
His creative juices took hold and within two weeks time Spatafore came back to the McMillin Company with a sketch and a vision for the food hall in the 25,000-square-foot historic space.
Part of his formula for success was designing lots of social space into the market. “At Pike’s you have to go down to the waterfront to sit down on benches,” he said. “Here we designed seating inside and out on a patio; so you can come and work and be on our WiFi.”
A central location is essential to making a public market work, Spatafore said. “We have lots of feeders here — from downtown, the airport, Pacific Highway, from the Nimitz (Interstate 8) freeway. And Liberty Station already has Corvette Diner, Trader Joe’s, the Rock Church — all of those places, and more hotels going up around here. And, of course, Stone Brewing. People come over to Stone like they are making a journey to Mecca.”
But the nearby community is equally important to the market’s success, Spatafore added.
“Point Loma is a cool community, it bleeds over to Mission Hills and Ocean Beach. Public markets need locals to sustain them. Look at Pike’s Market in Seattle and all those flower vendors. Tourists aren’t the ones buying flowers; it’s the locals.”
Soon Spatafore had a master lease signed and the green light. He then began the arduous yet enjoyable process of procuring vendors. “I immediately went to Gina and Roger (Frieze) at Venissimo Cheese. They were in. And I went to every farmers market in the county. That’s where I found Paraná, this great Argentinian family that makes these awesome empanadas.”
As he and his team solicited vendors, Spatafore realized that he needed to find people who had a passion for their particular food but also a certain degree of savvy about the restaurant business. “Initially, lots of people in the food business said no; they didn’t have my vision. And then there were those with capital but no experience in the restaurant industry who wanted in and I’d be the one saying no.”
Spatafore remembers recruiting West Bean Coffee Roasters. “They were roasting in a small industrial space,” he said. “Three young guys. I just saw in them so much of where I was in 1998.”
That was the year when Spatafore opened Mootime Creamery on Orange Avenue. A 1989 graduate of Coronado High School, Spatafore obtained a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Cal State University Sonoma in 1993, then went to work as a national sales representative for Schreiber Foods, one of the largest dairy companies in the world. His cross-country travels, while grueling, exposed him to some novel food and restaurant operations. He credits his work with Schreiber and his restaurant customers over the years with teaching him that quality ingredients are essential to the success of every food operation. He has maintained that penchant for quality — which often translates to locally sourced — in all his enterprises.
Married to his high school sweetheart, Jenny, and a father of three, Spatafore is happily entrenched in family life where he’s an active supporter of schools, sports and Coronado community charities. He laughs when he looks back to his high school years and remembers his first job as a “Dish Dog” at the former Chart House restaurant on Glorietta Bay.
“I’ve never been a waiter,” Spatafore said, smiling. “But I do like to eat.”
That’s good news for Coronado and nirvana for foodies near and far who make their way over to Liberty Public Market.
Directions & Details
Liberty Public Market is 9.5 miles from Coronado; Take I-5 north to Pacific Highway; merge left onto Barnett, turn left at Truxton (into Liberty Station), and left onto Sims Road. You’ll see the market in front of you at 2820 Historic Decatur Road. Free parking; free WiFi. All vendors are open from 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; some open earlier and some are open later as well.