Sawmill Market is yet another reason Albuquerque is one of the country's most exciting food cities.

By Gowri Chandra
September 09, 2020
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Sawmill Market

Located in an industrial-chic corner of Albuquerque, Sawmill Market is New Mexico’s first food hall, housing vegan ramen, low-alcohol cocktails, and flower arrangements under one roof. In a few weeks, a second food hall (unrelated owners) is set to open two miles down. 

American food halls have been launching at exponential rates in the past five years, now totaling over 100. Many of them share the same codifiers of cool: blonde wood, neon signs, $6 coffees, a butcher shop. Sawmill has those, too—as well as the culinary pulse of Albuquerque. But don’t let the glossy 20 million dollar build distract you: some of the city’s finest chefs, brewers, baristas, and bakers are here.

“Lately we've had a lot of people who are younger [moving] back, and they realized New Mexico has a huge plethora of opportunity,” says Rose Kerkmans, the 23-year-old co-owner of Plata Coffee. Kerkmans opened Plata with her partner Aaron Ketner, 29, after a year of serving lattes out of a walk-up window downtown. Ketner, who’s an intern architect studying for his license, designed both locations.

“Brain drain is a huge problem here,” Kerkmans says. “And I grew up with that. You know, like, all I want to do is leave New Mexico.” That's changing, and Albuquerque, in particular, is ripe for makers in a way that bigger cities like Los Angeles, Austin, and Denver aren’t. “I think that here especially is this attitude that, yes, you may fail, but you've gotten something out of it. And furthermore, you've drawn attention to Albuquerque,” she says. 

Ketner agrees. “There's room for growth here,” he says. “I saw it as an opportunity to really lead, unlike in a place that might be way too saturated.” 

Plate Coffee had been open just nine days at its new location before the pandemic shut everything down, on March 18. In that week and a half, the business had made more money than it did the entire year before. Burning through 15 gallons of milk and 50 pounds of coffee a day, “it was just overwhelming and crazy,” Kerkmans says.

Sawmill Market

When the market reopened four months later, business boomed back. Both owners are hoping to use their success to give local roasters the spotlight.

“New Mexico has a whole burgeoning scene of roasters, coffee shops, breweries, and distillers,” Kerkmans says. “And it's all kind of just blowing up right now." They made a conscious decision to spotlight local talent, including Albuquerque’s own Cutbow Coffee, founded by Paul Gallegos.

For many of the 23 tenants operating at Sawmill, this is their first brick-and-mortar operation. That’s the case for Ronsuelvic Cavalieri, 47, the chef owner of Cacho’s Bistro. She opened at Sawmill after a successful three-year run at the Rail Yards, Albuquerque’s Orsay-like train depot turned seasonal market.

After immigrating from Venezuela in 2015 and missing arepas desperately, she decided to make and sell them herself. Now, she runs what she says is the city's first Venezuelan restaurant.

“They offered to help us with the business, and with all the equipment at the beginning, so that was a huge help for us,” says her son Anderson. This is common among food halls, where the landlord typically furnishes the fixtures and equipment, Eater reports. Vendors can then pay extra for upgrades.

Sawmill, like many food halls around the country, allows restaurateurs to launch with relatively low risk. Instead of fixed rent, they can opt to pay a percentage of their revenue. General manager Mark Montoya says it’s anywhere from 8% to 16%, plus MOM fees: money for maintenance, operations, and marketing. (Think bussing tables, for example.) 

“It was pretty affordable,” says Cuong Truong, 33. “We felt that it was low risk for me and my wife to actually take the dive.”

Truong is the founder of Neko Neko, Albuquerque’s first taiyaki concept. During several trips to Japan, he became enamored with the fish-shaped Japanese street snack, and decided to recreate it back home. While keeping his full-time job as a respiratory therapist, he engineered vegan soft-serve recipes, bought a taiyaki griddle, and scoped out the competition at local ice cream shops.

He looked into starting a food truck. But after considering the price tag—$50,000 for a used one—and then finding out about Sawmill, the choice was clear. 

He presented a taste test to management, and beat out 80 to 100 other people vying for a spot.

For Truong, what makes Sawmill attractive isn’t just the financials. It’s also the lease flexibility. Like many other food halls, Sawmill tenants have the option of a one-, two-, or three-year lease, which is far shorter than most commercial leases. This benefits landlords as well. If a concept isn’t working, they’re able to quickly replace it with one that does, yielding them a higher profit share. And this flexibility allows them to take bigger risks with first-time vendors. 

The location helps, too. Sawmill is near Albuquerque’s Old Town, a historic district popular with visitors. Truong points out it’s also by the city’s zoo and aquarium, making it a likely stop for both locals and out-of-towners when travel picks up again.

Doug Merriam

There’s also the matter of competition. Older markets like L.A.’s Grand Central Market—one of the oldest continually operating markets in the country—have organically evolved with vendors who sell similar products. GCM, for example, has no less than four excellent places to eat tacos. By contrast, newer food halls cherry pick restaurateurs to eliminate competition between them.

As such, at Sawmill, there’s only pizza place, Hawt Pizza; one croissant place, Blue Door Patisserie. Maybe after getting coffee at Plata you’ll be tempted to snack on an arepa at Cacho’s, then do dessert at Neko Neko, and still later, grab a cocktail at one of the hall’s five bars. (You can drink throughout the whole space.) The proximity of vendors encourages customers to mix and match concepts, and ultimately spend money at more than one establishment.

For the last decade, the food truck has been sold as the accessible ladder for restaurateurs. But, as has been well documented (with more “Are Food Halls the New Food Truck?” articles than we're prepared to count), the food hall can be even more democratic. It offers unsung new concepts a chance to get visibility, marketing, and traffic, for less than the $50,000 average price tag. (And that’s “if you’re blessed,” Truong says, based on his research in the Albuquerque market.)

It is worth noting that not all food halls are egalitarian. Prices can be steep. Leases can be fickle. GCM has been heavily criticized for effectively evicting longtime tenants, kicking out the people who gave it its grit. In New York, Eater estimates, food hall rents can be a cool $8,000 a month, plus a percentage of profits.

Doug Merriam

Still, the perks are competitive, and not just to landlords. Thanks to Sawmill’s surplus of space, mixologist Brandon Farr, 32, has a whole mezzanine’s worth of kitchen equipment to himself: stoves to reduce cucumber water, counters to steep basil leaves. He oversees three of the market’s five bar concepts—including Botanic, arguably its most popular. Nestled in a greenhouse, the gin-forward bar dares you not to Instagram it. 

After out-the-door lines during the first week, it was clear that batched cocktails were necessary to deliver reasonable service times. Farr has started juicing lemons the day of—160 pounds a week—in addition to dehydrating limes for garnish, 16 hours at a time. Right now, he has his hands full with his three bars. He clocks 17 miles a day running between them in the 34,000 foot space, his Apple watch reports. Eventually, once things settle down, he hopes to forge more relationships with local farmers and distillers to showcase regional talent. 

The Albuquerque food scene is thriving, thanks to a new generations of chefs, baristas, and brewers—not to mention the culinary contributions of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipinx immigrants who are behind some of the area’s best restaurants. And it’s hopeful that Sawmill will feature more of them.

Any discussion of the area's dining landscape would be incomplete, for example, without mentioning Banh Mi Coda, whose baguettes and tofu are impractically, painstakingly made in-house. Or Bubblicitea, the Filipino establishment whose pancit—longer served, in favor of focusing on bubble tea—has inspired six-hour drives from across the Southwest. Green chile is big, but New Mexico is bigger. And Sawmill Market is the latest evidence, all under one roof.