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Market on Main looks to capitalize on Columbia’s bustling city center

Market on Main

Inside Market on Main | photo by Bach Pham

The energy inside Market on Main during Free Times’ visit was both chaotic and electric, alive with enthusiasm about the new venture’s potential. The all-day restaurant, marketplace, grab-n-go, beer garden and event space is an ambitious undertaking that’s set to play a large role in shaping the future of Columbia’s Main Street.

“I’ve been involved for about two years,” says Howard Stephens, executive chef of Market on Main. “That’s when we really started talking about this, [Market on Main cofounder] Josh Willoughby and I and Josh’s father Mitch. I had known his father from a previous restaurant. He was a patron of mine and we always had a good relationship.”

It’s been a long journey in general for the executive chef. Stephens started out doing dishes in the ’80s at Yesterdays when there was a location in the St. Andrews area. In 1998, he got the opportunity to be a partner and chef at Village Gourmet, a cafe and catering company that was located near the Melting Pot on Colonial Life Boulevard. 

When the cafe closed after a 14-year run in 2012, Stephens decided to take a serious pivot to cooking and earned a spot as sous chef of The Oak Table — in the spot across from the Statehouse now occupied by Halls Chophouse in downtown Columbia — where he was able to develop his skills as a serious chef in the city. Since then, he gained experience at Capital City Club, Rosso Trattoria Italia and, most recently, Sapori in Lexington. 

Now, he and the team at Market on Main, which has started to softly open for meal services this week, are excited about bringing a new dynamic to downtown.

“The idea was if you come in here at 7:30 in the morning and want a composed breakfast, we have that,” says Stephens. “If you just want a muffin and a juice, we have that too. We envision it as a place that you can not only dine for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but also stop in anytime for a snack.”

The restaurant side of Market on Main draws greatly from Stephen’s background, from both the earlier cafe and catering side of his career through the deli side of things to the more chef-driven nuances in the menu that he has picked up in the past seven years. This can already be seen in the developing menu, which contains both more traditional deli sandwiches, like reubens, along with more globally influenced food, like Vietnamse banh mi sandwiches and Middle Eastern-inspired meals.

“If you are going to a party after work you can stop in for a bottle of wine or a charcuterie board,” says Mai Turner. Formerly the cafe and kitchen manager at Gourmet Shop in the Five Points, Turner has helped reel in the massive undertaking of setting up both a marketplace and restaurant. “We’re offering a lot of products you aren’t going to find anywhere. We spent a lot of time tasting and handpicking things we felt were exciting and different.”

From regional produce and products to deli goods, drinks and beyond, Market on Main hopes to provide a convenient one-stop shop that is currently missing in the area. 

The goal is even broader than that, though, as the business hopes to not only meet an unmet demand in the area, but also become a true Columbia destination for locals and visitors alike. Part of achieving that lies not in the marketplace itself, but outside.

While the restaurant and marketplace plans to open in December, phase two of the business is expected to open in early 2020. Market on Main, located in the former Zoe’s Kitchen location downtown, will open up adjoining 130-seat outdoor space where the recently demolished House of Fabrics building previously stood. The outdoor area will play host to year-round events, from entertainment, like movie nights and live music, to cooking demonstrations around their outdoor smoker. 

Market on Main also fully intends to lean into the city’s developing craft beer and cocktail scene. The outdoor space will feature an 18-tap self-service wall for craft beer. Full bar service will provide a variety of cocktails and wine options for people interested in dropping in for an after-work drink or long night out.

Market on Main serves as both a launching point for Main Street going into a new decade and also a culmination of 10 years’ worth of growth and investment in revitalization. What started as an essentially blank slate in 2010 has evolved into a bustling, dynamic stretch of town, with restaurants and bars, like Bourbon, The Whig, Hendrix, and Halls, and attractions, like Mast General Store, the weekly Soda City street market, the Nickelodeon movie theater, and the upcoming Transmission Arcade, downtown’s first ever bar/arcade.

Between a surge of students moving into nearby apartments like the Hub and downtown’s general growth over the past decade, the Market on Main team feels it’s a perfect environment to introduce their concept. 

“There’s more residential places opening each day,” Stephens says. “Someday someone was going to put something like this down here. We wanted to be ahead of the game on it.”  

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