The Old North State Food Hall is being built in the former JR’s Cigars warehouse in Selma, just off of Interstate 95.
Inside the old JR’s Cigars warehouse, the sweet scent of cured tobacco still lingers, which is a way of saying it smells like the past.
Expansive and empty, this Interstate 95 landmark of cheap cigars and cigarettes will soon see a second life as the most unlikely addition to one of the nation’s biggest food trends.
Say hello to the future Johnston County food hall.
Food halls have taken root in every corner of the triangle, with two in Raleigh, one in Chapel Hill and one on the way in Durham.
Next spring, look for the Old North State Food Hall, a new project aiming to turn a corner of the old JR’s outlet into a dining destination for interstate drivers.
“JR’s was a destination spot for decades,” said Larry Lane, who will operate the new food hall. “We’re trying to make it a destination for another purpose.”
Old North State Food Hall is owned by Selma-based AdVenture Development and owner Kevin Dougherty. The food hall will be the first part of a much larger development project called Eastfield Crossing, to be built along Exit 97 in Selma, around U.S. 70.
Over the past decade, AdVenture Development has cobbled together about 350 acres, spending more than $9.5 million on real estate, with plans to fill the area with shops, townhomes, hotels and restaurants. The owners, though, are looking to the food hall to establish the area.
“We’re leading with this because we think it will have an enormous impact,” Dougherty said. “I want to eat something good. I want to eat something healthy. This will be something for the locals, but with its proximity … to (Interstate) 95, something to pull the guy off the highway. … This will be the first interstate food hall.”
Craft beer and fresh food
Old North State Food Hall looks to have 10 vendors, plus a craft beer taproom called the North Carolina Craft House specializing in small breweries from around the state. The existing JR’s Cigar outlet will remain open.
Food halls have a reputation for renewal, of repurposing an old grocery store or bus repair shop or warehouse into something contemporary. The Johnston County developers see the same mission in their project.
The food hall will take up about 13,000 square feet of the massive building. In construction, large entryway doors will be built, as will new walls sectioning off the food hall, but a bit of the old JR’s will survive. The North Carolina Craft House will be built in the old humidor, which amid the endless concrete of the current warehouse, survives with wooden shelves and a bit of personality.
“One beautiful thing about this whole building is the 23-foot ceilings,” Lane said. “The Craft House is situated in the old humidor; it’s a recognizable thing, plus it’s cool.”
Lane, a former pharmaceutical executive, also owns Double Barley Brewing in Smithfield and said the craft house will function somewhat as a second taproom for that brewery. The craft beer bar will have 34 taps and also feature packaged beer, wine and North Carolina cider for travelers to pick up and take home.
“People know and recognize North Carolina as a beer state,” Lane said. “We want to focus on and get some recognition for the smaller breweries out there.”
Not fast food
Lane said Old North State is in final talks with a handful of vendors, but declined to reveal their names until deals were finalized. As a teaser, he said to expect a nationally known chef among the vendors, as well as some North Carolina barbecue and a breakfast all-day concept.
Vendors will sign licensing agreements with the food hall, Lane said, instead of building their own stalls, a route he hopes will keep Old North State out of some of the construction delays that seemed to hold up the food halls in Raleigh and Durham.
“Upfitting the space can be a little onerous for most people,” Lane said. “We’re supplying all the major equipment, and the vendor can focus on personalizing and branding their space.”
Situated off the interstate, Old North State conjures images of the travel plazas of New Jersey and Delaware, which are stocked with fast food chains. But the owners bristled at the comparison.
“The only similarity is the convenience factor,” Lane said. “There will be no national chains in this. This is chef-driven, not fast food. Reasonably priced, fresh, tons of options. If you have four people in the car and all want something different, you’ll find something you like here.”
Old North State is situated just a few miles north of Smithfield’s Carolina Premium Outlet mall, one of Johnston County’s biggest tourism draws, with millions of visitors each year. Dougherty said the project will need local support from nearby residents, but will also have one of the nation’s busiest highways passing by.
Dougherty said Selma, North Carolina, is as close to Miami as it is Portland, Maine, situated right in the middle of the East Coast and the millions of drivers chasing the seasons north or south. The key is getting them to stop for a few minutes for a bite to eat.
“We’re at the center of the Eastern Seaboard,” Dougherty said. “It’s a great location to reach 200 million people. There are not too many sites in the U.S. where you can say that. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve been through here.”
Currently, Johnston is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, but most of the growth is on the western edge, nearest to Raleigh, while more eastern towns like Selma and Smithfield have had about the same population for the last two decades. Long-term, the developers believe rural Johnston County will be the outer edge of greater Raleigh.
“There are 200,000 people here and there will be 100,000 more in the next 10 years,” Dougherty said of Johnston County. “When I lived in Charlotte in the ‘80s, outside you had Concord and Kannapolis. Today they’re Charlotte. That’s where we are. This proximity to Raleigh, we are Raleigh.”