Six years after debuting in the heart of Shaw, rapidly-growing HalfSmoke is finding success in a rather old-fashioned environment: mall food courts. In late July, owner André McCain opened the fast-casual chain’s third area location inside Bethesda’s Westfield Montgomery mall.
The Bethesda kiosk marks a new format for the brand named for D.C.’s iconic smoky and spicy half-beef, half-pork sausage. While the other two HalfSmokes in D.C. and Baltimore are full service and situated in urban settings, the newest outpost in the Maryland suburbs serves a limited menu comprised of top-ten sellers that rake in 75-percent of its revenue.
That includes crab fries topped with blue crab and rosemary aioli; the “Pinky & The Brain” carnival cake topped with buttermilk-brined fried chicken; and of course, “Briggs & Co.” — a half-smoke topped with chili, cheese, bacon, crispy onions, and mustard slaw on a brioche bun.
“In the suburbs, the mall food court has the wider selection and potentially the most convenient selection of food, in your area,” McCain tells Eater. “The interesting thing about malls for restaurants is you aren’t trying to get people to come. The people are here.”
The feat after that, he says, is how to draw them in. HalfSmoke operates the food court’s only full bar, where bartenders shake and stir the same specialty cocktails found at Half Smoke’s other locations (a blood orange cosmopolitan, passionfruit mojito, espresso martini, and more). The outpost can make any desired drink, too.
“The mall wanted to have a full bar in the food court, which is atypical,” he says. “But I think malls are sort of coming into the modern era and realizing that people want those types of amenities as well, so in some ways, we have been a benefactor of that.”
Gelato is also unique to the Bethesda location and a nod to the kiosk’s former life as a Cold Stone Creamery. HalfSmoke partnered with D.C.-based Dolci Gelati to produce the frozen Italian treat, making use of the massive ice cream freezer Cold Stone left behind. McCain serves two dozen gelato flavors, including vegan toasted coconut, tiramisu and cookies ‘n cream.
“People come to us as a gelato stand because they don’t know what HalfSmoke is,” says McCain. “The gelato attracts them to the space and they’re like, ‘Oh you guys have food, you have alcohol? Can’t wait to try you.’ That’s exactly what you want to hear in that type of setting.”
Next up for HalfSmoke: a shiny new full-service outpost in Rockville, Maryland this fall, and another in Southeast D.C.’s Skyland Town Center early next year.
McCain, a native Washingtonian, won’t stop there. He recently turned his pandemic-era pop-up Butter Me Up into a full-service, all-day breakfast spot inside Westfield Montgomery mall. This fall, he’ll bring Butter Me Up to the U Street corridor at 14th and T Streets NW, as well as one in Westfield Annapolis mall.
Much has been written about how American malls are forever struggling or becoming extinct. Earlier this year, the upscale Mazza Gallerie mall in Friendship Heights closed to make way for a mixed-use, residential development. But McCain isn’t ready to discount the resiliency of certain malls. McCain observes that Westfield Montgomery’s food court is always packed — a “bit of an aberration” compared to typical shopping center traffic.
HalfSmoke and Butter Me Up join 35 other eateries at Westfield Montgomery mall. The 700-seat food court is home to big chains like Shake Shack, California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, Cinnabon, McDonalds, and Panda Express.
“It’s our opportunity to demonstrate our ability to compete with the big boys,” he says, noting that the mall helps him reach more customers than his other locations combined.
McCain, a former vice president of real estate acquisitions and development for Princeton Holdings LLC in New York City, opened Half Smoke’s flagship location in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood in 2016, delivering on his dream to have a restaurant to call his own. When the pandemic shut the city down, McCain was forced to temporarily close Shaw’s HalfSmoke, furlough 90 percent of his staff, and shelve expansion plans. Despite the health crisis, he was able to open an ambitious Baltimore location in spring 2021.
“We learned how to be resilient during COVID and how to take advantage of opportunities, but also how to be nimble, whether it’s a new format like we’re doing in Bethesda, or a new market like we’re doing in Southeast,” says McCain.
From summer 2020 through October 2021, D.C.’s temporary streatery program gave him the tools to gradually rehire staff and open a HalfSmoke in a vacant lot across from Howard Theater. McCain filled the satellite site with 150 seats and covered the tables and chairs with plastic igloos once temperatures dropped. Rather than relying on federal grants, McCain secured a D.C. Food Access Fund Grant that’s enabling him to expand to Southeast D.C.
“We were just trying to stay alive, literally and figuratively in terms of making it through the other side of the storm, and just believing that brighter days are ahead, and more opportunities are available, if you can make it through,” he says.