Tons of tastes come together at The Collective.
The Collective food hall opened in July 2019 with a mix of local and Texas-based concepts. A full bar with patio and rooftop seating rounded out what promised to be a successful experiment as OKC’s first proper food hall.
“There was a huge learning curve when we first opened,” said Krystal Pacheco. She and her husband Ruben own The Fried Taco — one of the original concepts — and pizza option Mozz & Mari’s. “We just weren’t prepared for the volume. We were lucky we had great people with a ton of industry experience to help us as we refined processes.”
The Pachecos started in a food truck in 2016, and this year they opened an Edmond location, and it’s full-service. “Now that we have a full-service restaurant, I’m realizing how amazing it is not to have to deal with front of house at The Collective,” Pacheco said. “It takes at least double the number of staff we’ve needed up to now.”
The business model behind The Collective was and is pretty straightforward: Concepts provide their own food from a leased kitchen outfitted by Collective owners — except for specialty equipment — and each concept benefits from the common bar, seating, patio and beverage area.
“We’re really trying to get back to what we were when it all started,” said operating partner-DOO Sarah Zubair. “The goal is be as much of an incubator as possible, and to facilitate that, we tailor the kitchens to suit the concepts’ needs. We take care of things like hood vent cleaning, grease disposal — everything that would normally accompany building ownership for a restaurant.”
Ideally, that allows owners to focus on their food and customer service. The Fried Taco has been a definite success story, given that its business grew enough to warrant a second location, and Chef Vuong Nguyen’s Cafe de L’asie “graduated” to a brick-and-mortar version in the Century Center. The appeal of The Fried Taco is in the name; it’s a fried taco. Anyone familiar with tacos dorados de papas — the fried mashed-potato tacos famous in Mexican cuisine — already understands how irresistible a fried tortilla wrapped around taco fillings can be.
Finding a combination of concepts that works, where one concept doesn’t compete directly cuisine-wise with a neighbor, is not necessarily an easy task. Slow food also doesn’t work great in the context of a food hall. A group of friends needs all their food to arrive at close to the same time, especially if they have plans afterward. Plus, a food hall needs to offer options unique enough to pull people in the door in the first place. That last bit is what The Collective has nailed, and why it’s now one of the best destinations in the city for local food.
Edie Ngwese moved to Dallas from his native Cameroon in 2008. He had a master’s in cultural anthropology, and while in Texas, he completed his nursing degree. He’s not a chef by training, but anyone tasting the fare at Edie’s Grill will believe a chef is behind it. The West African grill specializes in smoked meats, jollof, ribs, and plantains. The focus on smoked meats means that the “slow” process is complete before lunch service even begins. But who knew that West African food was so focused on smoked meat? It’s a pretty smart way to introduce the cuisine of Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana to Oklahomans.
“America is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world,” Ngwese said. “You can find aspects of every other part of the world here, so I knew that people would love the food.”
Like many immigrants, Ngwese arrived in the U.S. with an advanced degree, but had to take work just to support himself. “My first job was at a Wendy’s in Dallas,” he said. That sort of introduction to American food was much different than growing up with his mother and grandmother cooking in a busy kitchen in Cameroon.
“Edie may not be a chef,” Zubair said, “but he loves food, and he has a passion for cooking. His has been the most impressive growth, both in terms of customers and how he’s grown as a food service operator, in The Collective.”
It helps that his pork ribs, suya (smoked meat strips), wings and coconut jollof rice are delicious. No, it’s not traditional Texas barbecue, but the flavors can compete with any genre of American barbecue.
Next door to Edie’s is Shaka, a concept that can be as healthy or as indulgent as you like. Zubair said it’s a popular choice for athletes because Hawaiian food can be healthy, and it can be carb-heavy for those events or runs when it matters. Da Kine Bird is one of the most popular items: barbecued chicken, rice, avocado, pineapple and an inexplicably delicious macaroni salad. The pork shanks are an excellent choice, too, and if you’re feeling adventurous, Spam musubi is a must.
Currently, only The Press Waffles isn’t local, and Zubair said The Collective owners first signed the deal with the brother owners before their successful appearance on “Shark Tank” launched the brand into the stratosphere.
Conley Coffee is run by The Collective. “Coffee is hard in a food hall,” Zubair said. “We don’t have many breakfast options — we’d like to add some — but coffee is a value-add for our guests, so it’s like an accessory that we need, but coffee is not a profit generator.” Qualifications aside, it delivers good coffee and solid specialty drinks, and you definitely want a scoop of the ice cream, especially if huckleberry is available.
Mozz & Mari’s pizza is the Pachecos’ answer to The Collective wanting more grab ‘n’ go options. “We had no background with pizza,” Krystal Pacheco said. “We got help from friends, we tasted a ton of good pizza around town and we worked really hard on getting our crust right. Every time we ate great pizza in OKC, we asked ourselves, ‘Is our crust comparable?’”
The answer is yes. It’s uniformly delicious pizza, no matter the toppings you choose. Pepperoni is the leading seller by a wide margin, per Pacheco, and it’s recently reduced its menu because food costs are still volatile and inflated. Pizza using house-made sauce is available by the slice and whole pie.
Parking continues to be the main hurdle for diners, but Midtown has lots all around within a short distance. The Collective is well worth the walk.