The Trailblazing Women Behind Jax’s First Food Hall, Part One

It takes true entrepreneurial force to not only open a business, but to bring a new concept to Jacksonville that we’ve been missing for years. Around the country, food halls are present in every major metropolitan area. Many larger cities have multiple food halls across the city that feature the areas best chefs, brands, and cuisine in quick grab and go formats. There are discussions about new food halls being built out in Jacksonville, but what went under the radar was a group of fiercely followed food truck owners who decided to branch out and make it happen on their own — and begin to revitalize an area of town in the process. Enter Lakita Spann and Lashanda Love, the owners of Mr Potato Spread and Team Love Seafood respectively, who decided that creation of a familial food hall was the right step for their flourishing food truck brands. After searching around the city for months for the “right spot”, it fell right into their hands with an opportunity to enter Regency Square Mall. Lakita and Lashanda led the way, and are being followed shortly by Daisha Jones’ Funnel Cake Queen and Kenya Stockton’s Island Dream. Shortly before Team Love Seafood’s opening, I sat down with Lakita and Lashanda for them to tell their story and get the word out about their exciting new venture.

Team Love Seafood – Shrimp Poboy

Prior to Regency, Mr Potato Spread and Team Love Seafood were at different places in their brand development with different goals in mind. Lakita began her brand delivering her instagrammable and delicious loaded potatoes, focusing heavily on catering. She moved into the food truck industry in 2016 while continuing office delivery and catering orders. As her business grew, she knew the next step was a physical location for her customers to pick up pre-orders, as well as enjoy a permanent spot if they weren’t able to follow the truck around town to the various locations. Team Love Seafood quickly became a household name when their fully equipped mobile kitchen rolled out in 2016 as well. Food truck owners and restaurateurs had major kitchen envy of their massive cooking space. In reality though, Team Love Seafood cooks absolutely everything fresh and they quickly grew out of their space as their following expanded. If Lashanda was going to be able to expand to caterings and potentially delivery, she needed the brick and mortar storage and prep areas. Plus, her customers were echoing Lakita’s customers and were in need of a permanent location for enjoying her freshly fried shrimp and fish, rich dark gumbo, and her famous fried deviled eggs.  

Lashanda told me her and Lakita’s business and friendship backstory and how they ended up working together at Regency. “We both were always looking for permanent spaces. We met in the food truck community. While we were looking separately at spots we gravitated to each other’s personalities, business operations, etcetera. We wanted to be the best at what we were doing. That formed our friendship. Lakita was already doing delivery before she was doing the food truck. She needed a space for people to come pick up. I was looking for a place to expand on catering and have storage. Delivery hasn’t been an option for me, but she’s been on me for about a year to add it. During the time we were looking for locations, we were never looking for the foot traffic as a factor. Just because people are walking around doesn’t mean that it’s our customer base or that they’re going to purchase our food. I’ve been all over Jacksonville but Lakita was always my 411. I had more time to drive around while she was out doing deliveries. So I was always texting her about the places. One day I called her and said “What about Regency?” and she gasped and said “YES!”. Regency is central, her drivers can get here.I still have the original videos from when we came out. First off, we wanted to make the right decision financially, and secondly, we wanted a place that would support and grow into something that we weren’t necessarily planning for. We wanted opportunity.”

For Lakita, Regency fit even more snugly because she opened and managed a Wilson’s Leather in the mall for years. It was clearly a fond memory for her and we delved into talking about how she and I both used to love shopping inside Regency because the stores had huge retail spaces and carried more variety than their counterparts at the Avenues, and then at the St John’s Town Center. Plus, the nostalgia of shopping at an indoor shopping mall is a memory that many people hold. Air conditioning in Florida in July is not to be discounted when shopping either. She explained, “The developer of Regency Mall, Matt Demir, is looking to recreate Regency as a place where people come to have new experiences. Some artists may move in here, there is a gym that is looking at space. It will be a place where you come to do things and not just shop.He started with us. We were the first people to take a chance and I think with him talking to us about our vision and what we hoped for in the mall, and what we planned for when everything came to fruition he thought it made a lot of sense. For me, Regency is just so comfortable and familiar. I know what it used to be. I also know that it was the first real mall for Jax and many more people hold that sentimentality. I have customers that will call from Oakleaf and they will ask where we are and they know where Regency is. It has such history. Plus, there are still a ton of people that live around here. We know that from attending food truck rallies here. We realized when Aaron (Lakita’s husband and chef partner) and I did the rally over behind Regency how great this area is. It was quite a day for us. There is something about Arlington, people were coming out like crazy. We were talking about how people just wanted good food. People never left this area, even though it really is a food desert. It’s packed with townhomes, condos, and houses. The traffic count for this area is insane, without being like Town Center.”

Mr. Potato Spread- Crab Pot Potato

The process of opening at Regency turned out to be months of lease negotiations through the New York based management firm. They negotiated through alternative operating hours and noncompetes, and finally excitedly announced the opening of Mr Potato Spread first. The reception was markedly positive, with customers all throughout the city excited that they now had a spot to always pick up their favorite Crab Pot and Philly Cheesesteak potatoes. The same question rang through all the media inquiries though, which was “Why Regency?” This wasn’t a question directed as to understanding the preference, but more so shock that anyone would be excited about an area that few people traverse anymore. Lakita and Lashanda saw it as an opportunity to build and mold a centrally located space into a new and thriving business. Lakita explained, “ We knew people would think we were crazy. We knew we would be criticized. But because we know our customers and who they are, and that most logical people will travel for food, we know it would be a great pickup location for our clientele. The food truck customers have not gone anywhere. The food truck business hasn’t been impacted at all, actually. We have picked up new customers because people live in this neighborhood and have heard of our company but aren’t into food trucks. The most important thing though is about the future and what we hope to accomplish. We knew we wanted the focus to be about food truck owners going into Regency. That was the narrative and we wanted to control the narrative. We’ve had experience with dealing with competitiveness of us having food trucks coming from restaurateurs. But what we’ve learned as food trucks is that we can park our food trucks together and there is no competition, they hop from one truck to the next and sample it all. We wanted to tell that story and collaborate and do business together and from there we can create something.”

Lakita and Lashanda knew that as established, strong brands that they didn’t need to pay the high rents of Town Center or their newly established subsidiary retail centers. Not only that, but they knew it was their path to create something new and exciting for their own fulfillment. In preparation for their opening, they began parking their food trucks for weekend service in the Regency Mall parking lot in January. Arlington residents rejoiced, and they began picking up new clientele that were ready for the food hall locations to open. The Battle of the Allstars Takeover in February primed their new locations even further as their two trucks sustained massive lines through the whole event, setting a record for Team Love Seafood. Lashanda said, “We wanted to get customers familiar with us. The turnout has grown exponentially each weekend. Now, people go out to the parking lot for Team Love then they come inside to Mr Potato Spread. One of our regulars, Mr. Walter, comes to my truck, then goes to Lakita. He takes it home to him and his wife. He came to the rally and stood in line. When we finally got Daisha to come on board, he said he didn’t know about funnel cakes. Now he loves funnel cakes and he gets his ice cream separated on the side to take home to his wife. He can’t wait until we open here, we are his destination every Saturday. People that walk through tell us all the time, the community never left. The community is here. They say we are going to bring Regency back, which I don’t know about that, but we appreciate their love.” Lakita added, “They thank us all the time. It’s important. We have a customer who is a regular customer, she goes downtown to the food truck court. She’s come in twice since last week. She is a SERIOUS food truck fan. She told us, ‘Thank you for coming here, this is where I live.’ That meant so much to us. For me, it’s of utmost importance to preserve the history of what the mall used to be. It was a vibrant exciting place to be. I don’t have to be blinded by shiny lights. Make it simple, make it nice and I’m there!”

Mr Potato Spread – Regency Mall Food Hall
Photo Courtesy of Mr Potato Spread

After the “Why Regency Mall?” questions came, it was time to break the stereotype of Regency being dangerous. Lakita and Lashanda know now that it’s laughable to consider it a dangerous area after their months of working in the mall daily. Lakita said there hasn’t been a need for her to address the concerns directly because it’s simply not true. “People are trying to make it seem like a high crime area. You just don’t know where it’s going to happen sometimes. A friend of mine had their store in San Marco get robbed. But we have security right here, we have the substation at the front for JSO. The substation is here because one has to be in the area, not because of any crime in Regency.” Lashanda added, “Even though there isn’t a lot going on in the mall right now, the security is like Fort Knox. We can’t do anything without monitoring, down to the garbage. If we don’t tie it up and put it in the dumpster they will call us. They’re making sure the areas are clean and there is a standard for the experience of the entire mall. It’s immaculately clean here. The bathrooms are amazing. Everyone who works here takes pride in their jobs. Margaret is over the maintenance of the mall and she works hard to keep the mall open. They’ve all thanked us for coming in here and we couldn’t be happier to be here with them.” Lakita laughed and told me they won’t even let their food deliveries park in front of the mall entrance. “We want to make people want to come. There are 500 seats out here with plenty of places to eat and enjoy. It’s cool and clean, you don’t have to chase the truck all the time. Some people love that, some people don’t want to do it. We want to have both audiences, so here we are,” explained Lashanda.

One of the reasons I wanted to interview Lakita and Lashanda was because as a female in the food industry, they’ve both been role models for me with the exceptional way they’ve flourished as women in a male dominated industry. They met through food truck meetings, and Lashanda and Daisha met through Food Truck City, the largest food truck commissary in the area. They fed off each other’s energy and quickly became friends and close business colleagues. Lakita said that she quickly learned that people are only respectful as long as they don’t perceive that you’re doing better than them. “Perception is reality for many people in this industry. People only help if they feel as if they’re better than you. I knew that from corporate America, but people will underestimate you in a new way here. I’ve been accused of buying social media likes and followers. The latest thing I’ve heard is we had an investor do this (Regency) for us. This is our blood, sweat, and tears. Even in the build out, they constantly underestimate you. They think you’re dumb, they think you don’t know what you’re doing. They undervalue and have low expectations for us as women.” Lakita and Lashanda agreed that the security for their families was of utmost importance in their decision to strike out on their own. “For me,” explained Lashanda, “I decided to put the business in my husband’s and son’s name. I’m passionate about cooking, I love to bring people together, I love the fellowship. You get to talk to people and eat good food, things of that nature. But I wanted to make sure that if anything happens to me, my family could carry on. Corporate could make a decision today that your job is no longer of value. I wanted to have something for my family that was there and consistent, what we put in is what we get out. My husband didn’t know he was going to love what we do, but he does now. It happened over time, but it started because he was supporting my idea. When he hears the customers and their feedback, then we go home and have that five minute conversation before we go to bed because we get back up at 3am, it shows us that we did the right planning for the family to grow and carry on regardless. We made decent money in corporate, but if something happens to me then what?” It’s not just intelligence and logic behind their blossoming brands though, it’s their ability to challenge the established ‘process’ as being the only path. Lakita explained, “With me, I just don’t believe in doing business within the social standards. Certain businesses hop onto standard operating procedures. That’s not my thing, I’m intuitive on a spiritual level, and I understand someone has to be the first. Everything that glitters ain’t gold. Regency glittered for a long time and then all of a sudden, boom, it’s gone. I get that the standard operating norms make sense but you have to be willing to challenge that and make it work for you.”

Team Love Seafood – Fried Deviled Eggs

That immediate friendship and bond led them to designing their Regency spaces together, which turned out to be a lifesaver for both of them, and the idea behind bringing more of their colleagues together to open at Regency. Lakita told me,“We’re just all trying to help each other out. It goes back to the food truck roots. Real food truck roots. A food truck will post they need a cashier for a shift and a food truck owner will come and help on your truck. It’s just the positive evidence that you don’t have to be so catty and competitive trying to knock eachother out the box. We all are going to make money. When we originally looked at these spaces, you know we both have red as our branding colors. I took the red for Mr Potato Spread. But, I loved her space she wound up leasing but Lashonda said ‘ah I need this one I love it!’, so she took that space. I almost had a nervous breakdown. I was fine with everything at first, then we got the keys and I looked at my space and I thought ‘oh my God nothing is going to work. Aaron is going to die. How am I going to make this work!’ Lashonda knew that something wasn’t right and that I wasn’t myself. We sat here and planned out the counter. I had to pull out everything and have it custom built. I have more room in the front of my space and she has more room in the back of her space and I had so much envy over hers. I was trying to figure out what I had been thinking for the past two and a half months, but she helped me figure it out.” Lashanda laughed and added, “Once she understood the front line and how she could facilitate it a calm just came over her and she took off. She did all her wood and red trim…it just looks amazing. I know her. Normally she’s on point and so relaxed. She can talk to people at the drop of a dime. I knew she was off that day. It made me feel better that I could calm her and figure out a solution before we left that day so she could go home and tell Aaron. He knew we were looking at Regency but didn’t see the vision yet. I thought he was never going to let us live this down.” Lakita added, “It was my vision for what I always wanted. The wood accents, the barn look, the rustic feel. It turned out perfect.”

The new residents of the Regency Food Hall also decided on an interesting hiring technique to set themselves apart from typical employers – co-hiring. One team member can work full time hours between the businesses, or if they want more than full time that opportunity is there as well without having to hide second jobs or work around complex work schedules. The owners are working together and using their business acumen to make this work as well. Lakita knew from the moment one applicant walked in that her artsy, whimsical personality matched with Daisha at Funnel Cake Queen best. Lakita also interviewed someone who she immediately knew was perfect for Team Love Seafood. Any applicants that seem to be able to be cross utilized are discussed between all the owners and the strengths and needs of their businesses come first. If Mr Potato Spread has a stellar front of house and is looking for back of house employees, that is their co-hiring goal and vice versa. It has created a perfect environment where team members can literally walk out of one door, change shirts, and walk into another door and work as many hours as they like. This is providing valuable employment opportunities for the area, and quickly allowing the businesses to grow and operate full time schedules on the truck and in the food hall.

Team Love Seafood – Regency Mall Food Hall
Photo Courtesy of Team Love Seafood

With that, I leave you on the conclusion of Part 1 of the Regency Food Hall introduction! I’ll have a part two soon including more of Lakita and Lashanda’s journey, and interviews with Daisha and Kenya of Funnel Cake Queen and Island Dream as they enter into the construction phases of their brick and mortars. Now that I’m sure you’re ready to go visit and enjoy some loaded potatoes and fresh seafood, check out the schedules of Mr Potato Spread HERE and Team Love Seafood HERE. Mr Potato Spread is currently fully operational with caterings, the truck, delivery, and dine in at the Food Hall. Team Love Seafood just opened their food hall outpost on Saturday, June 9th and will have amended food truck and restaurant hours through July as they train and expand their brand.

Regency Square Mall Food Hall
9501 Arlington Expy
Jacksonville, FL 32225

Team Love Seafood – Wings and Fried Okra
Team Love Seafood – Take Home Seafood Mac n Cheese
Mr Potato Spread – Chicken Bacon Ranch Loaded Fries
Photo Courtesy of Mr Potato Spread

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