Teresa Acosta at one of Dunwoody’s annual events, Green Eggs and Kegs. Photo: Teresa Acosta

A Dunwoody chef who won a 2021 contest to receive a complimentary vendor space at now-shuttered The Hall at Ashford Lane said she nixed the deal because of the overwhelming financial burden she would have had to assume in taking the space.

Teresa Acosta, who now has a thriving catering business in Dunwoody called Renzo’s Fire, said initially she was excited about winning the contest, which was pitched as a “nation-wide search” by The Hall’s owner, Jamal Wilson.

An announcement on The Hall at Ashford Lane’s Facebook page said, “Over 3,000 of you voted for Chef Acosta. Her signature dish, a classic Cuban Sandwich with Yuca Fries, is an expression of Acosta’s culinary style that highlights Latin America and Spanish cuisine.”

The Hall at Ashford Lane, which was originally presented as a food hall concept with different operators but opened with nine stalls operated by Wilson and his investors, closed abruptly on July 5 after only a month in business.

Acosta said in hindsight, she dodged a bullet, personally and professionally.

“At first, I thought this would be a life-changing moment for me and my family,” said the single mother of three, who had been working full-time as a private chef after being laid off from her job in 2020, a casualty of the pandemic.

However, after looking at Wilson’s contract and consulting with industry friends, she realized that the “deal” wasn’t really one at all.

“The deal looked shiny and good on the surface, but underneath was so disappointing,” she said. “In addition, they wanted me to include a dessert and a Sunday brunch menu.”

Acosta, who gets most of her business from Instagram and Facebook (@Renzosfire), said while she was willing to put in the sweat equity, the terms of the deal were onerous.

“I would have had to build out the space myself and put up $40,000 of my own money to begin with,” Acosta said. “Then after six months, I would have to pay $16,000 a month in rent. The stakes were just too high, and everyone told me, ‘Teresa, this is not a good deal.’”

“In running the numbers, I would have had to gross $2 million in revenue just to make it to break-even,” she said. “I just don’t think there’s a market for a $15 Cuban sandwich in Dunwoody.”

The cost of menu items was among the chief complaints of those who dined at The Hall during the short time it was open.

While some customers posted reviews that raved about the refined ambiance and the quality of the drinks, most diners complained that the food was overpriced and unremarkable.

“Nothing about it tasted like it was made with love,” wrote Jill W. on Yelp. “It was more like, made with disdain and served up with a side of scorn.”

Jill, and other reviewers, said portions were small, seemed to have been made with canned ingredients, and served without all the elements that the menu described.

“I haven’t been this disappointed in a meal in a while,” she said. “The food experience was so bad that we left still hungry.”

The Hall at Ashford Lane in Dunwoody closed after just a month in business. (File)

Interviews by Rough Draft with ex-employees shed light on some of the factors that led to the Hall’s failure. They said the operation was flawed before it even opened, starting with the way the workers were hired.

Jahmaris Nesbitt and Aniaya Bohannon, who each split time working in three kitchens during their tenure at the Hall, said the hiring process was not much more than, “Who are you? Are you food-safety certified? When can you start?”

Nesbitt, who formerly worked at McDonald’s, said she arrived for her interview along with about 60 others in mid-May.

“There was just this big line and all they asked us was if we wanted to be a cook, a waiter or at the bar,” Nesbitt said. “Then we filled out all of our paperwork and started training.”

Once assigned to a food stall, Nesbitt and Bohannon said the managers showed them how to make each dish one time, asked them to take a picture of the finished product and handed them a recipe.

“That was it,” Bohannon said. “There was nothing else. We were on our own.”

Both cooks said they often found out that items that were essential to the dishes were out of stock after orders arrived at their stalls, lending even more chaos to the already-stressful food preparation process.

“It threw all the kitchens off,” Bohannon said. “We’d have to take stuff off the menus on the spot.”

The ex-employees interviewed by Rough Draft said they still haven’t been paid by Wilson and are owed thousands of dollars in back wages. Many of the workers at The Hall were undocumented and paid under the table.

Wilson told Rough Draft on July 9 that employees were “being paid as we speak.”

Nesbitt shared a screenshot of a text allegedly sent by Wilson on July 18, saying “we haven’t abandoned you all.”

“We are raising funds with the investors and closing the books on this company in order to pay everyone,” the text said. “I will have an update by the end of this week with a timeline and final resolutions.”

One person replied to the text, “after we’re homeless,” which Nesbitt and Bohannan said is true for several of their former co-workers.

“We know of five people who are currently homeless, and one person is living in the laundry room of their apartment complex,” Nesbitt said. “Our only hope to get paid is through our Go Fund Me page, which we will split with everyone, whether they are documented or not.”

The page has only gathered about $400 in donations as of July 19.

Wilson opened and shuttered similar food halls in other southeast cities, according to an investigation by Rough Draft, and had planned to open another one in Snellville. His explorethehall.com website still lists that location as “coming soon.” However, a Snellville spokesperson said the city has no ties to Wilson.

Cathy Cobbs covers Dunwoody for Reporter Newspapers and Rough Draft Atlanta. She can be reached at cathy@roughdraftatlanta.com