Where some restaurateurs open new restaurants at breakneck speed, Chad Gauss of Hoopla Hospitality has taken the slow burn approach.

After launching the uber-popular Food Market in Hampden in 2012, he waited four years before opening Mexican-inspired eatery La Food Marketa in the Pikesville area. After the closure of the short-lived TigerStyle in 2019, it was another two years before a branch of the Food Market opened in Columbia.

This spring, Gauss’ Hoopla Hospitality quietly added another eatery to his restaurant group: Vacation, an all-outdoor spot in the patio of The Food Market in Columbia, with a menu geared towards whimsical, summery cocktails and fun, casual bites.

The project was a means to make use of the outdoor space next to Food Market that is included in the restaurant’s lease. Gauss’ initial concept was as casual as can be: Just build a small bar and food shack on the site using shipping containers, similar to his seasonal Quality Snowballs stand across the street from the Food Market in Hampden.

But like many vacation plans that hit a snag, that blueprint didn’t pass muster with Howard County officials. “They don’t allow you to just throw a shipping container outside,” Gauss said. “There’s no loopholes.”

Two years later, Vacation has morphed into a high-tech concept that uses four shipping containers as well as an innovative custom pergola. Built by a company called StruXure, it features slats that can tilt to block rain or harsh sunlight. The shipping containers are heated and cooled by unique outdoor HVAC systems that will allow workers and customers alike to stay cool or warm throughout the year. Feel a chill? Grab a woven blanket near the hostess stand — a welcoming touch Gauss said he picked up from Spain Wine Bar in Ocean City.

The high-tech pergola at Vacation in Columbia allows it to stay open regardless of weather. (Christina Tkacik)

“It’s what this area needs,” said a diner named Mike, who declined to give his last name as he sipped on a mezcal margarita at the bar. The longtime Food Market fan said he lives in Columbia, where “it’s tough to find a good restaurant.”

In addition to attracting locals looking for a quick getaway during happy hour, the spot seems destined to become a major preconcert destination for diners headed to Merriweather Post Pavilion, a demographic Gauss embraces. Years ago, he spent three years working at City Cafe in Mount Vernon, which attracted many customers on their way to the theater. The experience taught him the art of bringing customers “awesome shit in 45 minutes and saying, ‘See you later.’”

At Vacation, that quick-service approach translates into simple, oftentimes deep-fried dishes. “Our big thing is down-to-earth,” Gauss said. Under the “baskets of joy” section on the menu, guests can choose from options like fried shrimp and chicken tenders. Most options, including the fried crab cake, come not only with fries but also garlic bread. Gauss’ philosophy: “Who doesn’t like the guilty pleasure of carbs on carbs?”

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The cocktail menu has designated drivers covered, too, with a series of well-executed mocktails, including a virgin bloody mary. But don’t expect a discount just because there’s no alcohol. Several of the nonalcoholic drinks cost the same as the alcoholic versions, a fact Gauss said reflects the high cost of ingredients. “Squeezing an orange costs as much as vodka does nowadays.”

Gauss, who met his wife in Howard County, says he has had a great experience working in the area. “The diners are the best,” he said. “They love food … they like to dine, they like to be taken care of, and we love to do that. They accept our hospitality.”