Albert Nichols didn’t know what he wanted upon graduating from Tufts in 2013, but he felt the world was his for the taking. Charismatic and fiercely invested in the lives of others, Nichols, now founder and CEO of subscription-based eatery Hall, had a personal edge over some other computer science majors with whom he graduated, not that he needed one. His internship and part-time work doing research at IBM had turned into a full-time gig as a project manager in its Boston headquarters. It seemed his immediate future was set. With a comfortable job at a world-renowned tech company in the same city as many of his friends, what more could he want?
According to Nichols, everything else that made life worth living.
“Graduating college, I climbed up to this plateau where the whole world was in front of me, but the things that were most important to me weren’t happening in my life,” he explained. “It was harder than ever for me to get a healthy meal, catching up with my friends was ten times harder than it was in college and trying to meet somebody new? Good luck.”
Under his sunny disposition, Nichols had developed a bleak outlook on his future as a young professional.
“You wake up one day and realize that somebody in some hiring office somewhere basically co-opted your life,” he said. “They control 70 percent of what you do day-to-day. And besides that, you’re like, cool, I gotta drive home and go to the gym so I don’t gain a ton of weight because I’ve been sitting down all day, and then maybe catch up with my friends, find some food, go to bed and do it again.”
A self-described problem-solver, the Maine native began conducting informal research at the Sweetgreen and Star Market around his office at IBM, mostly to see if he was just spoiled or crazy for being dissatisfied with the nine-to-five lifestyle he’d been served. He quickly found that he wasn’t alone.
“So many people are drowning in the day-to-day crap that they have to do, and they’re not focusing on any of the stuff that’s important to them,” Nichols said.
Armed with this newfound information and his own nagging unhappiness, Nichols set out to make a change. The first Monday of November 2015, he left work early, biked to the Boylston Street Star Market and loaded a backpack and duffel full of groceries, with Kanye blasting through his headphones while he shopped. That evening, with nothing but a home-cooked meal and a few friends, Nichols transformed his apartment into the first iteration of Hall, a grown-up dining hall for people, particularly young professionals, to gather, eat, work, chat and feel at ease. He sought to recreate the social, cozy environment of the dining halls he frequented daily as a student at the Fay School, Deerfield Academy and eventually Tufts.
This test-run continued every Monday for a year and a half, and visitors skyrocketed from three on the first evening to 70 on the last. For someone with a standard apartment and no culinary background, Nichols knew this was about more than the space or the meal. By providing visitors with simple, healthy options and the environment to do whatever they needed to do after a long day, his project made their lives easier and happier. As he had hoped, it made him happier, too.
“It turns out working in cloud services at IBM wasn’t helping me live out my identity,” Nichols said. “So I decided to quit my job, and instead of running Hall out of my apartment, I built a location where I could do the same thing.”
On Sept. 5, 2017, Nichols’ 27th birthday, Hall opened its doors to the public for the first time. Located at a sophisticated, airy brownstone in Back Bay, the dining hall operates like a hybrid of We Work and Dig Inn, combining subscription-based access to work space with a rotating menu of farm-to-table meals. Hall is open to members seven days a week, with the longest hours Sunday through Thursday. Depending on which “Hall Pass” they choose, members can work and munch on healthy snacks during the day, stop in for dinner, or both. Package prices range from $39 per month for Monday night dinners, honoring the eatery’s roots, up to $69 per week for an all-access pass.
Evening diners are offered two meal choices, one vegetarian, gluten-free “light” option and one protein-centered “hearty” option, each designed to make you feel good and take away the stress of weeknight dinner. Light options include roasted sprout salad with tomatoes and mozzarella, a kale-mushroom tempeh bowl and sweet potato and black bean tacos. On the heavier side, Hall’s offerings include lamb kofta, shepherd’s pie and Korean beef japchae with stir-fried glass noodles and veggies.
“We’re a respite for people who are like, ‘It’s 9:00 on a Tuesday, I just want some dinner. I know I don’t have to worry about it, and I can just open my computer and read the New Yorker article I’ve been putting off reading because I’ve been too busy at work,’” Nichols explained.
Hall’s philosophy of simplicity and “freedom within a framework” is a result of Nichols’ personal approach to problem-solving. As an undergrad, Nichols founded Tufts Entrepreneurs Society, an organization aimed at bringing together students who may otherwise not interact to collaborate on projects. By uniting disparate individuals under one umbrella, he hoped to bridge the gap between different interest groups and generate the best ideas possible.
“Tufts is an incredibly fragmented school,” Nicholas said. “It’s not monolithic like a lot of other colleges. Which is certainly a good thing to an extent, but there needs to be something that pulls everyone together.”
Despite the seemingly small niche it set out to fill, Hall has quickly found success. In its first six months of operation, the company hasn’t engaged in any outbound marketing, relying instead on word-of-mouth advertising from its loyal members. According to Nichols, the average member is just that: loyal.
“People visit Hall, on average, four times a week, which is more than most of our members go to the office, the gym, or anywhere else besides back home to their apartment,” he said. “It’s not unlike Tufts students going to Dewick every day.”
Though he mentioned Hall is growing in membership by eight percent each week and has plans to expand into new locations in Central Square and Boston in the near future, Nichols can’t help but doubt himself and his venture. He recognizes his privilege, having attended prestigious boarding schools and a renowned university, and sometimes worries that he’s squandering his opportunities.
“That feeling can be healthy in a controlled way, but if you let it run out of control, it will eat you alive,” he stressed. “I’ve had moments where I feel like I’ve failed in everything that I’ve done.”
In response, Nichols is learning to celebrate milestones, focus on the immediate problems that face his business and take every day on its own. With the support of his growing eight-person team running Hall, he knows he won’t be facing anything alone anymore.