When Food Trucks first burst onto the culinary scene, you’d have thought they were gonna bankrupt the restaurant industry. In the early 2010s, we were entering food truck saturation. Since then, a new contender has proudly entered the ring: the food hall. The food hall can be thought of as the food court’s trendier, updated cousin. If you’re in any vaguely metropolitan area of the United States, you’re sure to find a food hall. They’re poised to be the hottest new thing (since Food Trucks), but is the Food Hall built to last? Or, are they just another five-year trend that will eventually run its course? Today, we’re gonna poke around the world of food halls to see what’s what.
So, what exactly is a food hall, anyways? They’re modern. They’re typically upscale (ish), and they’re often found in urban areas. Food halls offer a variety of well-made, curated-by-someone types of cuisine, all under a single roof. There’s really no limits to what can be served in a food hall: poke bowls, barbecue, gelato, and mildly-boozy cocktails are all food hall mainstays. Typically, many of the stands/counters/restaurants found in a food hall are locally-owned businesses, giving small-name restauranteurs a chance to serve to the masses. All in all, the food hall is a genuinely appealing concept, with a world of benefits for everyone involved.
Just like food trucks offer a lower-overhead alternative to opening your own restaurant, food halls present similar benefits. Chefs don’t need to cope with the ever-rising rents in trendy, downtown areas, and can let someone else take care of the FOH operations almost entirely. It’s a relatively low-maintenance endeavor to open in a food hall.
“It’s like the difference between owning a home and owning a condo,” Barry Sorkin, of Smoque BBQ, which can be found in Chicago’s Revival food hall, told the Chicago Tribune. "In a condo, you don't have to worry about fixing the roof. At Revival, we show up and prep and serve, and most everything else is taken care of."
Smaller staff, smaller menu, smaller everything -- all with reliable traffic. Food halls are basically busy every day they’re open, with consistent traffic Monday through Friday. They’re super convenient for city-dwelling urbanites who want quality food in a casual setting. If you’ve got a food hall near your place of employment, you may have 10 or 12 lunch options every day. As well, a good food hall basically ticks all the ‘trendy’ boxes. Local, somewhat boutique, Instagram-friendly. They fill the consumer demand while offering a near-turnkey solution for local restauranteurs. We’re hardly the first to notice the appeal, though.
Food halls are on the definite upswing. According to Cushing & Wakefield, in 2015, there were about 50 food halls in America. By 2020, that number is expected to easily surpass 300. This type of exponential growth is being seen nationwide, as well. In Chicago, French Hall, Aster Hall, and Revival are all-but-packed five days of the week. In fact, Revival is said to serve 5,000 to 7,000 customers per day. Detroit’s former Federal Reserve Building is now a food hall. In the west, Phoenix is now home to Churchill: a 9,000 square foot food hall. Despite food halls being in their infancy, Technomics estimates them to be a $1.6 billion dollar industry (by comparison, the food truck industry is currently valued at $1.4 billion).
It’s important to note, though, that there’s (supposedly) a fair distance between a modern food hall and the hellish, Sbarro-infused mall food courts of days gone past. Just ask Garrick Brown, head of retail research for Cushman & Wakefield and author of a recent report on food halls. He told the Washington Post: “you can’t put lipstick on a food court, call it a food hall and make it work.” Food halls thrive on being tightly-curated. Chains are generally not accepted in food halls, as the focus is largely on chef-driven, local restaurants and brands. Food halls want a mix of the familiar (pizza, fried chicken, etc) and more daring, trendy ideas (poke bowls, craft cocktail bars, etc). A bar is a must, and decor needs to be on-trend and in-style. There is often a mix of prices, but most food hall counters can be conquered (or at least experienced) for around $10-$14.
Still, though, one can’t help but wonder...are food halls not just picking up where food courts left off? Are poke bowls not just the new Sbarro? Is charcoal-infused, black ice cream not just Dippin’ Dots 2.0? Despite its advocates saying otherwise, it’s hard to argue that the food hall doesn’t at least resemble a food court. Perhaps we’re being cynical.
After all, opening a food-hall version of your establishment is basically the simplest way to go about expansion. Mike Marsal, a founding partner of Alvarez & Marsal Property Investments, which is developing the Wells St. Market food hall, recently told the Chicago Tribune: “I don't know if food halls are as much of a fad as an evolution of the way people live right now.” That much is certainly true. The ‘foodie’ phenomenon seemed to break out almost twenty years ago now, and has shown no signs of stopping. The concept of a food destination is nothing new or trendy, after all. When you consider that consumers currently spend more on food and restaurants than any other retail category, the food hall feels less ‘trendy’ and more ‘timely’.
Now, with all of that said...only time will tell. But for now, food halls offer restauranteurs a near-turnkey way to expand their business. They offer customers the chance to try new foods. From where we’re standing...what’s not to love?
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