Only 0.5% of Oxford Street is dedicated to food and beverage. Remarkably, finding something good to eat can be a real challenge for visitors to the famous London street. Enter Market Hall West End, the food hall attempting to put an end to the famine on Oxford Street.
The dining multiplex has just opened in the former BHS on Oxford Street and is the latest example of a trend that’s taking over London, while also popping up everywhere from Liverpool to Durham. Food halls are essentially sophisticated versions of the street food markets that grew out of the east end, such as Dinerama and the other Street Feast venues that have increased in the capital over the last decade.
Internationally, the hawker markets of Singapore and Time Out Market Lisbon are further good examples.
The Market Halls in Victoria and Fulham preceded the third opening on Oxford Street, which has seating for 900 and 11 restaurant-style food offerings with “proper kitchens” primed to cope with “serious numbers,” according to the brand’s co-founder and creative director, Simon Anderson. He believes this is the diverse food offering the central London shopping street has always needed – and his belief is based on hard figures.
The first two Market Halls have already cumulatively surpassed their two millionth customer. Contrary to the Street Feast idea to attract newcomer chefs and concepts through cheaper rent, Market Halls is a place for established names.
“Traders need a solid restaurant grounding to really survive,” argues Anderson. “We’re sharing a lot of space together so we need people that are good to work with. You need to make sure it’s the right personalities.”
The experiential angle
“We’ve tried to create theatre,” Anderson says of his recently opened project. “There’s Goodbirds doing roasts in the corner, there’s ducks hanging in the window, we’ve got a giant rotisserie and people chopping up chicken: people can see the real craft that goes on in the kitchens, this isn’t just food that’s been thrown together.”
It’s all come together at the right time for Market Halls: the downturn in the economy and the high street’s well-publicised struggles have opened up properties that wouldn’t have been available five or 10 years ago.
And there’s a reason Anderson and his team are opting for former institutions like BHS: “We’re a model to reinvigorate spaces that’re a bit dead and tired. Fulham is a disused train station, empty for six years; Victoria was the old Pacha nightclub. We think it’s interesting to use a building that has history, it resonates with the audience well, it’s exciting and bringing something back to life in a different way.”
The general attraction of food halls has been widely pored over by observers: it’s democratic; a group with varied dietary requirements can order different dishes; there’s no issue over divvying up the bill; it’s casual; you can eat several cuisines in one place.
“We try and make sure that we’ve got enough of a range,” Anderson says. “Safe choices like burger, kebab – customers tend to have that the first, then they’ll come back and have a roti, or a sando or katsu. We’ve found people get stuck if their offering is quite narrow, but they would work within a menu with a wider offering, so that’s how we approach the curation.”
And in terms of the actual food on the plates? “Vegan has come through really strong, as well as ‘new’ cuisines. Malay, Tamil, Filipino and Burmese – non-traditional Asian cooking broadly and Japanese healthier bowls and katsu sandos, they’re very on trend.”
Show me the money
Market Halls doesn’t require restaurants and food concepts in residence to pay a set rent; instead, they pay a 25% take of their turnover.
“We’ve got skin in the game too, it’s in our interest that they’re successful because we make more money,” explains Anderson. “We lower the barrier to entry as much as possible, we help with the kitchen set-up. It’s a way people can get started without massive outlay. Restaurants have autonomy, but they come to us and say, ‘What shall we do? What do you think about that pricing? How shall we word this?’ It’s more of a joint effort.”
This collaborative approach appears to be having a positive effect on customer return rates. Anderson claims some people visit two or three times a week.
“We’re pack animals, we lived in caves in big groups, people have an affinity to being with each other people,” he concludes. “People don’t leave, they’ll queue and stand around, they want to be part of the place.”