How food halls could be the new frontier for casual dining

The momentum is growing on both sides of the Atlantic, with the relatively low costs providing an opportunity for food innovators to test drive more exciting concepts.

9 February 2018
americanburgerchinesefast casualpizzarestaurant opening
image credit: Instagram @denver.af

There’s a food hall phenomenon going on. In the US, there is a rush to develop new halls around the country, while in the UK a struggling restaurant scene makes the model quite attractive.

But why? London Union co-founder Jonathan Downey told MCA that food halls were more in keeping with consumer tastes, the set-up costs were smaller and there was plenty of space in the UK market for new concepts.

And the potential in the UK is “massive”, with 16 proposed food halls expected to open London alone over the next five years, Cushman & Wakefield partner Thomas Rose revealed to MCA. It also allows niche concepts to be brought to life.

So how could food halls transform the eating out scene?

Creative control

Two styles mark out food halls in the US: ones that are run by a single owner and operator, and ones that are a collective space for multiple food operators that have been carefully vetted.

An example of the first style opened in Washington this year, called Lincoln South Food Hall. Led by Las Vegas restaurant developer Jeffrey Frederick, ‘distinct eating experiences’ were developed by him and his culinary team, including pizza, poke, bao, burgers, tacos and sandwiches.

image credit: The bao from Fat & Feathers at Lincoln South Food Hall

Frederick, who previously worked at Nobu and Mr Chow, wanted control over all the concepts to help him build a significant presence in the market. But banishing bland designs was also important. He said many foods halls are “very vanilla” and instead brought in three local artists, who used the cuisine as inspiration.

Rose said footfall and building aesthetic is crucial. “You go to a food hall for environment and experience, you want a buzzy communal atmosphere. If you just have a boring soulless box, you have to question if that will work,” he noted.

Collectives and new concepts

Over in New Orleans, a cuisine community is being created in a food hall called Pythian Market, which is set to open in late summer with 19 vendors. It’s got an interesting financial model for operators too – with a base rent and a percentage of revenues paid once a certain sales threshold is reached.

And the food so far? South American-style food truck La Cocinita, grilled cheese specialist Frencheeze Food Truck, juice bar Squeezed, Ancora Pizzeria and Salumeria, Jamaican restaurant 14 Parishes, a barbecue joint and a bakery.

image credit: BBQ pork, house made pimento cheese, green onion on a French roll Instagram @frencheezetruck

And in Denver, sharing is caring. The Zeppelin Station food hall will bundle all the shared costs together in a single monthly bill, after reports that vendors at other food halls were being slugged with surprise service fees for dishwashers and Wi-Fi access.

Eight international food stalls, a full-service restaurant, two bars and a retail space will make up Zeppelin. The food includes banh mi shop Vinh Xuong Bakery, Aloha Poke Co, Fior Gelato, Dandy Lion Coffee (which marries traditional coffee brew methods with an Asian twist), Indian street food snacks from Namkeen and Injoi Korean Kitchen.

Plus there’s Au Feu, a brand-new concept, created specifically for Zeppelin Station. The French name Au Feu translates to ‘the fire’ – a nod to the meats that will be cured and smoked on-site and sliced fresh to order. It will also serve traditional Quebecois cuisine, including Canadian poutine and Montreal-style wood-fired bagels.

Fine dining in fast casual

Shared resources also made business sense for Jared Leonard, founder and CEO of the Stone Soup Collective, which opened Chicago’s Revival Food Hall.

He said collective maintenance and other fees may translate to a higher rent per square foot than a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but it cuts out many of the unknowns, like when a restaurant has to find money to fix a leaky roof, broken air conditioner or faulty toilet.

The Budlong, his chicken-sandwich concept, based on Nashville’s spicy preparation of fried chicken, has been a particular success. And the food hall environment has contributed by allowing him to concentrate on producing high-quality food, he noted.

With no space for freezers, everything is fresh, ensuring Leonard follows the same approach as fine-dining restaurants, but in a fast casual setting. Food halls also offer a low-risk option that make the brand easy to expand, he said.

image credit: The fried chicken from The Budlong

London looms large

So what’s happening over the pond in London? There is already Feast Canteen created by the Incipio Group, London Union (which has announced three new London sites), The Kitchens at Spitalfields Market, Dinerama and Hawker House.

But Rose said the phenomenon was not confined to the capital, highlighting Altrincham Market and Mackie Mayor in Manchester, while Market Halls is expected to announce sites in Liverpool and York this year, after also flagging locations in Fulham, Oxford Street and Victoria.

At Market Hall, the offering would differ at each site, but will include established but small independent restaurant operators with no more than two or three sites, as well as well-known street-food operators.

With the boom, there will be increasing competition to get the best operators too, says Rose, which is a win for operators and innovation in cuisines.

“At most food halls there’s no fit-out cost, no cap-ex. That’s extremely attractive to operators. The rent can be quite high, but the barrier to entry is minimal. It will mean more innovation, more entrepreneurs, and is exciting for the sector I think,” he said.

There are big predictions for the future too. Rose said he expected European and US food hall operators to enter the UK market, while predicting a major Asian food hall to open in central London.

Bring on the boom.

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