A Call for Food Halls
Street food, on many levels, is a directional insight into the average American’s culinary readiness. Small street level purveyors can be more courageous with ethnic profiles. If the experimental item doesn’t sell, they just change it out with an eraser and a piece of chalk. There is no corporate office to deal with or expensive menus to change. Their simple offerings are judged on their merit alone. There is no décor, server interaction or even a table to enhance or distract from the food. It is a fragment of the culinary world that lives or dies on its value, flavor and quality alone.
My fascination with sidewalk slingers began years ago with the food pods of Portland. I was amazed at the quality and variety of cuisine being offered on a city block. Shortly after, I realized that there is the same ability to learn from any kind of street food – food trucks, public markets, farmers markets and corner carts. The most recent category added to my street food watch list are “food halls” and they may hold the most insight to the future of casual dining.
A few years ago, I was looking for a street vendor that served dumplings inside of an old warehouse. When I entered, there were many little food establishments and a shared central dining area. It was hard to put a formal label on it. The concept felt new, but it also had many familiar traits to it, similar to a food court. A food hall is just the cooler sibling of the mall-dwelling food court, but like many siblings, they are very different animals. At the core, they both are collections of small restaurants. Food courts are built around fast food chains with the sole purpose of fueling your shopping experience. Food halls are built around independent businesses with a passion for cutting-edge food, often around a large, central common area. The purpose being to deliver an energetic gathering place with high-quality food.
WHAT IS A FOOD HALL?
Food halls show great potential to be the future of casual dining. The idea is simple. It is a large shared urban space, with generic store fronts and basic kitchen shells. This allow a start-up restaurateur the ability to walk in and open a new concept in a few days with very low start-up costs. Food halls offer a smaller footprint, with heavily reduced rent, limited staffing requirements and at a fraction of the cost of a more traditional brick and mortar. This formula gives new concepts a chance to thrive in the safety of a herd before they take the risk to open on their own. This really gets to the heart of why food halls are the future of casual dining. Food halls are the closest thing to a restaurant incubator that I have seen, making them a trend rich environment.
Often being built around a central bar that serves signature drinks, popular whiskeys and local beers has helped Gen Z and Millennials embrace food halls early in the adaptation phase. Food halls are not just a place to eat, but where younger generations can go to hang out. A cool public space where you can grab a drink, a bite to eat and socialize in a relaxed casual setting. They are often used as an entertaining spot. This replaces going to someone’s home, eliminating the worry of clean-up or who shoulders the cost associated with entertaining.
Food halls are a small step up from a food truck on the street food scene, yet they too also share similarities that make them a great place to do trend research. Small kitchens turn into limited menu spaces, with built-in competition that requires them to innovate. The potential customer has many other options without having to walk more than 20 feet, so food hall restaurateurs must stay on top of their game. Menus are on either chalk boards, pieces of large paper or large LCD screens as they can change so frequently.
What’s next for the food hall?
What’s next for the food hall? That remains to be seen, but I don’t think it is outside of the realm of possibilities that food halls may swallow up their less-cool siblings’ old dwellings and take over shuttered malls. Adding larger restaurant footprints and turning them into dinning destination venues with multiple common eating areas throughout.
Asenzya acknowledges COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on dine-in services. We encourage readers to educate themselves on the safety standards of any restaurant/establishment and choose to dine-in or take out at their own discretion.
WHERE THE RESEARCH WAS DONE:
Grand Central Market
- ADDRESS: 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, CA 90013
- WEBSITE: www.grandcentralmarket.com
- NOTES: Very upbeat, semi-open air market. Large, houses many establishments.
Turnstyle Underground Market
- ADDRESS: 1000 S 8th Avenue, New York, NY 10019
- WEBSITE: www.turn-style.com
- NOTES: Cool, underground market in the subway system. Very eclectic selection of cuisines ranging from sushi to pizza. Closes around 8 p.m.
Gotham West Market
- ADDRESS: 600 11th Avenue, New York, NY 10036
- WEBSITE: gothamwestmarket.com
- NOTES: Smaller, indoor market. Offers everything from ramen to Chinese street food.
Revival Food Hall
- ADDRESS: 125 S. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60603
- WEBSITE: revivalfoodhall.com
- NOTES: Large, industrial-chic food hall in downtown Chicago. You can find everything from hot chicken to hot cookies.
Politan Row Chicago
- ADDRESS: 111 N. Aberdeen St., Chicago, IL 60607
- WEBSITE: chicago.politanrow.com
- NOTES: Located in McDonald’s international headquarters.
Graze Provisions + Libations
- ADDRESS: 520 N. 4th St., Minneapolis, MN 55401
- WEBSITE: https://grazenorthloop.com/
- NOTES: This was still new when I went there, but it had really good bones. Offers fusion soul food to pit beef.