It’s been referred to as the Latin version of Eataly. And Latinicity even has followed a similar path. Remember the huge success of Eataly Chicago—the Italian food hall from the Batali-Bastianich partnership—when it opened at the end of 2013? Latinicity, the brainchild of chef Richard Sandoval, is off to a similar start. Like Eataly Chicago, which had to shut down after being mobbed in its first week, the Latin food emporium residing in the same city temporarily closed after more than 10,000 visitors cleaned it out within just three days of the food hall’s November opening. And it’s since continued to draw in big crowds, averaging around 1,500 guests per day, says Karen LuKanic, senior vice president of business development at Richard Sandoval Restaurants.
Latinicity as an evolution of fast casual
The idea behind developing a food hall was twofold for Sandoval, who runs more than 40 restaurants and partnered with Philadelphia chef and restaurateur Jose Garces for this project. First, he wanted a way to present the many different flavors, dishes and cultures he’s seen across Latin America—without having to open 12 different restaurants. But further, he sees food halls like Latinicity as the next evolution of fast casual, says LuKanic. Fast casuals have expanded the audience for quality food in an everyday, economical setting, she says, as well as eliminated the need for tipping. “Food halls simply expand that premise to offer more variety under one roof,” she says.
The 20,000-square-foot space in the Block 37 multiuse building is slinging food and drinks from 12 stalls as well as a full-service tapas restaurant and a full bar. Diners can expect to find tortas, tacos, ceviche, grilled meats, seafood dishes, salads, cocktails and even burgers. There’s also a retail store.
Traffic beyond lunch
Latinicity is seeing three primary uses for its space: weekday lunch, Sunday brunch and private events. While it expected the strong lunch traffic due to its proximity to many businesses (including plenty of city and state offices), hosting private and semi-private events both at breakfast and dinner has been a pleasant surprise, says LuKanic. It’s also close to Chicago’s theater district, which has helped fuel brunch. Plus, the building itself, Block 37, has helped in turning Latinicity into a destination as well. It includes a high-end movie theatre, retail shops, transit on the lower level and forthcoming luxury residences.
Food hall challenges for a traditional restaurateur
Going from traditional restaurants to a food hall hasn’t all been easy rolling, says LuKanic. Operationally, Latinicity had to overcome the difference in touchpoints from full-service restaurants. Without servers, it’s harder for food halls to monitor the guests’ needs and experiences, she says. So managers have been tasked with touching as many tables as possible, and cashiers and bussers are made aware of the importance of their interactions with guests.
The other challenge: the POS system. In a traditional restaurant, a server initiates the order, which gets delivered to the appropriate station in the kitchen. Latinicity takes some influence from an early iteration of a food hall in Chicago (Foodlife from Lettuce Entertain You), where guests order from the individual stalls and pay via charge card, which is rung up by a cashier before guests leave. “The individual kitchen (food stall) initiates the order, which is fulfilled right there and then centralized when it is rung up by a cashier,” says LuKanic. In order to handle takeout, catering and delivery orders, Latinicity has had to work around a decentralized POS to build the orders, she says.
Clearly, others seem to think it’s a food hall with legs: “Within a few months, we have had many, many offers to open more food halls than we could possibly handle,” says LuKanic. Without revealing specific details, she says there definitely are more Latinicity locations to come. “Because, like fast casual, once the formula is created and optimized, it is easily duplicated.”
Some of the more senior members of the team smile at the junior staff who are excited to uncover an interesting trend in “eatertainment” or the latest single-ingredient concept. We try not to be condescending when we suggest they do some research by looking at past issues of Restaurant Business or old Technomic top chain reports before calling it the next big thing.