Food halls: A fad still figuring it out

Nancy and Lisa debate the up and downsides of these multi-outlet concepts that are a leading cause of Choice Paralysis.
Topanga Social is in a Westfield Mall near Los Angeles. |Photo by Lisa Jennings

Nancy: As you know, Lisa, I am a woman of pretty strong opinions, so it’s disconcerting that I find myself feeling so wishy washy on the subject of food halls.

I’m talking here about the marketplaces that include multiple food stalls or vendors whose sole reason for being is to sell food and beverage, as opposed to their predecessor food courts, which are an adjunct to the primary purpose of the shopping mall.

I’ve been following the growth of the segment, which has gotten a strong, post-pandemic second wind. The Food Institute reported that there were 321 food halls operating around the country last year, with another 145 in development and an expectation of double-digit growth into the foreseeable future.

And these are definitely not your father’s food courts.

Most, for example, are situated in urban settings and often repurpose vintage buildings that might otherwise be relegated to the trash heap; and they can offer a foot in the door to independent operators, many of whom are minorities and/or immigrants and/or women. Or all of the above.

Of course, booze is pretty much de rigueur in these operations. Many feature a wall of serve-yourself taps, as at the Market at Malcolm Yards in Minneapolis, where diners can select from a variety of wine and unusual beer options like Blueberry Pickle Beer imported all the way from Wisconsin. 

On-site artisanal breweries loom large in others, as with Hop City in the Krog Market in Atlanta, which boasts local brews, ciders, meads and natural, sustainably made wines that are “affordable and fun.”

AlcoHall went a step further when it debuted last spring in a gentrifying neighborhood built around railyards in Atlanta. As the name implies, it’s a food hall for drinks, or a drink hall if you like, with an opening roster that included a South African winery and a West Texas distillery specializing in sotol, a first cousin to tequila and mezcal.

There’s frequently an entertainment component as well. The calendar of events at Element Eatery in Cincinnati is jampacked with live bands, speed dating, trivia and Singo, which apparently fuses music with bingo. 

So, what’s not to like? Well, since you ask, I hate to wait on line for my food, then run around looking for at table at which to consume it.

And I can’t shake a sneaky sense of déjà vu, recalling other hot tickets of the past, like, say, the meal kit phenomenon that wasn’t, or the more recent ghost-kitchen course correction.

So, I’m curious about your take on this. Singo notwithstanding, are you in or out?

Lisa: Count me in on Singo. Hopefully your card includes “drunk woman who thinks she sounds just like Adele but doesn’t at all,” because I’ll give you that win.

And count me in on food halls, at least as a consumer.

Sure, it’s a fad. And in the early days there was somewhat of a logistical challenge. You’d go out to eat with a group and then stand in separate lines, receiving food at different times, and often struggling to find a place to sit together. Someone in your party might need to be dispatched to the bar for drinks.

But food halls are evolving to smooth out some of these pain points. And I just love the unique concepts that are popping up in these venues.

Here in the Los Angeles area, for example, there’s a huge destination food hall called Topanga Social at a Westfield Mall with a collection of some 27 (mostly) local concepts.

There’s an outlet of Mini Kabob, a tiny mom-and-pop (literally) from Glendale, Calif., operated by the Martirosyan family that has arguably the best Armenian kabobs in Southern California.

There’s Katsu Sando from chef Daniel Son who trained in Japan; Amboy burgers from Alvin Cailan, who also created the fast-casual Eggslut; and fine dining chef Curtis Stone is bringing a pie and pastry shop there called The Pie Room soon. And so much more: dumplings, donuts, a Japanese whisky bar and a margarita garden.

You can order via kiosk and pick up from the respective outlets. And they do delivery, which gives the operators another revenue channel.

Some food halls have digital tabs, with tech companies like GoTab, that can follow you (actually follow your smartphone) through a venue.

In fact, my biggest beef with food halls is having a Choice Paralysis, where you get so overwhelmed by the options, you just can’t make up your mind.

But Nancy, I fear food hall operators are still working out the operating model that is profitable for all involved, and it is not uncommon to hear of food halls shutting down permanently.

In some markets, like New York City where food halls have proliferated, there are reports of food hall fatigue. And there’s nothing sadder than a food hall with outlets that have gone dark or advertising something “coming soon” that never comes.

So Nancy, are there any ways you’d like to see food halls evolve that would change your mind about the trend’s eventual decline?

Nancy: Hmm, well, on the one hand, I’ve already disclosed how much I hate walking around balancing plates and glasses while simultaneously looking for a place to park myself; but on the other, I really, really love the sound of the food on offer under one roof at Topanga Social, like kabobs and burgers and dumplings and margaritas.

So, I’d like to see food halls evolve into a concept that executes all of these and more very well in a full-service format. Oh, but wait, there is such a concept: It’s called The Cheesecake Factory.

But seriously and more practically, Lisa, I expect food halls will follow in the footsteps of food courts. Back in the day, the latter were a hotbed of indie activity and innovation that provided menu inspiration and potential acquisition targets to chain operators.

A great example is the baked potato craze that swept the country in the 1970s. A New York Times article from 1979 titled “One Potato, Fast Potato” examined the trend and named a slew of now-defunct brands like One Potato Two and Tater Junction, many of which were food-court based.

(As an aside, the story also noted dishes like the Jackie O Special on offer at an operation called Hot Potato, which consisted of a potato topped with caviar and served with a glass of Champagne, all for the low, low price of $3.19!  And yes, I believe that statement warrants my exclamation point.)

The spud’s rising popularity piqued the interest of Wendy’s execs, who added the item, unfortunately sans Champagne and caviar, to their menu in 1983; and the rest is history. The chain still sells a reported million baked potatoes a week.

Over time, of course, the food courts themselves have been taken over by chains like Wendy’s. To your point on profitability, better-capitalized brands are better able to withstand rising retail rents and the ups and downs of retail foot traffic.

Stay tuned for a similar turn of events in at least some food halls.

Also stay tuned for emerging variations on the food-hall theme.

A story that appeared just days ago in Restaurant Business heralded the arrival of a “fast-fine” food hall to a Walmart store in Quakertown, Pa. Dubbed Wonder, which is also the name of the operating company that runs the place, there are eight brands including Yasas by Michael Symon, which offers Greek bowls and sandwiches, and Limesalt, which dishes up Mexican food. All work out of a single kitchen behind the counter.

Save for the central kitchen, it sounds sorta like a food court on premise at a Walmart to me.

The bottom line from my perspective is that the jury is out on the long-term outlook for food halls, and if history is a guide, many will be in for a bumpy ride.

Care to rebut over a Katsu Sando and glass of Japanese whisky?

Lisa: You’ve stated your fear that food halls could go the way of ghost kitchens and meal kits, and so we come full circle.

Wonder is one of the variations on ghost kitchens we see rising from the ashes of dead or arguably dying models like Kitchen United, Reef and, to some extent, CloudKitchens.

As my colleague Joe Guszkowski reported this week, Wonder's partnership with Walmart follows earlier attempts by both Kitchen United and ClusterTruck to do something similar at Kroger stores. That was short lived.

That doesn’t mean it won’t work for Wonder. This is what I love about the restaurant industry. It may take a while, but if it’s a good idea, people will figure out how to make it work.

Meanwhile, the food halls just keep coming.

In Houston, a second location of Conservatory Food Hall opened downtown with 11 vendors, such as Soulside Wings, with Korean fried chicken wings; Luv’em Leches offering tres leches cakes; and Cvche Kitchen dishing up Peruvian fare.

This week in Pittsburgh, Pa. comes Novo Asian Food Hall, a project by restaurateur Alex Tang (Mola) in the Strip District. Novo will feature seven vendors offering dishes from across Asia, like Sumi’s Cakery, offering Korean pastries and baked goods; Tan Lac Vien, a Vietnamese bistro; Lolo’s Kusina, offering Filipino street food; and Kung Fu Chicken with fried chicken sandwiches. The central bar specializes in Japanese whiskeys and sake.

In Washington, D.C., where food halls are proliferating, a few new ones are coming in March. Upside on Moore is coming to Rosslyn with six vendors, including Ghostburger, Stellina Pizzeria and Laoban Dumplings.

Across the Potomac in Silver Spring, Md., Commas is expected to open in late March with outlets that include DMV Empanadas; Trinidadian street food from Trini Vybez, Philly cheesesteaks from Tokoa; the taqueria J&J Mex and more.

And I could go on.

So, dear Nancy, you may be feeling wishy washy about food halls, but it would seem operators, developers and apparently consumers are loving the trend and are content to keep riding this wave of multiple meal options under one roof.

So pull up a stool and pass the potato balls. Or would you prefer dumplings, birria or gelato? It’s all here.

It’s my turn to make a run to the bar for another round.

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