Where plastic chairs and grimy table tops once fed tired shoppers fast food in U.S. malls, smart restaurants now dish out local, organic and international meals.
Such makeovers are increasingly common in U.S malls and are turning the food court of yesteryear into a high-end dining environment, designed to align with the sophistication of the surrounding retailers. And unlike food courts, these artisanal food halls are no mere pit stop—they’re destinations in their own right, combining dining, food shopping and entertainment.
While some are home to a full bar or artisanal food vendors in large, artfully decorated spaces, others offer various food-related experiences, such as cooking demonstrations and tastings. And others still have the star power of being associated with well-known chefs.
Food halls in the major cities—for now
The food hall trend has already kicked into high gear in the country’s largest metro areas. A New Yorker, for example, can enjoy Chelsea Market or Gotham West Market, with their restaurants, take-out and artisanal food products. Meanwhile, Eataly opened to great fanfare in 2010 in New York City’s Madison Square Park. One of the first food halls to emerge as the imported brainchild of Italian entrepreneur Oscar Farinetti, Eataly offers elements of a Euro-style open market and a U.S.-style upscale grocery store, plus a wide array of dining options and events, all with a fittingly Italian emphasis.
Chicagoans can visit their own Eataly, or Latinicity at Block Thirty Seven, or the all-local French Market. A Los Angeles shopper might visit the much-loved Grand Central Market, which originally opened as a grocery market in 1917.
“Having a strong just-in-time cold chain is critical for maintaining the level of quality that consumers expect from many of these restaurant concepts,” observes Karen Raquet, Director, JLL Retail Property Services. “But for those retailers who can make it work, the food hall concept will be a way to keep themselves fresh and vibrant in the eyes of shoppers.”
The food hall diaspora
Primed by the success of the food hall pioneers, ambitious new food halls are in the works. Anthony Bourdain is planning a Manhattan venture, featuring more than 100 vendors in a 155,000-square-foot Pier 57 space. In Los Angeles, the first West Coast Eataly opened in 2017 as a part of Westfield Century City’s $800 million renovation. Taubman’s $500 million renovation of the Beverly Center will include “The Street,” curated by well-known chef Michael Mina, to open in 2018.
A new wave of food halls has already cropped up in cities like Seattle (Melrose Market), Denver (The Source) and Atlanta (Krog Street Market, Ponce City Market.) Portland’s Pine Street Market just opened in May 2016, while Uptown Urban Market in Dallas opened in June.
Some halls involve creative re-use of obsolete facilities. Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, Colorado is housed in a former 140,000-square-foot aviation manufacturing facility, while Baltimore’s R. House is in the shell of a former auto showroom this fall.
From the city to the suburbs
The food hall movement is now moving to traditional malls as well, as the food court loses favor. In Omaha, for instance, the locally based Flagship Restaurant Group has replaced the food court of Westroads Mall with a dynamic food hall offering a blend of fast-casual and full-service dining options and a full bar, along with an outdoor patio. The perimeter of the food hall is lined with a variety of concepts, including three popular Omaha eateries and five new ones.
The concept has its challenges, however. “The continued evolution of food halls is very popular with consumers, but place great demands on food retailers and their suppliers to keep fresh foods and specialty items on hand,” says Kris Bjorson, head of JLL’s Retail/E-commerce Distribution practice.
At its heart, the food hall concept provides a concentrated experience evocative of traveling abroad or visiting the neighborhoods of a diverse city—that is, a kind of entertainment. And that’s just what shopping centers and retailers are hoping will appeal to today’s fickle consumers.