Employees at Eataly World line up as press gathers for previews in early November. / Associated Press Employees at Eataly World line up as press gathers for previews in early November. / Associated Press

Eataly World’s Opening Signals the Next Phase of Food Hall Expansion

The opening of Eataly’s new agri-food park (read: theme park) FICO Eataly World today in Bologna, Italy, is the epitome of two prevalent trends in the culinary world — food halls on the retail side and the farm-to-table movement on the supply side. 

With 47 restaurants and bars, 40 live production areas, 22 gardens, a herd of actual farm animals, and a variety of hands-on classes, Eataly World appears to be the pinnacle of the food hall epoch when really it is just the beginning.

The first Eataly opened one decade ago in Turin, Italy, which the New York Times at the time described as a “megastore” that “combines elements of a bustling European open market, a Whole-Foods-style supermarket, a high-end food court and a New Age learning center.”

Founder Oscar Farinetti had his vision set on international expansion from the beginning and soon after opened the first international location in Japan. He then partnered with celebrity chef Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s hospitality to group to open the first U.S. location in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan.

Today Eataly Flatiron welcomes millions of visitors each year, of which about 50 percent are locals and 50 percent are tourists.

That location is one of 39 stores worldwide, with the latest opening in Los Angeles earlier this month, and another two set to open in Las Vegas and Toronto by 2020.

Eataly, however, is just one iteration of the venerable food hall model whose popularity shows no signs of slowing down.

The number of food halls in the U.S. grew by 37 percent in 2016, with more than 100 of them in the U.S. and countless more across the world, and is set to double by 2019, according to commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.

How Food Halls Appease Consumers’ Behavior & Investors’ Banks

A French iteration of the multidimensional playground, Le District, opened in 2015 as part of downtown Manhattan’s rejuvenation project and retail behemoth Brookfield Place.

Lionel Ohayon is founder of the innovation and design studio iCrave, which was tasked with designing the physical experience at Le District. His team is currently working on a number of food halls only in the ideation phase. He believes consumers’ digital habits, of all things, play a role in our affinity for these multifaceted food experiences.

“Today people experience space the way they scroll through their social media feed. In understanding that, one can decipher how the multiplicity of spaces and options for food types place an ever growing role in how we eat,” Ohayon tells Skift Table.

Le District’s prime location among luxury retailers reveals another driving factor in the proliferation of food halls.

“There is a giant rush to solve for the collapse of retail that is happening around us. I believe retail is not collapsing per se, it is going through a fundamental change that it needed,” says Ohayon.

“In the interim, many believe that creating Food Halls is a solution for retail.”

Related: Hear more from iCrave founder Lionel Ohayon on The Skift Podcast.

After Italian and French cuisine, it’s only logical that Spanish cuisine would be the next to step into the spotlight. Leading that charge is the superstar team of José Andrés and the Adrià brothers. Their still unnamed project is set to open in 2018 in Hudson Yards with restaurants, small tapas bars, pastry shops, and a market.

“Innovation requires lots of money, because it requires time, good professionals, ingredients, equipment… We spent a lot in Barcelona to create the restaurants we created, so now we have to go somewhere else to make money,” Albert Adría candidly told Eater last month.

His comment not so slyly references that food halls can be cash cows for all involved from the chefs spearheading them to the owners of the expensive real estate they occupy.

Consumers might be hesitant to splurge on handbag, but today’s cultural approval of treating ourselves to experiences — especially of the organic, hand-made, field-to-fork variety — is driving the purchase decisions behind expensive meals and even decadent lunches.

Lest you think that this trend is contained to European cuisine, Adría’s friend Anthony Bourdain opened up this summer about his long-delayed plans for his own food hall in New York. The project, unfortunately named Bourdain Market, will offer authentic Asian street food and is scheduled to open on Manhattan’s Pier 57 in 2019.

“The determining factor to me is that if a Singaporean grandmother and her hipster grandson come to this market, that both of them will immediately recognize this to not be bullshit. This will not be some Disneyland version of McHawker or HawkerWorld,” Bourdain said at the 2017 World Street Food Congress.

There are also plans for a Japanese food hall, called Japan Village, to open in Brooklyn’s Industry City with a mix of food stalls and stores, according to free New York daily Metro.

These chef-led projects occupying the most glamorous and accessible of locations are spawning smaller, more diverse food halls across the United States. Not all of them chronicle the comprehensive farm-to-table journey with restaurants and markets, bars and workshops. These smaller versions, such as downtown Brooklyn’s new DeKalb Market, often offer a broader variety of cuisine, mixing pierogies, paella, and pulled pork.

Remembering Their Roots

Today’s food halls have roots in traditional markets where communities went to not only buy produce, but also eat from the wide selection of vendors. An abundance of options has and will always be an attractive factor. Just think of the Adria brothers’ local market La Boqueria in Barcelona. For centuries, locals visited La Boqueria for the day’s freshest produce and catch as well as to eat tapas at the small bars spread throughout the halls or the restaurants on its side streets. In many ways, these new businesses are a modern appropriation of centuries-old markets.

Today however sellers at La Boqueria laments its tourist-reputation wishing that people would come to do more than take photos. In an irony of our times, many tourists will visit and admire the produce and bars throughout La Boqueria before walking 10 minutes north to El Nacional, Barcelona’s iteration of Eataly, where they are happy to pull out their pocket books. They’ll spend just €2 at Boqueria but €20 or more at El Nacional, with a single corporation taking the place of local merchants. Still, today’s new markets do give a new lifeline to suppliers that might otherwise have gone belly-up, unable to connect or access today’s culinary-driven consumer.

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