The eateries once commonly found in shopping malls and transportation hubs have been redeveloped conceptually as standalone halls commited to providing culinary diversity and supporting local businesses. Familiar chains are nowhere to be found at this current generation of design savvy food halls.
— Ally Spier
Conceptually, the idea of a food hall isn’t entirely new. Collections of local, varied food and beverage vendors in a dedicated retail space have been around for centuries, both globally and nationally.
Those that have persisted are often in urban centers, and, in the U.S., include spots like Pike Place Market in Seattle, established in 1907, Reading Terminal Market, in Philadelphia since 1893, and Boston’s Quincy Market, which dates back to 1742.
The food courts contained within shopping malls, airports, train stations, and department stores are undoubtedly familiar, too, and have been around for decades. But food halls in the most current sense are something inherently different. The National Retail Foundation helps to define them: “The definition of what constitutes a food hall is still being debated, but it’s generally accepted that ‘foodie culture’— including the farm-to-fork and slow food movements — is largely responsible for kickstarting the modern food hall concept… as is the push for experiential retailing.”
And it’s likely the Amazon Effect has played a role in shaping food halls, too. As e-commerce continues to change traditional brick-and-mortar models, accounting for an increasing percentage of retail spending with each passing year, retailers have been forced to keep up with the times. Shopping malls are fewer and further between now than only years before, and the traditional food court concept that once provided a chance for a shopping break has changed, too.
Programmatically, specific design choices are geared towards differentiating food halls from other places to dine out, with a mix of characteristics seeming to apply in whole or in part to each. Food halls regularly offer highly curated and visually appealing experiences that showcase local businesses and, in some cases, have a greater goal of urban development.
They don’t only offer food from morning to night, they also tend to be multipurpose communal spaces, equipped with wifi and mixed seating options. Baltimore’s R. House, for example, proudly markets itself as a space meant for more than just eating: “This is your living room, your kitchen, your office, your hangout spot, your Baltimore stoop, your happy place.”
Driven by Design
The built environment housing a food hall is often as much of a draw as the food and drink on offer. Fareground, in Austin, worked with notable local architect Michael Hsu to design the distinctive, wood-laden space. The Bourse, in Philadelphia, opened last month in a historic landmarked Beaux Arts building that formerly housed the states’ first commodities exchange market. And Aster Hall, which opened in Chicago two weeks ago, recruited the award-winning design firm AvroKO, also behind Hudson Eats and Gotham West Market in New York, and Denver’s Union Station, to develop the upscale minimalist space.
There, the team decided to house its 16 stations offering things from street tacos to sushi to cocktails in what they call “food vaults”, because of their unique recessed architecture. It’s surely no coincidence that these design-minded halls photograph as well as their food does, an especially important consideration when aiming to appeal to younger generations of customers.
Location, Location, Location
In other cases, food halls’ physical environs are signifcant not only in isolation, but within a larger context. Mixed use developments that incorporate food halls can be appealing to real estate developers and tenants alike, allowing landlords to ask for more per square foot from tenants who view a conveniently located collection of quality dining options within the same building as an amenity. As such, food halls are increasingly appearing in newly constructed high-rise office and apartment buildings.
Further still, food halls have the potential to shape the neighborhoods around them.
New Orleans’ Pythian Market, which opened in May, for example, now occupies the first floor of a historically significant nine-story building originally constructed in 1908 for a black fraternal organization. The original building, home to black-owned businesses when the south was still segregated, acted as a cultural epicenter that played host to performers in its theater and rooftop garden during its heyday. It sat vacant for years after hurricane Katrina, but the new food hall has spurred revitalization efforts.
The market, which features a handpainted mural of civil rights leaders A.P. Tureaud and Lucille Dejoie by local artist Brandan Odums, is part of a mixed-use development; an events space is slated to open on the second floor, and the rest of the building will house a mix of apartments and offices. The developer hopes the food hall is an early step in realizing a larger vision for the surrounding downtown neighborhood’s resurrection.
Getting Down to Business
While some food halls serve as second locations for existing, established spots, like Aster Hall with Small Cheval and Doughnut Vault, others are looking to provide space for new businesses.
Tastemakers, which opened this past April in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, is doing both. It’s an incubator and food hall in one; the commercial kitchen space currently helps to meet the production needs of 15 businesses (with room for more), while the food hall houses eight vendors, a bar, and a grab-and-go grocery section.
Of the food hall’s current tenants, two businesses have locations elsewhere, while the rest are vending for the first time. Participants’ contracts are initially for six months, so there’s plenty of changeover potential.
Detroit’s newest food hall, the Fort Street Galley, also took a unique approach, modeling its selection process and business strategies after tech incubators. Opened last week in the city’s historical Federal Reserve Building, it currently features four businesses who participated in a competitive application process in which experienced chefs and aspiring restaurateurs alike applied, and finalists pitched their concepts to local judges.
At the end of their first year at the Galley, restaurants can choose to extend their lease, move on to their own space, or nix their business altogether. From a consumer standpoint, models like these certainly help to keep things interesting, ensuring that food halls, on both an individual and collective level, are continually evolving.
Skift Table contributor Ally Spier is a Brooklyn-based writer and designer who studied ergonomics at Cornell, and architecture at Pratt. Her background in design informs her love of food and travel… and vice versa.