Food Halls are No Half-Baked Idea

No matter the news cycle, food is one of the few constants in life that unites, calms and encourages no matter who you are or where you come from. There’s never been a better time to be a diner in the United States: the sheer volume of choice is staggering, the diversity of cuisine is mind-boggling and food halls — like trendy gastronomic galleries — continue to spring up from coast to coast.  

According to Eater, there are over 100 food halls across the country as of 2017, expected to double in the next few years. Gotham West Market, Grand Central Market and Reading Terminal Market are some of the most recognizable names. Each of them are like gentrified marketplaces of yore, with an unmatched diversity of cuisine distinct to American cities, and an energized atmosphere usually found at the likes of food truck festivals.  

Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, originally founded in 1893, is one of the most iconic food halls in the country. Photo by R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia.

Mini-restaurants cohabit spaces with boutique food and beverage retailers and local produce vendors. While not dissimilar to mall food courts in concept, the fare on offer at food halls skews toward the gourmet, with not a Sbarro in sight. A Foodie hall would be a better way to describe them. They’re also hubs of community, buzz and foot traffic.  

Indeed, one of the biggest critiques of them is that they’re often crowded — which only speaks to their popularity. The food hall is on its way to becoming a staple of any city worth its flaky sea salt, but what makes them so appealing in urban locales with already-robust culinary scenes? 

The allure for restaurateurs both new and experienced is obvious. The smaller scale environment presents a lower risk way to introduce a new concept to the public, be it an entire brand, or just a new dish. The most recent example of just how popular food hall outposts have become with the established restaurant crowd: NYC’s famed Katz’s Delicatessen recently opened its first satellite location in Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market Hall.  

Like the impetus behind the food truck wave a few years back, renting a slot at a food hall is drastically cheaper than raising the often prohibitively large sum required to open a sit-down, or even fast-casual, eatery. Vendors lease a stall space from their respective markets, applying for competitive slots with detailed business concepts, small menus and attractive stall designs. It varies by specific food hall, but for their part, landlords typically provide communal seating, event bookings and a general alcohol license for the premises. 

There’s arguably more competition to contend with, given the proximity of the neighboring opposition, but with centralization comes high volumes of guaranteed traffic — hungry traffic, at that. Which means chefs and restauranteurs can spend less time focusing on marketing campaigns and media buzz and put more of their attention toward doing what they do best: making outstanding eats. 

It’s no coincidence that the rise of the food hall has coincided with the U.S.’s general increase in consciousness toward its food consumption; where it comes from, how it’s produced and how it tastes. With their highly interactive setting, food halls serve excellent opportunities for retailers and chefs to converse with the public about the produce and meals they’re eating, as well as about the brands they’re buying.  

Fareground, opening soon in the heart of downtown Austin, will feature new concepts from top local chefs. Rendering courtesy of Fareground / Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

They may be typically housed in historically or architecturally interesting buildings, but food halls are far from just educational institutions. They’re exciting, entertaining, and experiential places to spend time; microcosms of the urban centers in which they’re invariably found, and showcases of their culinary prowess.  

Perhaps most appealingly of all though, they’re the most accessible and efficient way to experience the best a city’s food scene has to offer. As gastro-tourist hubs, the lines for the most renowned vendors can get long, but once you get to the front, you can watch the food being prepared for you — and quickly, too. The service is more streamlined, casual, and unpretentious than many traditionally foodie haunts, and the meals don’t require months of forward thinking to book, or eye-watering bills.  

In many ways, food halls are simply another elegant solution to an economic problem — on the part of both consumers and entrepreneurs. They’re products of urban revival, globalization, and brand accessibility: a climax of cravings for authentic experiences and quality-conscious food that seem to be more than a flash in the pan. The concept’s booming popularity shows people are hungry for more. 

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