The rise of food halls, revisited

Although the food-and-drink sector was hit hard by the pandemic, the low set-up costs and community focus of food halls means that more and more are now setting out their own stalls.
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In our April/May 2019 issue, we reported that food halls worldwide were booming. Efficient models were allowing vendors to get started with relatively low costs and overheads, while their merging of fast-casual dining and quality food was pulling in the customers.  

Tracking new food halls between 2015 and 2019, Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real-estate service, found that only 10 of 400 new openings closed during that period, whereas a quarter of independent restaurants fail within two years. Time Out Market Lisbon, in a vast former fruit-and-veg market by the Tagus river, had 3.6 million visitors in 2017 – with $8 million of a total $36 million in annual revenue going to the owners. 

Successful food-hall vendors told us they could expect to take about $26,000 in sales every week, on the back of relatively low overheads. John Devitt, co-founder of London noodle specialist Koya, reported that it would have cost 15 to 20 times as much to launch a restaurant in central London as it did to open a stall at the smart Victoria Market Hall. The latter welcomed its first customer just two months after the first meeting to discuss the project, whereas it took more than a year for John to find the right sites for his restaurants. Short leases meant that vendors could be more experimental while taking advantage of premium locations to find new customers.

First, the bad news

The pandemic hit the food industry particularly hard, as it did formerly bustling city centers, where many food halls are located. In the short term, at least, there’s been a hit. In March, for example, Time Out cancelled plans for a new 3,000 square meter food market in London’s Waterloo, which would have been its eighth such venture.

Appetite for more 

However, according to Cushman & Wakefield, not only did 80% of US food halls stay open during the pandemic, many more are launching. In Los Angeles, for example, the Glendora Public Market, SocialEats Hollywood and Culver City’s Citizen Public Market have all opened since September 2020. In Atlanta, the 31-stall Chattahoochee Food Works opened in April, with co-founder Robert Montwaid planning another at the new Underground Atlanta community space. 

In the UK, London’s Mercato Metropolitano has announced that it will open three new sites in the capital this year. Real estate consultancy P-Three has predicted that 120 new food halls could open in the coming years, many of them serving local communities rather than commuters or tourists, like the successful Altrincham Market, which has helped to revitalize the town near Manchester.

‘The pandemic has created more people who might be looking to start food businesses, but can’t risk opening their own premises,’ says Sarah Fox, whose UK-based Lemon Fox consultancy provides advice on building and running food businesses. ‘It has also turned consumers more towards things that are local, independent, social and driven by the community.’

There’s now more space available for markets, too, as the pandemic has finished off many department stores and retail chains.

A taste of the future

Food halls are also innovating and adapting. Whereas brands such as Zuul have launched virtual food markets powered by ghost kitchens, others are shifting to bricks and mortar. C3, which has more than 200 ghost kitchens across the US, is set to open the 3,700 square meter Citizens food hall in New York this summer, followed by locations in Atlanta, Seattle, Miami and California. Food will be available for pick up or delivery via an app – and this hybrid approach is being taken by many food halls, including The Market Line in New York’s Lower East Side. 

Other companies are taking the spaces themselves in fresh directions. Sessions – set up in 2019 by former Deliveroo managing director Dan Warne as a food startup incubator – launched its first food hall, Shelter Hall, in Brighton, England, in the summer of 2020. As well as conventional stall offerings, it offers a menu of food concepts by Sussex chefs, as well as live music and comedy. P-Three reports that this type of multipurpose space will be the future of food halls, with so-called ‘F-hubs’ aimed at local communities. These will host everything from vintage concessions to record stores and barbershops. The food hall might be changing, but it looks like it's here to stay.

This article was first published in Courier issue 42, August/September 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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