The Inflated Promise of the American Food Hall

The Inflated Promise of the American Food Hall

Elizabeth Dunn | The New Yorker | November 29th, 2017

In 2010, the chef Todd English opened an indoor market in the basement of the Plaza Hotel, in Manhattan. Back then, the term “food hall” was still largely alien to many Americans. It belonged to Britain, to describe the section of a department store where one might buy tins of loose-leaf tea and Christmas hampers, or pause for a glass of champagne. Todd English’s version stuck close to that mold, mirroring “the aesthetics of the finest food-specialty markets throughout the world,” and it was an overwhelming success. In its wake, the American food hall flourished, and took on a life of its own. Some included butcher shops, or bakeries, or kitchen-supply stores. Others focussed solely on prepared food, such as bánh-mì sandwiches or tacos, served over the counter by local venders. A dominant aesthetic emerged: exposed ductwork, cement floors, subway tile, and long, wooden communal dining tables. Anachronisms like New York City’s Chelsea Market and San Francisco’s Ferry Building, once called “marketplaces,” were duly rechristened. In 2010, there were a couple dozen spaces that fit the definition in the United States. Garrick Brown, who studies the topic for the real-estate-services company Cushman & Wakefield, anticipates that there will be three hundred by the end of next year. In Manhattan alone there are now at least sixteen food halls, with many more in planning or construction. A project by Anthony Bourdain, in the meatpacking district, intends to cover a hundred and fifty-five thousand square feet, nearly the size of three football fields.

In contrast to the food court, with its Auntie Anne’s and Panda Express, the food hall eschews big chains in favor of local, artisanal purveyors, dazzling the visitor with a vision of a thriving economy of small businesses operating side by side. It is tempting, therefore, to see the proliferation of the food hall as a victory for the little guy. This is not entirely accurate. Much of the current expansion is driven by property developers grasping for ways to reinvigorate moribund shopping centers, or to gin up interest in new developments. Traditional retail is waning; millennial consumers, the marketing consensus tells us, aren’t interested in “stuff” so much as in experiences—as well as choice, convenience, “authenticity,” and things that make good photographs. You can see where the food halls come in. The markets themselves can provide landlords a healthy income, but, to those looking to offload high-rise apartments or office space, they offer prospective tenants something even more stirring: an amenity. Drop a food hall into the mix, and the whole development basks in the soft, Edison-bulb glow of the small food businesses inhabiting its ground floor, luring tenants with the siren song of pour-over coffee and craft beer.

Gotham West, a luxury apartment complex on Manhattan’s far west side, was among the first to cotton on to the idea, in 2013. A developer like Gotham can offer a persuasive pitch to chefs struggling to raise enough money to open a stand-alone shop: minimal startup expenses, short-term leases, and rents that, while expensive on a square-foot metric, come in well below the total cost of a larger conventional restaurant space. What’s more, the food-hall developer provides marketing and handles hassles like wiping down tables, washing plates, and paying the gas bill. Think WeWork, but for restaurants.


Managing Growth: When Should Your Restaurant Expand?

Managing Growth: When Should Your Restaurant Expand?

Timing is everything when you own a restaurant. When do you add seating? Is it time to hire new employees? Does it make sense to extend hours? Is there a need to launch a new marketing campaign?

Managing growth is a challenge for many small business owners—particularly for owners trying to decide whether they should finance that growth. Ian Bramson, owner of Eclectic Kitchen in Portland, OR, suggests asking yourself two questions to determine if it’s time to add staff, additional seating, or otherwise grow:

Do you really know how busy you are?

Like many restaurant owners, Bramson spends a lot of time in the kitchen making sure the food served at his restaurant keeps his diners coming back. He opened Eclectic Kitchen in 2009 with 32 seats and a focus on breakfast and lunch. “We rely on our regulars to keep us busy,” he says.

With that in mind, he adds, “it’s important to step out of the kitchen to get a feel for what’s really happening in the dining room. You can learn a lot from talking to your customers and giving the servers a hand.”

Ian suggests paying attention to how many people you have waiting, and how long they need to wait. “If people are waiting for food, it’s not a good thing,” he said. “If they’re waiting to be seated, that isn’t good, either,” he added.

While waiting is often just part of the restaurant experience, how your restaurant grows can be an important part of how you manage the wait and will likely influence your decisions about whether it’s time to hire a new server or an additional cook. It might also be an indicator of the right time to expand seating or stay open more hours.

He also suggests noting the seasonal nature of your restaurant. “We get really busy in the fall,” he says. “But our sales are up for this time of year, so we’re expecting to be busy this fall.”

Do you have a strategy to accommodate growth?

“We’re planning to increase seating with an outdoor dining area as well as adding more seating inside the restaurant to prepare for the fall,” Bramson says. “We’re also thinking about adding dinner to our menu.”

Bramson has an expansion plan for the next few months and knows that he not only wants to increase the number of tables he can serve, but will need additional staff and refrigeration to accommodate growth in the kitchen, too. “Growth in the dining room impacts everything else in the restaurant,” he says. “You need to plan for that.”

“We really depend on word-of-mouth advertising,” he says. “We focus on really good food and great coffee to make our new customers happy, keep our regular customers coming back and give them all a reason to tell their friends. In addition to food made with fresh, local ingredients, we even use a local coffee roaster our customers seem to like, Trailhead Coffee, to help set the tone for a great breakfast.”

Bramson suggests it’s important for independent restaurant owners to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the dining room, as well as the kitchen, to know when the time is right to hire new staff or otherwise expand. With that said, you need to plan for how you’re going to accommodate growth when the timing’s right.