Hungry for Community
By Rebecca Kleinman
Somewhere between a food truck and a fine dining establishment, the food hall emerged. But this new crop differs from the Old World model imported by European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or Downtown LA's Grand Central Market). The visionaries and vendors behind the latest incarnation have been put through their 21st-century food revolution paces. They speak Alice Waters and Michael Pollan’s language of farm-to-table fare with a fast-casual spin served in modern airy settings where a denizen of Portlandia would feel at home. Imagine the complete opposite of the uninspired food courts found in most malls.
“People want to be surprised and delighted with a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds,” said Ivy Ackerman, who built her Butter and Egg Road roving supper clubs into a New York-based culinary consulting firm for companies to connect with customers through food products and events. “Food halls are the next generation of communal eating but give you the choice to build your own meal.”
These culinary catchalls are proliferating from coast to coast: Miami alone has at least five in the works, including a three-story, Italian-themed market at Bal Harbour Shops’ sister center in Brickell. New Yorkers still aren’t sated either, since pioneering the trend with Chelsea Market, Smorgasburg and Eataly. Gotham West Market in Manhattan followed up with Brooklyn’s Gotham Market at The Ashland in winter, while Anthony Bourdain readies his eponymous cornucopia of ethnic eats from his global travels. When his massive market opens at Pier 57 on the Hudson River in 2019, it will be the be-all-end-all of food halls. No matter the size, the term “curated” comes up a lot and should, considering today’s discerning diners—gluten-free, anyone?
“I relate the process of selecting a really great vendor for each category to Noah’s Ark,” said David Spatafore, a serial restaurateur who launched San Diego’s Liberty Public Market a year ago with empanadas from an Argentinean family and lobster rolls by a gang of Maine millennials in search of an endless summer. “The space must have character, too, which is why you’re seeing many markets popping up in repurposed historic buildings.”
His market is named after Liberty Station, a Spanish Colonial Revival base built in 1921 for the Navy’s commissary, and has gone full circle from mess hall to food hall. Spatafore toured similar adaptive reuse projects, noting Krog Street Market in the Atlanta Stove Works’ former factory and its nearby Central Food Hall, part of Ponce City Market, a gargantuan, brick fortress that once housed Sears, Roebuck & Co. The latter assembles a who’s who of Southern cuisine with concepts from James Beard Award winners Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins and Anne Quatrano. The proof is literally in the pudding.
“Lyft named it among the city’s highest requested destinations,” said Michael Phillips, president of its developer, Jamestown, which has a knack for the niche. “We live in a time of global brand fatigue, and food halls bring more engaging options when people are looking for new experiences in food and retail.”
They are also the new town square for community events. New Orleans’ Victorian-era St. Roch Market, which relaunched in 2016 after a long hiatus, hosts crawfish boils and live music. The combination of festivities, a full bar with flowing sazeracs and food (don’t miss Fritai for Haitian home cooking) has gone over so well that its operators plan to expand to Miami and Nashville next year.
Event and marketing director Molly Friedman champions chefs just starting out. As rents are going through the roof in major cities, they benefit from the communal safety net and included perks like flatware and busboys.
“We’re about giving the little guy a home to become the next big guy.”