From coast to coast, food halls are booming. In New York City, Denver, Atlanta and Phoenix, there’s an influx of these trendy dining concepts—most fueled by multimillion-dollar renovations. But is it possible for noncommercial operators to invoke the spirit of a food hall on a smaller budget?
Put the pieces together
It’s certainly not easy. “It’s all about the experience. The food, the decor, the theme, the music—the whole place has got to fit the food hall theme,” says Isidoro Albanese, a restaurateur in Mount Kisco, N.Y. Last year, he converted his Italian restaurant, Bellizzi, into local Exit 4 Food Hall. Eschewing the national chains of a mall food court, Exit 4 mimics the food halls of New York City, featuring chef-driven, healthy, local food, including a pasta bar, sushi, barbecue and paninis.
Food halls are meeting places, so design is important, Albanese says. He suggests consulting a local architect to create a space that flows properly. Leaving plenty of room for seating is also crucial; 150 seats is a good target for a 5,000-square-foot project, he says. Albanese advises operators not to skimp on any experiential factors if they want to succeed, from furniture to the name. “You have to totally transform everything,” he says.
Still, there are ways to economize on money and time. Grouping together similar stations—like pasta, pizza and charcuterie stations—saves space, buildout costs and even labor, since one cashier can run all three. “It becomes a big win by doing it that way,” Albanese says. A station can also be designed around existing equipment, like a wood-fired oven.
But others say the most important aspect of a food hall doesn’t require new equipment. Last year, Northern Trust, a Chicago-based financial services company, converted its corporate cafeteria to one inspired by food trucks and food halls. It did so without any renovation or redesign, but by partnering with a startup that enlists rotating vendors to sell different styles of food, such as sushi, tacos and lobster rolls.
“We weren’t ready to invest millions in the look and feel of the food hall,” says Martin Clarke, global head of corporate services at Northern Trust. The cafeteria already had a multistation format, so vendors could just drop into existing spaces. So instead of drawing attention to the design, food became the focus. “A traditional cafeteria might do different menus each day, but they don’t have different styles of food at different stations every single day,” Clarke says. “That’s what makes it different for our staff.”