While many restaurants rushed to reopen as soon as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, food halls have taken a slower approach. Read on to see how they're reworking their operations to ensure a safer experience for diners.
“We were one of the first to close [during the pandemic] and we wanted to be thoughtful about reopening and be fully prepared,” says Sumindi Peiris, CMO of Time Out Group. “We also needed to work with our chef-vendors to make sure they were ready. Many have their own brick-and-mortar restaurants that were reopening, too.”
Time Out Markets operate in several cities worldwide. Lisbon’s food hall was the first to reopen, followed by Montreal and Boston, all in July. In August, Time Out New York and Time Out Chicago reopened. "Time Out Market has excellent relationships with all of our landlords," says CEO Didier Souillat. "Like all good partnerships, we have made compromises [during the pandemic] to find options for both parties. Throughout lockdown, we experienced the entire spectrum—ranging from rent-free, deferred rent, discounted rent and, unfortunately in some cases, full rent.”
Safety with style
Customers visiting the food halls for the first time since March will find many tech and design upgrades. While these were made to comply with safety and sanitation requirements, the visuals and operational efficiencies go beyond to enhance the guest experience.
Time Out Market Chicago, which reopened Aug. 26, greets guests with an oversized bright yellow sign detailing all the new safety guidelines. Graphic illustrations relay what management has done and what customers can do to follow the protocols. Affixed to the sign are several hand sanitizer dispensers.
Guests follow the arrows on the floor to eight restaurant concepts, spaced out so that only every other vendor booth is operating to allow for social distancing. Witty signage separates the booths and only the concepts on the periphery are in operation. “We eliminated the center aisle vendors for now, but plan to bring everybody back in the next phases, in accordance with city guidelines and safety and social distancing protocols,” says Peiris. The vendors' return must also fit with the operational priorities of the individual chefs and restaurateurs.
Expanded outdoor seating
The 50,000+ square-foot space allows for plenty of distanced indoor seating, and the long communal tables are separated into sections by colorful plexiglass dividers inscribed with quotes from Chicago natives and other notables. An advanced air circulation and filtration system uses UV light to enhance sanitation.
Guests can also sit outside on the expanded sidewalk patio. “By opening later, we were able to tap into the [Chicago] citywide street closings and extend into Fulton Market Street,” says Peiris, “We originally had 12 tables on the sidewalk and now there are 34, seating 136 guests. Plus, our rooftop bar patio offers 46 more seats.” Time Out Markets in Lisbon, Boston and New York also have expanded outdoor areas—a move that is helping all restaurants boost sales during the pandemic.
A new entry
Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall, which launched at the beginning of August, opened with COVID safety and sanitation protocols in place. The food hall, which is located in one of Chicago’s medical districts, has since opened its patio. A weekend brunch and happy hour menu launched at the end of August is especially popular with patio customers, says the food hall’s GM, Evan Thomas. “We fill up the patio every day and are discussing adding on,” Thomas adds. “We’re looking at long-term strategies to hold outdoor events as well.”
High-tech meets hospitality
Both Dr. Murphy’s and Time Out Markets offer contactless order and pay, with QR codes on all the tables and bar to perform both functions. Along with the QR codes, Dr. Murphy’s uses Apple Pay, integrated with every vendor’s POS system.
Time Out Market Chicago has a new app from which customers can order and pay from the table. They can then track the progress of their order through email, text or push notifications. In both food halls, the diner has to pick up the order from the vendor; servers are not currently bringing out orders. Shields on every station protect servers and customers.
Food halls are now offering takeout and delivery as well. At Dr. Murphy’s, the integrated payment system allows a single guest to choose from any or all of the 12 vendors. “They can order ahead from the website from multiple vendors,” says Thomas. “This adds to the complexity, but allows customers to experience many flavors. But because of the complexity, we’re doing self-delivery.”
Time Out Market Chicago is providing delivery through DoorDash from participating eateries. Guests can access this feature by searching “Time Out Market” through the DoorDash website or app.
Interaction remains important
But these food halls are not totally abandoning human interaction in favor of technology. Dr. Murphy’s stations an ambassador at the front door to greet everyone and explain the operation. The ambassador will also escort guests to the area where pickup orders are shelved.,” says Thomas. “Pickup business continues to expand, so we’re rolling out delivery faster than we originally planned.”
Although guests can order ahead at Time Out Markets, “we made sure they could also order from the vendors’ stalls to promote hospitality,” says Peiris. And while guests can view the cocktail list via QR code, they can also order a custom cocktail by talking with the bartender—over the plexiglass shield. “It’s still really important for the customer to see that ‘something is being done for me,’” she adds.