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The food court’s younger, hipper cousin is a curated version of the mall staple.

First came the food trucks. Then came the food halls.

Traipse hungrily through any modern metropolis in the US and you’re bound to stumble upon one, a cafeteria-style public market with carefully curated fare and local flair. It is under these exact conditions that I recently found myself at R. House, a whimsically named food hall situated in an abandoned automotive showroom in south Baltimore.

On the day of my visit, the venue is bustling with empty-stomached patrons, some clad in suits, others in hoodies, surveying the scene in deep contemplation. Will it be the trendy bibimbap stand or the equally hip sushi booth? Or maybe, since it’s Friday, after all, a midday craft beer or an artisanal ice cream cone. I opt for the bibimbap. It does not disappoint.

R. House, which opened in late 2016, has joined the more than 100 food halls that have popped up around the country everywhere from Indianapolis to New Orleans in the past few years. While communal-style dining is nothing particularly novel, the concept of the local food hall has grown with impressive temerity — in 2016, the number of food halls increased by 37 percent and is expected to double by 2019.

The biggest draw, of course, is the food. However, unlike traditional food courts, with their Sbarros and Panda Expresses, these venues offer up a different kind of experience. For out-of-towners and locals alike, they provide a sampler platter of some of a city’s best and up-and-coming foodstuffs — all for a nice price and with a pleasant ambience, to boot.

“A food hall, of whatever stripe, is a new type of public forum,” said Peter DiPrinzio, a developer at Seawall Development, the company that conceptualized R. House. “They’re an experience, a place to go hang out with friends. It’s really about combining the forces of what is the next version of the public square, of the third space, and how to do so around food.”

Today the food hall trend continues to rise, buoyed by the proliferation of “foodie culture,” the growth of fast-casual dining, and the evolution of experiential retail. To a certain extent, food halls have served as a catalyst to the retail incubator movement, a means for revitalizing erstwhile storefronts and breathing new life to dilapidated shopping centers.

For consumers, there’s also a certain allure to discovering new marketplaces springing to life from within a shuttered mall or abandoned showroom like R. House, said Ken Albala, a history professor with a focus on food at the University of the Pacific. It seems almost countercultural — a way of seeking goods and services that transcends traditional corporate America with its franchises and conglomerates — and fulfills a desire to return to a time when retail felt more personal.

“People are generally fed up with American culture writ large, which is corporate and absurdly homogenized,” Albala said. “Today you can go to a Whole Foods anywhere in the country and it’s exactly the same. Food halls give people a sense of place in a country that’s increasingly felt uprooted and lost. The food court gives them a sense of what cities used to be, a place to interact with vendors when businesses were mom and pop.”

The foodie takeover

On any given Saturday at Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, you’ll find a group of sharply dressed millennials lined up along the East River, one arm extended toward the Manhattan skyline with a food item of their choice in one hand, camera phone in the other.

“Everybody loves food, so that’s pretty low-hanging fruit,” said Jonathan Butler, co-founder of Smorgasburg, the nation’s largest open-air food market. “What’s interesting is over the last decade is we’ve seen the rise of ‘foodies’ — people that care about the food they’re eating and where it sources, and this has permeated deep into society.”

Smoragsburg started selling food in a vacant lot along the East River back in 2011, opening on the heels of a burgeoning foodie culture in the US. Its founding coincided with the rise of popular culinary media sites including the Infatuation, which started in 2009 and popularized the social media hashtag #EEEEEATS; the site describes it as a “rallying cry” for “anyone who is serious about food but doesn’t take food too seriously.”

To date, the hashtag #EEEEEATS, which is often affixed to photos from Smorgasburg, has been used more than 13.6 million times on Instagram. Butler said part of the appeal of Smorgasburg and food halls more largely, is how they fit into a larger social media narrative around food, which is increasingly crucial for aspiring restaurateurs. In order to succeed in today’s culinary landscape, not only does the food have to taste good, it also has to be aesthetically pleasing enough to rack up likes on Instagram.

Micha Magid, co-founder of the New York-based barbecue chain Mighty Quinn’s, knows the power of the Instagram foodies. Magid and his stepbrother, co-founder Hugh Mangum, started smoking meat during the very first Smorgasburg in May 2011, offering up a limited menu of beef ribs, brisket, and pulled pork.

“It was a passion project in the beginning. Hugh was smoking briskets overnight in the pit, which involved basically sitting by the pit for 16 hours, feeding wood. But it was all worth it when you had a line that was waiting before you even opened,” he said.

As Smorgasburg grew, so too did interest in Magid’s small barbecue business. Within two years, they added a third partner and opened up their first shop in the East Village. In January 2013, the New York Times profiled Mighty Quinn’s and officially put them on the foodie map. Today they have more than 10 locations, including Yankee Stadium, and Magid said they’re in the middle of making a deal to expand the franchise overseas.

For fledgling restaurateurs, food halls double as incubators, a low-stakes method of tinkering with business models and experimenting with food that can ultimately serve as a fast track to success. Butler said venues like Smorgasburg remove certain barriers to entry for the competitive restaurant industry, allowing business owners the opportunity to start serving at a fraction of the regular startup cost within a venue trafficked by 20,000 hungry visitors each weekend.

“We think of ourselves as the biggest small business incubator in New York City,” Butler said. “We’re a platform for entrepreneurship. In some ways, the most impressive thing we’ve done is we’ve democratized and changed the economics of starting a food business.”

Food halls and markets have also benefited from finding their footing in the age of the fast-casual dining movement, which helped propel chains like Chipotle and Shake Shack. Fast-casual restaurants are forecast to grow by an estimated 7.5 percent this year, finding momentum while traditional restaurants are experiencing “sluggish customer visits,” according to the consumer trends company NPD.

“There’s a casualness to the consumer these days that responds very well to the casual atmosphere of a food hall — having choices, not having to tip, and having traditional food service,” said Anna Castellani, developer of DeKalb Market Hall, a food hall that opened in Brooklyn in 2017.

DiPrinzio, the developer of R. House, said the rise of the food hall is an extension of larger global trends in Europe and Asia, where market-style dining has always thrived. Now in the US, public market planners are finding value beyond traditional corporate food conglomerates and are instead investing in local fare. “Chefs of all type can use the model of a market, and deliver a better experience and quality of food than what’s in a traditional food court. That’s the basis of the food hall trend,” he said.

Food halls are ultimately providing a refreshed way of thinking about American urbanism by looking abroad, said Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University. In many ways, they’re taking a cue from marketplaces in Asia that have long flourished from shelling fresh street food from local vendors.

“It’s a way of thinking of how we’re reengaging with our sense of city and how that’s linked to a larger shift,” he said. “The West no longer serves as the dominant framework for thinking about good food and good taste in the popular world. It has shifted to the Pacific. The food hall is the new iteration of what that looks like.”

However, not everyone benefits from the food hall system. These markets have also played a role in shutting out local businesses and forcing out existing tenants. Mimi and Moon Yang experienced this firsthand when after 16 years of running their restaurant in the Bourse food court in Philadelphia, they were forced out when the Bourse switched ownership.

“They became business owners through sheer will — they worked their butts off, man,” Jay Yang, the Moons’ son, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding their ousting. His parents’ business had helped put him and his sister through college.

Though they were able to find a new retail location elsewhere in the city, the Yangs lost the critical foot traffic that was guaranteed within the historic Bourse building. It remains to be seen if they’ll fully recover.

Food halls as experiential retail

The rise of food halls in many ways mirrors that of food trucks, transforming cars and storefronts into bastions of culinary experimentation. Both have played a hand in helping to spotlight emerging talent and introduce new styles of food, while also appealing to American consumers by offering high-quality eats at attractive prices — a critical part of what helped the food truck movement explode during the height of the recession.

In the case of the food hall, it helps that there are, for better or worse, a plethora of empty storefronts to choose from. The options are ever-growing as American malls and big-box stores continue to shutter: this year is on track to have more vacant retail space than the record-breaking 105 million square feet relinquished in 2017.

These spaces serve as blank canvases for new business opportunities, and many have already paved the way for experiential retail in the form of temporary pop-up stores and ephemeral Instagrammable museums like the Museum of Ice Cream and the Rosé Mansion.

“At a time when consumerism has gotten more and more detached and Amazon-oriented, there’s a desire for an experience, to actually buy something from the person who made it and listen to the story behind it,” said Butler, the co-founder of Smorgasburg.

Albala, the professor at the University of the Pacific, added that there’s a feeling of connectivity and integrity derived from purchasing from local vendors that is lost when visiting a supermarket or big-box store.

“With food halls, you can go to a place that seems hip, that’s not bright and shiny and new. Instead, it’s in a building that’s been refurbished, artisans are there, and you get a sense of virtue because you’re not buying from a high-end Dean & Deluca,” he said.

However, Castellani, the developer of DeKalb Market Hall, warned that while food halls are in vogue, they are not a salve for filling empty retail space. Not every empty storefront is conducive to a thriving food hall, and they are laborious to plan and maintain. Instead, she said that existing malls could benefit from approaching their food options more creatively to draw shoppers.

“It used to be that you just put some Sbarros in and consumers still go to Macy’s,” she said. “Now they probably won’t go to Macy’s, but you gotta put a lot more attention into the food so maybe they go to Macy’s.”

At the end of the day, experiential marketing and innovative retail strategies to lure foodies and shoppers alike will reign supreme.

“Retail is theater,” said Ken Morris, a principal at Boston Retail Partners. “Despite what everyone thinks, the retail store isn’t dead. It’s just morphing into something else. The food hall trend just fits right into the theater aspect of retail.”

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Author: Bethany Biron

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