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  • Aine Dougherty

Food halls are flying high, with no sign of slowing down

Hordes of hungry customers lined up on November 5 for the grand opening of Latinicity, chef Richard Sandoval’s new Latin-American food hall in downtown Chicago. Once the crowd made it inside the space, they got to choose from 12 different quick service stations, a full bar, a tapas restaurant, a café and a marketplace.

Carne asada tacos, chicharron de camarones, chorizo con queso, tortilla soup, Latin-style sushi and ceviche, cubano tortas, Peruvian stir fry, chili con carne burgers, chipotle BBQ chicken salad, patatas bravas – shockingly, these are only a few of the many delicious dishes served inside the glamorous Latin food emporium.

Aleichia Jones, 22, a staff member at a nearby Chicago restaurant, said while chowing down on her meal, “People are just constantly talking about (the new food hall), so there’s no way I wasn’t going to come.”

According to its Facebook page, Latinicity had to temporarily close just three days after opening due to the high volume of customers clamoring to see the highly anticipated venue – over 10,000 of them, to be exact.

And Latinicity is just one example of the food hall craze that is sweeping the nation.

Food halls may not have one concrete definition, but most offer a wide variety of ways to enjoy food – specialized artisan vendors; fresh groceries and other merchandise; high-quality, made-to-order meals and more.

Versatile markets such as this have existed for a long time, especially in Europe. This concept, however, was really set in motion in the U.S. when Italian marketplace Eataly opened in New York City in 2010, attracting six million visitors and earning $70 million in its first year, reports said. Since then, food halls have been proliferating all over the nation and are becoming popular alternatives to traditional restaurants that often struggle to stay afloat in today’s competitive dining industry.

The well-known 90% restaurant failure rate may be a myth, but according to a study by Cornell professor H.G. Parsa and colleagues, the three-year cumulative failure rate peaked at around 60% – in other words, almost two-thirds of restaurants fail within their first few years. In addition, restaurants are much more likely to fail during their first year of operation, with 26.16% going under during that time period.

The 2005 study, titled “Why Restaurants Fail,” went on to stress several important factors in the fate of new restaurants, most notably the restaurant density of the surrounding area. Eateries must ask themselves how they can differentiate themselves from the fierce competition.

So, how do food halls stand out from other strong restaurants?

According to Jason Goldsmith, the general manager of Eataly Chicago, it’s all about “super high quality” and giving customers an intimate, specialized experience that one just cannot find at traditional restaurants and marketplaces.

“We have an incredible butcher counter, an incredible fish counter, a mind-blowing cheese and cured meats station,” Goldsmith said, “and at every one of those areas there’s someone who really knows that product and who can speak in depth about everything there, and so it becomes a much different shopping experience.”

This storytelling aspect makes the Eataly experience more personal, and, as Goldsmith said, “You can eat standing up, you can eat sitting down, you can eat walking around,” with a glass of wine in your hand no less, which only adds to the unique dynamic of the food hall.

And the 63,000 square feet Eataly Chicago is just one of 34 Eataly locations all around the globe, Goldsmith said, with four more North American stores in Manhattan, LA, Boston and Toronto on the way in the next two years.

In fact, according to a March 2015 Eater article, dozens of food halls are in the works or have already been opened around the country this year, including a venture by Anthony Bourdain in New York City and the Market Hall in Seattle by Los Angeles restaurateur Tony Riviera.

The National Restaurant Association placed “Chef-driven fast casual concepts” at number two on its Hot Trends for 2016 list, a category into which many food halls fall. “Authentic ethnic cuisine” made the list as well, and since food halls often focus on a specific cuisine or region to tie their different elements together, it’s no wonder people are crazy about them.

According to the Eater article, food halls have become so popular because they ignite Americans’ passion for “all things culinary” by presenting food in a convenient, modern way and showcasing the stories behind the ingredients.

Both Latinicity and Eataly also stress another important part of their philosophies – listening and responding to their customers.

Goldsmith said, “This is a constantly changing, evolving space…We want to make sure things stay fresh.” Some ways that Eataly accomplishes this goal are hosting more product tastings and bocce ball tournaments, both of which are very popular with customers and are not readily found at traditional eateries, said the general manager.

Similarly, Hamid Benna, the general manager of Latinicity, mentioned several of the rookie restaurant’s recent adaptations to customer demands, including adding more registers to speed the checkout process and explaining in more detail the origins of each dish.

But some customers still expressed concerns.

Andrew Simpson, a senior at Northwestern University who attended Latinicity’s grand opening, disagreed wholeheartedly with the oft-mentioned comparison between the new food hall and Eataly.

Rather than the “Latin Eataly,” Latinicity was more “like an average dining hall,” Simpson said, “whereas Eataly is just one whole experience.” He appreciated the idea behind the layout – how it tried to emulate the street-food culture of Latin-America – but was disappointed because “it didn’t live up to the expectations.”

Food halls come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, and many still have kinks to work out, but this trend will likely be on the rise in the years to come as the unique eateries continue to pop up all over the U.S. and offer exciting experiences that normal restaurants cannot.

After finishing her tacos, Jones said, “Latinicity has made it really easy for people to just come in and feel like it’s home already.”

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