What is a Food Hall, And Why Do People Love Them So Much?

The first time I heard the term “food hall” I replied “…um…explain…” What I got was something similar to how a parent might describe a mall food court to a seven-year-old: “A collection of small restaurants, usually on the ground floor of a building with shopping, where typically seating is shared and no dining options repeat.” Indeed, I did spit back, “Oh… a food court!” to which the much-cooler-than-me retail property manager rolled his eyes, half-stepped back, and slumped his shoulders, as if he was being forced to explain chemistry to a beagle…or me.

So, what IS a food hall? What IS the difference between a food hall and a food court? And why do people love food halls so much?

Once we started working on our first food hall concept at Ponce City Market in Atlanta (Bellina Alimentari), we quickly discovered that difference and why people love these hot spots, and it was loud and clear… but still a little difficult to convey in words. So, I will try…and I promise not to slump my shoulders and roll my eyes if you don’t get it…not your fault…you grew up going to the mall.Here are 4 things about food halls and what makes people love them:

  • Food halls are usually a collection of small, locally-developed restaurant concepts or outright new creations that come from the minds of local chefs or start-up entrepreneurs and restauranteurs. They offer an assortment of unique food and beverage items that are usually cooked from scratch (prepared from raw ingredients vs. shipped in partially or wholly made) or nearby in a commissary (but still from scratch). On the other hand, food courts are usually filled with national chain restaurants that offer little scratch cooking and little-to-no brand cache.
  • Food courts will typically feature a cast of usual players like one or two Asian concepts (with one or both of them serving a version of Bourbon chicken), an ice cream place, a pizza place, a burger chain or two, a Latin concept, a hot dog concept, a cheesesteak concept, and maybe a cookie place. The dining options in a food hall are more in line with a collection of food trucks at a food truck park than the food found in a food court, with ethnic favorites like Vietnamese bao buns, Cuban street sandwiches, wine and cheese, Italian sandwich or pasta shop, local ice cream or gelato, chocolatiers, or Napolitano style pizza (vs. Sbarro’s par-cook-n-reheat slices), southern fried chicken sandwiches, and just about anything you can imagine.
  • Food halls are aesthetically pleasing, often in turn-of-the-century warehouses, train stations, or old mills with high ceilings where the building’s history is partially or mostly preserved. Ponce City Market was originally a Sears & Roebuck distribution warehouse. Chelsea Market in New York was a Nabisco factory where the Oreo was invented. Quincy Market in Boston is one of the oldest food halls in America (it was a food hall before folks started calling them food halls) and sits next to historic Faneuil Hall…it was designed from the beginning (1824-1826) to be a marketplace. In a food hall, the charm of historic significance combines with the unique food offerings and the novelty of reclaimed industrial space to form a city’s social nucleus, while food courts are really little more than uninspired feeding pit stops for mall shoppers.
  • Food halls are destinations. Retail stores are few and are injected to add interest and shopping-as-entertainment to the food experience, but they must convey a consistent lifestyle “voice” to their visitors. Anthropologie, Lululemon, or Madewell are common national retail supplements. Food courts are designed to keep shoppers shopping so they don’t leave the mall when they get hungry… the food supports the shopping, not the other way around like in a food hall.

I initially thought food halls were merely food courts rubbed in hipster honey to attract affluent, free-thinking, in-towners while repelling boujee suburbanites. I was wrong. They are lifestyle hubs of activity, mostly centered around food and beverage, where a successful visit is measured not by the size, quantity and/or contents of the shopping bags collected but by the endorphins released while enjoying time with people like you. That’s why people love food halls so much, and how they are so completely different than food courts.

So, if you’re in commercial real estate and are developing a food hall or market and need assistance in curating and executing amazing food and beverage concepts, we can help! We have worked with Atlanta’s iconic food hall, Ponce City Market, both with the aforementioned Bellina Alimentari italian restaurant concept and also with the rooftop amusement park and beer garden-esque concepts Skyline Park and Nine Mile Station.

Ray Camillo – Founder & CEO, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

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