For NYC Foodies and Locals, Restaurants Are Out, Food Halls Are In

With so many dining choices in New York City, keeping up with the trendiest restaurants can seem next to impossible even for a dedicated gourmand.  

But lately, it’s not any one restaurant that commands foodies’ attention, rather, the physical space where many eateries live.

Food halls, communal dining spaces featuring a variety of food vendors under one roof, are quickly becoming a popular option for eating out in New York City.

Food hall projects in the U.S. experienced a 37.1 percent growth during the first nine months of 2016, according to real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. Celebrity chef Todd English kick-started the trend in New York, opening Todd English’s Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel in 2010. Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich’s Italian-focused Eataly followed soon after.

Just in the last 6 months, four new food halls have opened in New York.

“Food is kind of the new rock and roll, it’s the thing that the public is just so excited about,” said Jonathan Butler, co-founder of the popular Smorgasburg outdoor food market in Brooklyn and the Berg’n food hall which opened in 2014.

Butler was on hand to discuss the pros and cons of operating a food hall at the recent “Cities for Tomorrow” conference hosted by The New York Times.

Social media undoubtedly fuels that dining-out excitement – photogenic foods like blooming rose ice cream have become international trends.

“My kids are 12 and 14, and they’re big foodies. All their friends are foodies. They’re all following all this stuff on Instagram. It’s just something the whole family can do that’s fun. Everyone has to eat, right?” Butler said.

Alternative business model

In major cities like New York, where high rents and operating costs have made it difficult for aspiring restaurateurs to establish themselves, food halls also offer start-up food vendors an alternative business model.

Vendors at Berg’n have typically gotten their start selling at outdoor stands, via food trucks or by operating solely as caterers. Food halls are a way for these less established vendors to test a brick-and-mortar location without fully committing to all the headaches that come with being a restaurant owner.

“One of the great trends we’ve seen is this hyper-local push – it’s less of the operators who have four or five locations,” said Carolyn Vahey, an associate at Hospitality House, a restaurant consulting firm. “They’re really pulling in a lot of operators who might have not had the opportunity to get into the space,” said Vahey.

Danie Garcia is general manager at Landhaus, a local “farm to sandwich” vendor popular for its bacon-on-a-stick. Besides food festivals and outdoor markets, Landhaus’ only retail location is inside Berg’n food hall.

“This gives us a little bit of flexibility because it’s less maintenance than having an entire restaurant, it’s a little bit easier to manage,” Garcia said

Berg’n other vendors include local favorites, Lumpia Shack, which specializes in Filipino-inspired spring rolls, and Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque. For small local vendors like these, food halls can also be marketing tool. “It’s a really great way for them to develop a brand identity in the market and align themselves with like-minded food and beverage operators,” Vahey said

Property developers are also taking note, some bringing food halls right to city dwellers’ front doors. Gotham West Market and Gotham Market at the Ashland are food halls located on the ground floor of residential high rises.

With the growing number of locations, will diners ever tire of the food hall concept? Vahey doesn’t think so.

“We feel as though the shift in dining is going to really switch over to this side and what you’ll see is a more diverse portfolio of types of food halls,” she said.

In a city with countless dining options, food halls appear to be a welcome addition to the menu for the New York City foodie.


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