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Franchisors should step up to the food hall craze


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Revival is right in the heart of Chicago’s office district, and features on-trend eateries such as the Revival Cafe-Bar.

Typical food courts aren’t exactly the stuff of hot-and-heavy dreams. At worst, they are dingy and depressing and, at best, present few unique options beyond the usual suspects of greasy Chinese, suspicious pizza and rack-heated hot dogs. Rather than a memorable experience, which research says is so important to younger customers, hitting up a food court is often like going to the gas station: filling up the tank so you can continue with your journey.

Knowing today’s consumers want a Snapchat-worthy meal, commercial developers across the country have embraced the trend of food halls, which are higher-end food courts with better choices and inspired architecture that tend to be located in central business districts. On paper, the differences between food courts and food halls are subtle, but in person, the distinctions are stark.

During a recent trip to Chicago, I visited three very telling destinations during a day of hyper-consumption: Chicago French Market, The Atrium, an old-school food court, and Revival, a chic new food hall located within a 110-year-old building just a quick five-minute walk from Willis Tower.

Getting a Lyft to the market

My first stop was Chicago French Market, mid-morning on a beautiful late-February day. I skipped breakfast to work up an appetite, hailed a Lyft from the city’s northwest side and enjoyed the scenery as my driver picked her way through the city’s ever-present traffic pandemic.

Life was decidedly less hectic inside the market, which fills a large, mostly windowless section of the Ogilvie Transportation Center that’s a major junction point for Chicago’s commuters.

Chicago French Market

Chicago French Market is a culinary oasis with cute aisle names like Rue de Paris.

Chicago French Market’s interior is beautiful, with cute aisle names like “Rue de Paris” and “Boulevard Saint-Germain,” and a tenant mix including pastry, cheese and candy vendors, cut flowers and fresh produce, Chicago-style beef and hot dogs, poke and sushi restaurants, as well as a bar and butcher shop. Having lived near a similar market in Minneapolis, I can attest to the romantic joy of wandering such aisles on a weekend with the one you love.

Riding solo this time, I stopped by Flip Crepes for a coffee and crepe filled with banana, Nutella and candied pecans. Watching them spread the batter, then fold and fill my crepe while chatting with the chef was a pleasure, and I joined the diners in the back-hall seating area to nibble, sip, punch out some emails and charge my phone at the free power station near my table.

Taking advantage of the warm day, I left and hit the sidewalks strolling northeast across the river to The Atrium, a massive, traditional food court underneath a towering canopy of glass. It was buzzing as the lunch hour ramped up. The main-level tenants include Supercuts, GNC and Sprint, among others, while the darker, lower level included the usual suspects: Arby’s, Burger King, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, Panda Express, Sbarro and several others.

While the building’s actual atrium provided ample sunshine and the environment was tidy, there was little to get excited about here—a throwback to the 1990s. I snapped a few Instagram pics of the building and saved my calories for the next stop, Revival.

Right in the heart of Chicago’s office district, Revival’s exterior is nondescript, but the inside of this beautiful food hall is a drastic juxtaposition from The Atrium. There is funky and comfortable seating—stools by the windows, benches along the southern wall, a communal table divided by glass in the middle near the western entrance—with upscale signage and interesting lighting in all directions.

That was just one community seating area. Individual restaurants have their own counter seating or tables, and there are several other food court-like groupings of tables and chairs throughout.

The Atrium

Also in Chicago, The Atrium is a more traditional urban food court.

 

Filled with sharp-dressed office workers of all ages, but definitely skewing younger, they came for Revival’s tenant mix that includes Hot Chocolate Bakery, Brown Bag Seafood Co., Smoque BBQ, The Budlong, Antique Taco Chiquito, Black Dog Gelato and many others—all interesting, all on trend, exactly the kind of places I crave when dining out. I snapped some photos, and took a seat at Revival Cafe-Bar to wait for a friend and sip an Old Fashioned.

My bartender, Travis, said the bar hosts DJ nights—and that evenings are busiest, even though they were full for lunch. I noted, just around the corner, a little indie record and bookstore display. Talk about nailing the target demographic right in the gut!

Once my friend Bethany arrived, who works in the nearby Chase Tower, we took Travis’ suggestion and went to The Fat Shallot at the opposite end to check out the truffle oil-infused BLT. Waiting only a moment as our sandwiches were made, we grabbed a comfy seat by the window while my friend marveled that she hadn’t visited this place sooner. Every single restaurant looked appealing, with crowds backing up the assumption.

While you might think we ponied up for an expensive lunch, our grand total with two sodas was a slim $26—not necessarily everyday cheap, but not much pricier than we would have found inside The Atrium.

A franchise-forward food hall

There are no franchised restaurants in Revival or Chicago French Market, but that doesn’t mean the franchise community can ignore what’s happening here, especially with as many as 150 new food halls planned to open in the U.S. before 2020.

Garrick Brown, vice president of retail research at Cushman & Wakefield, said that lofty prediction includes halls that are under construction, as well as those that are proposed but “look like they’re going to happen.”

A well traveled fellow, Brown likes Revival, and added that Chelsea Market in Manhattan is one of his favorites for a tenant mix that includes a lot of fast-casual and what he called experimental restaurants, as well as cooking stores, and other stuff you’d find at a nice urban market.

“In the old days, being 10 years ago, you’d build a shopping center and put in food as an amenity for people there to buy clothes and it was an afterthought—this is the opposite,” he said of food halls. “You’re going there to eat and you’re going to do some shopping while you’re eating, and that might be the new model.”

He said food halls are expanding beyond the central business districts of top-tier cities, with projects coming in cities across the country, including smaller markets like Tucson, Omaha and Boise.

“Will we do this to death?” he asked, referring to the commercial development community. “Yes! We do that to everything, but we’re nowhere there yet.” For the franchise world, Brown sees younger, fresher, food-driven restaurants having the most to gain from this trend—adding the vast number of food halls will require developers to reach beyond top chefs in a local market. “They’re going to be a little more restrictive in wanting to make sure authenticity is a part of it to some degree,” he said.

He recommended that newer franchised restaurant concepts looking to grow quickly could experiment with food halls, taking advantage of lower build-out costs and rents that are less expensive than a stand-alone building or larger class A retail space. Many individual food hall spaces are 500 square feet or smaller, which can make the ideal pop-up-style space to test a new concept or bring an existing concept to a new market.     

Leverage for owners

Andrew Moger, president and CEO of Branded Concept Development, agreed about the massive number of new food halls coming online in the next few years, and said the opportunity for franchises is particularly urgent for emerging concepts that would be natural fits for such an environment.

He said the operations and marketing will require flexibility from franchisors to fit into a food hall environment, but added the drive to fill so many bays at so many new food halls will give owners leverage in negotiations. “These food halls need to fill their stalls, so I would be very aggressive,” he said.

Outside of city centers, Moger expects to see developers adding food halls as amenities for residential buildings as well, including some suburban locations, especially with so many big-box retailers closing their doors leaving developers and mall owners in the lurch.

The lines between food court and food hall are admittedly esoteric, but it’s not a stretch to picture a food hall filled with a diversity of franchised brands and populated by the same crowd of hipsters, business people and sophistos.

Painting by the numbers, imagine walking in the door of a repurposed old building with the same mix of delightful signage, interesting lighting and flexible seating. Rather than exclusively local brands, instead, picture a roster that includes Nature’s Table, Slapfish, Burger 21, Salata, Hissho Sushi, PizzaRev, R Taco, The Halal Guys, Slim Chickens and World of Beer for a taste of the local brewery scene.

It’s just a fantasy, but I can picture it. How about you?

Tom Kaiser is associate editor at Franchise Times, and writes this column about urban tales in franchising in each issue. Send story ideas to tkaiser@franchisetimes.com.

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