Earlier this week, Vice’s Munchies announced plans to launch a food hall in the American Dream complex, which is opening in New Jersey in 2019.
The announcement highlights the exploding popularity of food halls, which have a 20-plus year history in places like Manhattan but are relatively new to many other parts of the country. (Nope, the mall food court from your suburban upbringing doesn’t count.)
Some go as far as claiming food halls are the new food truck. And just as food trucks eventually expanded to pretty much every state in the U.S., the food hall concept is steadily branching outward, from Falls Church, Virginia to Portland, Oregon, and everywhere in between.
But as the Munchies news suggests, today’s food halls aren’t just about food; they’re part of huge, multi-use complexes geared towards shopping, entertainment, and sometimes even living. In the case of Munchies and the forthcoming American Dream complex a 4-D movie theater and indoor ski hill is included in the experience.
Entertainment is one focus of food halls; there are tons of others, all of which vary widely from state to state. To get outside the New York/New Jersey area for a few minutes, consider the following food halls:
Midtown Global Market
If any place needs an indoor food hall, it’s Minneapolis, home of temperatures that average 10 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Midtown Global Market is a mixed-use facility where you can find tortas, rice bowls, falafel, french fries, and Swedish baked goods under one roof. The space is actually more a multicultural community center than anything else, claiming to host over 22 cultures through a variety of cuisines, crafts, gifts, and classes. You could conceivably spend the better part of a day here, which seems a whole lot more appealing than shivering outside while you hope to find the taco truck.
Falls Church, VA
Eden Center, which is in Northern Virginia near DC, is the heartbeat of the country’s Vietnamese-American community. So like the Midtown Global Market, the food hall in Eden Center is one piece of a larger cultural celebration. According to the center’s directory, there are roughly 20 food and beverage locations in the space, as well as a few shops. The space also celebrates events like Vietnamese New Year and the Moon (Mid-Autumn) Festival, both of which no doubt offer some serious eats.
The Market House
The Market House is Nashville’s answer to a large-scale farmer’s market and, much to the advantage of the food vendors, is open 362 days out of the year. The 12-acre space is also a hotbed of local business, with Mississippi-style chicken and waffles, Middle Eastern fare, and fresh-made donuts all available courtesy of native Tennessee businesses. There’s also a fair share of classes, craft shops, and chef demos to be had, along with the Gardens of Babylon, where you can learn how to garden.
The Bottling Department
San Antonio, TX
If straight food hall is more your style and you happen to be in Texas, head to The Bottling Department in San Antonio, a food hall located at the Pearl mixed-use space. Pearl is essentially a live-work-play development built on the site of a former brewery, it’s LEEDS-certified, and home to a third campus for The Culinary Institute of America. All of which is to say it’s a haven for local, sustainable food business. In keeping with that, The Bottling Department puts a special emphasis on highlighting the work of emerging chefs and food vendors, whether they’re making ramen or burgers.
Pine Street Market
Only in Portland can you name your restaurant Kim Jong’s Smokehouse and get away with it. The Korean-style street food joint is one of several establishments to live in the Pine Street Market. I call it out specifically because the restaurant—its name and concept—reflects the overall attitude of Pine Street Market, which is excellent food with a shot of quirkiness thrown in. Actually, that’s just Portland. In any case, Kim Jong keeps company with Bless Your Heart Burgers, which promises to “elicit memories of underage drinking days,” and Checkerboard Pizza, where bread is delivered “via bicycle courier” every day.
What all these places (not to mention, a ton of others) have going for them is that, whether it’s cultural heritage or just being weird, they’re tied to a strong concept and identity. That’s Business 101 in many ways, but it seems especially important for the future of the food hall.
And where does all this leave the humble food truck?
I can see a number of advantages, from both a vendor point of view and the customer perspective, of food halls have over food trucks. To use Minneapolis as an example, 10-degree winters make it virtually impossible to either operate or frequent a food truck several months of the year. For up-and-coming businesses that don’t necessarily have the means or desire to open a full-service restaurant, renting space in a food hall ensures a steadier flow of business and, with it, more predictable revenue for vendors.
On the other hand, in places like Austin, Texas, you can operate food trucks pretty much any time of the year.
Beyond the weather, though, there’s a host of other factors involved with running a food truck, from paying for gas to juggling the litany of regulations and licenses, most of which vary from state to state.
Food halls, whether you’re renting space or a guest, definitely provide a much-needed middle ground between food trucks and full-service restaurants. If they can make themselves part of a larger cultural scene — whether that’s a country’s heritage or a 12-foot ski hill — even better.