Don't bet against this long-running trend, which appears to show no signs of slowing.
As food trends go, you probably couldn't pick a worse one to bet against.
The modern food hall—so new, so exciting, just a few short years ago—is now pretty much everywhere. Until quite recently, the United States had just a few good, modern examples of the genre that's long been taken for granted in other parts of the world—suddenly, there are too many to count. Think we're already at the tipping point? According to an in-depth report released by a major commercial real estate firm, the number of food halls in America was expected to more than double by the end of the decade.
No city or town is too large, too small, too obscure, or too saturated, it seems—cities like Baltimore, with its long tradition of city-run public markets, found room for two new food halls, in recent years. Rather than try to compete with what it already had, Los Angeles overhauled its historic Grand Central Market, turning one of the city's most classic destinations into one of its hottest new hangouts. Even Philadelphia, where the historic Reading Terminal Market has long been one of the East Coast's best of the genre, is finding room in its heart for new food hall projects—there's one just two or so blocks away in Chinatown.
The concept has also proved popular in cities that do a brisk trade in tourism; Boston's Public Market, opened in 2015, created an actual food market for locals to shop in, years after its grand market halls nearby became tourist traps. New Orleans, where the old French Market has struggled to attract a local audience for years now, revived the decaying St. Roch Market by converting it into an almost glamorous food hall. (The concept proved so popular, it's expanding to Nashville and Miami.)
By jumping on trend in a big way, Chicago has essentially remade its downtown lunch scene, making the Loop area even more appealing to visitors with the addition of three food halls—a fourth is on the way. San Antonio, the top destination in Texas, added a food hall to its growing Pearl District, along the expanded Riverwalk network. New York, never short on visitors, now has so many food halls, it's hard to count them all up.
Not that your city needs to be a tourist destination to make that new food hall a huge success—in some cases, the project is driving tourism to places where it might not have gone before. Birmingham, Alabama's new Pizitz Food Hall adds a new dimension to a downtown struggling its way back after years of neglect; in Southern California, the concept is being used to pull people toward smaller downtowns—Anaheim's Packing District turns a moribund city center just minutes from Disneyland into a hot new hangout; Santa Ana's 4th Street Market adds a new luster—and attracts a new crowd—to the working class city's historic center.
Even shopping malls want in—in places as varied as Omaha, Nebraska, the Los Angeles suburbs and Paramus, New Jersey (where, its said, the first successful food court made its debut, back in 1973), its looking more and more like goodbye, chain fast food, hello tonkatsu ramen.
Cue, of course, the backlash. The criticisms now come from everywhere, and seem to go everywhere, as well. Is this too much of a good thing, how is this impacting older markets or vendors in the markets that are repositioning, are the markets that position themselves as incubators for small businesses actually meeting their potential, how many $12 sandwiches could one city possibly need, aren't these projects just the modern version of the food court, and, really, does the legendary Katz's Deli really need a second location in a basement in Brooklyn?
Probably not—but as long as the low-cost, higher-yield model works for the developers behind the explosive growth of the genre, not to mention for the generation of up-and-comers finding a toehold in their local scenes without the usual overhead of opening a restaurant, food halls are going to stick around. If you're looking to see what's next, here are just a few of the more interesting recent (and soon to come) openings around the country.
Workshop Charleston, SC
This new project in Charleston's so-hot-right-now, far northern no man's land brings six rotating kitchens together under one roof. There's coffee from Bad Wolf; Edmund's Oast, one of the city's most popular breweries, is in the complex as well.
Detroit Shipping Co. Detroit, MI
Five concepts will make their home inside this upcoming project composed entirely of repurposed shipping containers; this promises to be yet another culinary lure to a city already full of good food.
The Bottling Department San Antonio, TX
A historic brewery located along the city's Riverwalk has evolved into The Pearl district, one of San Antonio's most appealing places to live and play—as of this summer, the neighborhood adds this very good, small food hall to its many other dining options.
Finn Hall Houston
A slowly-reinventing downtown Houston gets another shot in the arm with this 20,000 square-foot food hall coming to a historic bank building in 2018.
Malcolm Yards Market Minneapolis, MN
An abandoned factory in a food desert neighborhood near the University of Minnesota campus will be the site for one of a handful of new market projects in the Twin Cities. Slated to open next year, the market is part of a large-scale redevelopment project of an old industrial site.