While food halls were evolving long before the pandemic, many operations still resembled glorified food courts, says Daniel Sweeney, project manager at Atlanta design firm Cooper Carry.
“The pandemic has maybe reset the playing field,” he says, “reminding people why these were popular in the first place.”
What made them popular in the first place was a focus on high-quality foods. At their best, food halls allow customers to discover new dishes from established brands or up-and-coming chefs. Today, the newest food halls are going further, offering more upscale environments to accompany the food.
Retail options are becoming increasingly common inside food halls, as are out-of-the-box additions like manicure and pedicure spots.
Samantha Bennett, associate principal at Cooper Carry, pointed to the Assembly food hall her team designed in Rosslyn City Center, as an example of the future of food halls. That operation, which opened in August 2021, looks more like a luxury hotel’s lobby than a food court. The seating is flexible with distinct areas to sit and linger. And the 29,000-square-foot Assembly features three bar options: a small oyster bar, an outdoor terrace bar and a larger communal bar.
“We were really trying to create that lounge feel versus a food hall where it's just communal table upon communal table upon communal table,” Bennett says. “It’s really calmer and a respite.”
While customers were happy to pivot to QR codes and self-service options during the pandemic, Bennett says they miss traditional restaurant service. That’s why Assembly has a central menu that allows servers to offer disparate items from the food hall’s six different restaurant options.
But even as food halls increasingly resemble fine-dining restaurants, Bennett says a major distinction persists.
“I still think the big differentiator between food halls and fine dining restaurants is the sense of community,” she says. “I think people are looking to gather a little bit more and be part of a bigger, more community-driven experience.”
But some operators still view convenience, speed, and price as a driving force in the food hall market.
That’s top of mind for Local Kitchens, a micro food hall concept that allows diners to mix and match food from its different restaurants. The company was founded by two former DoorDash executives: CEO Jon Goldsmith and COO Andrew Munday along with CTO Jordan Bramble, all of whom aimed at translating the food hall experience into a convenient takeout and delivery operation.
By operating a single, central kitchen, Local Kitchens can maintain small real estate footprints and keep operational costs down. Goldsmith, co-founder and CEO of Local Kitchens, says that keeps prices down for customers. Menu items at each concept inside the virtual food halls sell for the same price they do at other brick-and-mortar locations.
“Price is a big deal for sure,” Goldsmith says. “The whole advantage of this model is it's just so much more efficient from a kitchen perspective.”
Rather than creating its own in-house brands, Local Kitchens partners with already successful local and regional brands. Chefs train the staff at Local Kitchens when licensing their brands and maintain an ongoing relationship to ensure quality standards are upheld. That also allows Local Kitchens to leverage existing brand awareness, rather than starting marketing efforts from scratch for new virtual brands.
“Our perspective is there's already tons of great food out there,” Goldsmith says. “We don’t need to come up with new brands.”
While Local Kitchens storefronts feature dine-in space, they specialize in carryout and delivery orders. Goldsmith says the majority of business comes from carryout orders, which save customers the fees charged on third-party delivery apps. The company has so far opened in suburban locations, where food halls see the most demand for weeknight dinners.
But Local Kitchens envisions future expansion into small towns, urban centers, and suburbia across the country. The 2,000-square-foot layout and the existing technological infrastructure make it easy to expand, Goldsmith says.
“I think we have plans to bring this everywhere—national if not international—and definitely to every suburb and city in the country,” he says.
While Local Kitchens has worked to deliver a new model of food halls to the market, Goldsmith doesn’t see any decline in the traditional food hall. Because those venues serve a different, yet still vital, segment of customers.
“I sort of see the world moving toward two ends of the spectrum. On the one hand you’ve got convenience and on the other hand you’ve got experiences,” he says. “Post pandemic, there's probably more need than ever for people to have physical spaces where they can come together and have really great hospitality and really great ambiance. I don’t think that’s going anywhere.”