Food halls are grabbing guests’ attention. Here’s what full-service restaurants can learn from them.

Hand-rolled sushi, local IPAs, and coconut tres leches cake for dessert is not the result of the newest fusion restaurant; it’s a meal at a food hall. These eating concepts, which bring together a wide range of restaurants and stores under one roof and allow guests to sample a bit of everything, have exploded in the last few years.

“Customers are craving foods from different cuisines,” says Joe Magliarditi, president and CEO of The Food Hall Co., a company that helps develop food halls like Legacy Hall in Plano, Texas. “People are looking for that discovery or variety aspect in what they’re trying. With a food hall, it’s all about variety. You have certain culinary staples and also provide the range that customers are seeking.”

Trip Schneck, managing partner of Colicchio Consulting, which works with the Lyric Market in Houston, says the same. While the food hall model has been on the rise, he adds, that doesn’t mean that it’s simply a flash in the pan: “Food halls are neither trend nor fad; rather, food halls are the result of an evolution in the culture of dining out. Taking cues from the ‘sharing’ economy, food halls offer communal fast-casual dining experiences to consumers, while providing restaurateurs economies of scale unachievable on their own.”

Customers are clearly responding to the shift, Schneck says, noting that the number of food halls in the U.S. has increased by 206 percent in the last four years.

At the Chicago French Market, where guests can order anything from vegan gumbo to sweet cheese pierogi dumplings, the emphasis is on choice. “People love to customize their meal and accommodate taste preferences and dietary restrictions,” says general manager Leslie Cahill. “One size doesn’t fit all.”

Amid the variety, however, there are still observable trends. At Revolution Hall near Minneapolis, vice president of culinary Matt O’Neill has seen a move toward creative Asian concepts that seem to be resonating with diners. “From noodle bars to poke and ramen, there are some really fun and creative concepts that are finding their way into the fast-casual model,” O’Neill says. Items like sushi burritos, which are both Instagrammable and portable, are particularly popular with millennial diners.

While there are plenty of different cuisines to choose from, Revival Food Hall in Chicago recently opened up a rotating pop-up concept called Pizza City, where independent pizzerias from across Chicago will be able to serve up slices on a short-term basis.

According to Schneck, there are a few essentials for putting together a successful roster of businesses in a food hall, including a strong coffee program, which encourages full-day traffic; a well-curated bar, which establishes the space as a place to gather and linger; a well-executed taqueria; quick-serve staples like salads, sushi, pizza, and ramen to hit the biggest selling points; and regional specialties like barbecue in North Carolina or fresh seafood in New England.

An increasing number of full-service restaurants have been setting up outposts as well. For chefs, notes Schneck, food halls offer an opportunity to quickly expand their footprints with relatively low capital expense outlay.

This model also benefits diners, says Revolution Hall’s O’Neill. “For the two full-service restaurants that have adapted their concepts for Revolution, we have tailored the menu to their core items, kept the concepts and philosophies at the helm and shifted our thinking to a faster, more seamless style of service,” he explains. “We believe that guests who want to dine at our full-service restaurants but are unable to can now have the opportunity to get a high-quality product in a much more flexible way.”

The French Market’s Cahill agrees with Schneck’s sentiment, adding that diners’ habits have changed, and food halls allow them to still take part in restaurant culture. “People are eating out more than ever and the cost and time it takes to go to a restaurant is being reserved for special occasions,” she says. The fast-casual model at food halls helps bridge that gap.

Trends to Steal

  • Asian: From noodle bars to poke and ramen, diners are loving Asian cuisine options at food halls right now.
  • Portable: Versatile menu items like tacos and sushi burritos are perfect for diners who might be short on time but still seek a customizable, intriguing, and delicious meal.
  • Range of Cuisines: Variety at food halls is the main appeal for consumers, as it accommodates taste preferences and dietary restrictions for all guests in a group. Experts say a good food hall includes everything from staples like salads, pizza, and noodle bars, to regional specialties like barbecue or fresh seafood.
  • Fine to Fast: Full-service restaurants are seeking spots in food halls to increase brand recognition and meet diners where they are by offering a streamlined menu tailored to core, best-selling items.
  • Play Throughout the Day: Offering a coffee and bar service encourage diners to come in throughout the day and gather with friends.
Feature, NextGen Casual