Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Response to APA17: The dangers of calling it a Modern Food Hall

One of the more popular sessions at the National Planning Conference last week was one titled “Modern Food Halls: Redevelopment Aid or Trend?” The panel discussion was led by Nicolia Robinson of Cooper Carry, an architecture, design and planning firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. Joined by her colleagues Sarah Jane Bonn and Daniel Sweeney, Nicolia led the discussion around one of the most talked-about trends in cities across the country. She opened the floor with a brief presentation on what the drivers of food halls were and attempted to distinguish them from what many of us recognize as food courts and markets.

Food Trends
In 2015, there were only 70 food halls across the nation. Last year, the panel cited that that number had risen quickly to 130, and by the end of 2017, we are expected to see more than 200 food halls across America.

This rapid growth in food halls, like restaurants, can be attributed to the rising trend of eating out amongst consumers. In an earlier post, we wrote about the fundamental and cross-generational shifts that have led to restaurant industry sales surpassing grocery sales for the first time in history. For food halls, the large proportion of millennials eating out more frequently is particularly driving its rapid growth and popularity.

On top of this, the panel claims that food halls are also meeting the needs of consumers who are seeking more “sophisticated and authentic flavors and experiences while dining out”. This has been echoed in recent media reports that claim consumers are “demanding more variety, better quality food while also seeming fatigued with the conventions and time investment of a multi-course, full-service meal” at traditional restaurants.

Defining Modern Food Halls

So what exactly is this food hall we’re all talking about? While the panel from Cooper Carry attempted to distinguish food halls from the traditional food court and market by delineating specific traits for each of these places, the lines began to blurry as they continued to dive deeper into case studies and examples. Before we begin to dissect the discussion around the definition of food halls, here are the characteristics the panelists attached to Food Courts, Markets and the newest hybrid, Food Halls:

Food Court
Food Hall - Marries best of both food court and markets
Mostly national brands
Mostly local brands; mom and pop stalls
Both local and national brands (mostly local)
Fast food to fast casual
Ingredient-focused, produce-heavy stalls
Curated mix of tenants

Plenty of gathering space (communal aspect)
Few retail options
Mostly Retail
Balanced retail and food

And here are the different ‘Scales and Types of Food Halls’ that have been observed by the panel:

Located in mixed use development, usually in difficult spaces to lease out to other operators

Food Halls
According to the panel, there are some key elements that make a food hall a food hall. First, there is often a heavily curated experience. The trouble with the ‘curated experience’ however has been that it is often targeted toward younger consumers that are more educated and have higher disposable incomes. After all, this is the demographic group choosing to live in urban, dense areas or in transit-oriented neighborhoods where these food halls are often located – key element number two.

Although this was not directly addressed by the panelists, several planners present in the room were rightfully wary of the implications of the food hall’s curated experience. Prices of meals at food halls, as one audience member noted, are often high compared to other available dining options. The noisiness and bustle of food halls also largely appeal to younger adults without children or elderly companions.

Panelists also noted that another key element is the detailed attention often paid to branding food halls as modern amenities and advertising them on social media. This seems troubling as it necessarily excludes certain groups of users from food halls, for example traditional older customers or non- English-speaking customers.

Finally, food halls are supposed to have a variety of authentic tenants. Although this was not clearly explained in the session, I would hazard a guess that this was in reference to locally-owned businesses with new food concepts.

There appear to be a number of problems or inconsistencies with the food hall as defined at the session. In fact, when the floor opened for discussion, many in the audience jumped at the opportunity to ask about the foreseeable economic and social impacts of food halls that was not addressed in the presentation. Issues raised by audience members included insufficient parking and seating space for large crowds, and finally, the elephant in the room – who are food halls for?

In response to crowded spaces, Daniel Sweeney quipped that while seating can be hard to find in these popular food halls, this can in fact be beneficial to vendors. The busyness of the food hall creates a vibrant atmosphere for visitors and makes the food hall appear to thrive.
However, when must the line be drawn before the crowds begin to cause discomfort for regular patrons, forcing them to find alternative options and potentially resulting in drop of sales for vendors?

In fact, Chelsea Market here in New York City already suffers this shortfall. As soon as the food hall began to primarily serve tourists and attracted crowds of out-of-towners (over 6 million national and international visitors annually), locals no longer found the shopping environment conducive for daily  needs. Today, many locals intentionally avoid this former neighborhood jaunt. It appears as though food halls run the risk of becoming a visitor attraction rather than a local neighborhood amenity. This very issue raised red flags for me when the panelists started to use Essex Street Market as a case study of a neighborhood food hall.

The Problem with the Food Hall Label

In the past few months, LOA has been working with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) to create a tenanting and marketing strategy for Essex Street Market as it prepares to relocate to a new facility across Delancey Street. LOA developed a strategic market positioning statement for Essex Market that defined key customer segments before recommending strategies for attracting new tenants and vendors.

Essex Market is, by definition, a public market owned and managed by NYC EDC. It is not a food hall, nor does it aspire to be one. The market is New York City’s oldest public market following Mayor La Guardia’s efforts in the 1930s to clear the city’s streets of pushcarts and build a network of modern indoor public markets. For more than 75 years, Essex Market has been a fixture in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and an important source of affordable products for local shoppers, from Latino and Asian immigrants, to the new millennials who have recently began moving into the neighborhood.

The mission of the market remains to serve the needs of low and moderate income residents in the neighborhood and this can be observed by the mix of tenants at the market. Vendors such as Saxelby Cheese Mongers and Essex Farm Fruits and Vegetable for example accept EBT and offer products at low price points. Even as the market expands in size at its new facility, prepared foods vendors will remain a small percentage of the overall market tenant mix. Ingredients-based purveyors will continue to make up over 70% of the market, including specialty ingredients such as fresh coffee beans, American cheeses and traditional spices.

In addition, NYCEDC and the Essex Market management team, will continue to remain committed to scouting hyper local vendors to fill the remaining spaces at the new facility with preference given to vendor applicants offering farm-related or ingredients-based products. These tenanting strategies are intended to maintain Essex Market’s position as a public market with retail that contributes to the local community’s wellness through fresh, affordable food.

Although the panel had intended on showing the audience a positive example of a publicly-managed neighborhood food hall, they may have taken a leap altogether in labeling Essex Market a food hall. Let’s take a look at the criteria set by the panel for food halls and how Essex Market doesn’t quite meet them:

Food Hall
Essex Market
Both local and national brands (mostly local)
No national brands
Curated mix of tenants
Curated to the extent that EDC is maintaining 70% ingredients-focused, produce-heavy purveyors
Plenty of gathering space (communal aspect)
Yes in the new facility
Balanced retail and food
No - 70% ingredients-based retail

Given that there are already some implications associated with food halls, we need to be careful with the way we use the label. In a previous post on food-based developments, we began to explore some of these negative impacts.

…when food-based developments do not serve the wider community, it stands to run into accusations of causing gentrification and rising property values. In Anaheim, California, where a former fruit packing and distribution center was transformed into a food hall dedicated to local vendors, it has quickly evolved into  a selling feature for new residential developments in the neighborhood. Broookfield Residential for example is hoping to “attract young buyers with units priced between $300,000 and $400,000” in a neighborhood that was once a sleepy town known only for Disneyland. Whether intended or not, the Packing House food hall in Anaheim has led to huge inflow of development into the neighborhood, raising prices of property in the area.

Furthermore, food halls that only serve ready-made meals or chef-made meals are often too upscale for the average customer. While they may help fill gaps in a food desert, prices often prevent lower income bracket groups from accessing these freshly-made and locally-grown foods since most prepared foods are not even eligible for SNAP benefits.”

For all of the benefits food halls claim to have as incubators for small, local businesses and chefs, there are plenty of other players in the industry that are simply abusing the trendy name for profit’s sake. Let's not call it a food hall, if it’s really a market or a food court. 

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