Step into the new era of food halls

Story highlights

Food halls are mixed-use spaces that encourage varied shopping and dining experiences

While some famous food halls stand the test of time, a new crop is emerging

Lower start-up costs attract emerging and established talent

Locals find both fault and affection for markets in their communities

CNN  — 

Chef Yiquan Gu opened Gu’s Bistro in a suburban Atlanta strip mall in 2010 because he was tired of working for other people. After 30 years helping other people start restaurants – 12 of them in the United States – he knew there was something special about his take on Szechuan cuisine, a style of Chinese food from his native Sichuan province known for its bold flavors.

He chose a small restaurant on Atlanta’s Buford Highway, a long stretch of cookie-cutter shopping centers known for its variety of ethnic food. He expected to attract customers from Asian communities in nearby Gwinnett County. He did not anticipate that non-Asian food lovers from Atlanta’s urban core would make up nearly half the clientele.

When an opportunity arose to get closer to his emerging customer base, and share space with some of Atlanta’s food superstars, he jumped at it. Gu’s Bistro is not going anywhere at the moment, but his next concept is about as far as you can get from Buford Highway.

Gu’s Dumplings will open this fall at Atlanta’s Krog Street Market, a 9,000-square-foot, mixed-use space that’s been the talk of the Atlanta food scene for more than a year. Anchored by sit-down restaurants from local big-name chefs, the reclaimed warehouse will house 27 retail spaces and market stalls offering prepared food and specialty products.

The market’s developers envision a “food hall” where diners can roam from stall to stall, choosing from baked goods, barbecue, deli sandwiches, or Gu’s dumplings. Or, they can grab a table at one of three sit-down restaurants, or pick up fresh seafood, cured meats and cheese and a growler of craft beer to bring home.

Food halls are the latest culinary trend spreading inward from the coasts, born of an era in which the old way of buying and consuming is new again. It’s a throwback to one-roof shopping from different vendors who had a hand in in the product’s creation, with a modern emphasis on the locally-sourced and artisanally-crafted. They give emerging talent a shot at brick-and-mortar locations, often with fewer start-up costs, and allow established chefs a chance to experiment. Across the country, they offer a snapshot of a community’s culinary identity.

Krog Street’s roster features both kinds of businesses, allowing visitors to experience food they might not encounter otherwise because of accessibility or cost.

CNN host Anthony Bourdain, who is planning to open his own food hall in New York, told Departures magazine, “I think there’s a real appetite for more low-impact, more casual, yet good-quality meal options.

“That goes along with a shift in dining habits in general. On one hand, we demand more variety, better quality, more options. On the other, we seem fatigued with the conventions and time investment of a multi-course, full-service meal.”

The focus on handmade products and local talent has led to criticism in other cities that food halls are destinations for the wealthy, that they serve tourists rather than those who live in the community. But Krog Street’s developers say they chose their location in Atlanta’s intown neighborhood of Inman Park with the community in mind, taking into account things like demographics and average household income and proximity to the Beltline, a multi-use trail and green space that represents Atlanta’s biggest ongoing infrastructure project.

“The growth in Atlanta is happening in intown neighborhoods. That’s where there are more people with disposable income who are willing to spend it on eating out,” said Merritt Lancaster a partner with developer Paces Properties. “Some of the offerings might be pricier than what you’d find at the grocery store but we believe that you get what you pay for. That’s what we set out to do – find chefs that are producing the highest quality food available.”

The growing popularity of the local movement in Atlanta also made the timing right, Lancaster’s colleague George Banks said.

“Even five years ago I don’t think the numbers were there for Atlanta to support this. I don’t think the local food movement here had hit critical mass,” he said. “I think we’re there now.”

Rooted in history

Destinations such as Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market have withstood the test of time, maintaining a connection to the era before supermarkets, convenience stores and fast-food drive-thrus while extending their hours and expanding their offerings for a generation on the go.

Prepared food and restaurants have been a part of the Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market since the early days. A market brochure from 1922 lists bakeries, delis, a coffee stall, butchers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, an oyster vendor, and greengrocers – categories that still exist at the market, spokesman Jim Yeager said. The same 1922 brochure also lists seven restaurants, including a Chinese restaurant in the basement, The Cherry Blossom, serving “Chop Suey, Chow Mein, and Noodles.”

The market changed owners over the years, expanding in the 1980s to include a movie theater. It extended its hours in July to stay open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and marquee vendors such as Belcampo Meat Co. and Olio GCM Wood Fired Pizzeria added beer and wine lists.

New vendors have come in over the years, “many of them of the new artisan sort that has become so common in Portland, Brooklyn, and Silverlake recently,” L.A. Times food writer Jonathan Gold said. It’s a reflection of the neighborhood’s increasingly wealthy demographic.

“The urban mix, the smells, and the light seem uniquely of Los Angeles, especially the way the welter of Mexican and Salvadoran places intersect with the kombucha and the macadamia milk lattes, although perhaps the diversity of local Asian cooking is underrepresented,” Gold said in an e-mail.

It’s not as glamorous as San Francisco’s Ferry Market or a tourist destination in the same way as Seattle’s Pike Place, he said. But new vendors such as Wexler’s Deli (which Gold recently reviewed positively), Belcampo, G&B and McConnell’s are among the best in the city, and “the lines on Sunday mornings are stunning,” he said.

“It has become talked about in a way it hasn’t in many years.”

Krog Street Market aims to create a similar experience from Day One, building on the success of modern forebears such as San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace and New York’s Chelsea Market. Both offer an updated experience of the old-school food market by keeping longer hours and offering high-end restaurant-quality food in casual settings, along with the opportunity to buy fresh fare.

An occasional sour note

Finding spaces for those modern food meccas drove developers to the outskirts of major urban areas, which can be hard to reach. Locals also have to battle crowds of tourists, leading San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace to offer a “veggie valet” where people can leave their goods while they shop. Many residents of Chelsea avoid their neighborhood market on weekends.

“There are some fantastic vendors in the Marketplace, and there is no denying the Saturday CUESA Ferry Plaza farmers market is like our high culinary church, full of dedicated local shoppers each week. But the primary gripe is the challenging and noncentralized location,” said Marcia Gagliardi, founder and editor of San Francisco’s Tablehopper website.

It’s in a part of town that isn’t easy accessible and gets backed up with traffic, she said, “and, of course, jockeying for vegetables in the Ferry Plaza farmers’ market while tourists cluelessly poke around and graze on fruit samples can be frustrating,” she said.

Sweet rewards for locals

For many, though, it’s worth the effort. Before the Ferry Marketplace opened in 2003, grocery shopping entailed trips to neighborhood farmers’ markets and several local shops, she said. At the Ferry Market, shoppers can still meet the people who made their food, but they can do it in one place.

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    “The Ferry Building Marketplace is such a uniquely San Franciscan market because of the local vendors. It’s a great way to experience so many of our local artisans in one spot, to get that ‘taste of Northern California bounty,’” Gagliardi said.

    People come with a checklist, she said: Secret Breakfast from Humphry Slocombe, Blue Bottle New Orleans iced coffee, sourdough bread, “All while looking at the water and the Bay Bridge.”

    “It’s that local-sustainable-organic thing we do here, which we’re seeing more and more around the country. A return to the artisanal.”

    Other new food halls and markets have arisen from the desire for an alternative to historic markets come up in response to the desire for more handcrafted and regional offerings closer to home. Seattle’s Pike Place Market gets all the attention for its produce vendors, food stands and fish flingers. But Melrose Market in the Capitol Hill neighborhood is a favorite spot for locals to eat, drink and shop, said food writer Megan Hill.

    “Pike Place Market is a great place to go to really feel the pulse of Seattle’s history and its modern personality meeting head on,” Hill said. “It’s primarily a tourist spot, as the 10 million or so visitors a year can attest to. But most tourists simply go to see the fish guys throw a mackerel and sample a bit of the local produce on the first level and then they leave. Locals know that Pike Place is a gem of hidden spots and great restaurants that all source very locally.

    “Melrose Market is smack in the middle of a neighborhood, so most of the patrons are locals going to buy a gift, meet friends for happy hour, visit a butcher shop or eat a great meal. That’s not to say locals don’t also go to do these things at Pike Place – and I certainly encourage them to do those things – but the feel is much different,” Hill explained.

    Krog Street’s first restaurant, The Luminary, helmed by “Top Chef” alum Eli Kirshtein opened last week, much to the delight of local food fanatics who have been salivating over news of each development since the project broke ground in early 2013. Next up: a “Mex-Tex” restaurant from Atlanta stalwart Ford Fry and a Kickstarter-funded restaurant and butcher from local charcuterie Spotted Trotter. Rising star Todd Ginsberg has been testing out cheesesteaks at his restaurant, General Muir, and other dishes for his sandwich shop, which will share space with his Israeli restaurant, Yalla.

    The opportunity to share space with some of the hottest names in Atlanta’s food scene without directly competing with them is part of what attracted Gu to the site. Consisting mainly of dumplings, noodles and veggie dishes, Gu’s stall will offer a scaled-down version of the 100-item menu at his Buford Highway restaurant.

    “We liked the concept because almost every tenant has some kind of reputation,” Yvonne Gu said. “The concept is one Chinese, one coffee, one barbecue – only one of each, but one of the best of each.”