Food Halls Cater to Evolving Tastes, Social Trends

Food Industries Report: The food halls that started it all, plus the one's on the way

Inside Zepplin Station. 

Broadway Market opened in February 2019 a half-mile south of the Colorado State Capitol, a prototypical modern food hall with nine concepts from top local chefs, along with a shared bar and high-tech, self-serve “beer wall.” The vibe is hip, unpretentious — and a little reminiscent of a time-tested culinary model.

“They’re the 2019 version of the 1970s shopping mall food courts, with better food in general — and liquor,” says John Imbergamo, a Denver-based restaurant consultant with his eponymous Imbergamo Group. “They provide the same level of diversity food-wise as those food courts used to and some still do. Park Meadows still has one.”

Regardless of the concept’s origins, food halls are on fire in Colorado: There were about 10 in Denver at last count, several more on the Front Range, and projects in the works in Boulder, Golden, Colorado Springs and Edgewater.

Imbergamo says his client, Jennifer Jasinski’s Crafted Concepts, was intrigued with Broadway Market but “just didn’t figure it out.” Staffing was one stumbling block, and booze was another hang-up. Alcohol is typically 25% to 30% of a restaurant’s receipts, but the landlord owns the bar at most food halls.

Differentiation is increasingly critical to a food hall’s success; Imbergamo points to Avanti’s incubator model in Denver’s LoHi area and the established restaurateurs at Broadway Market. In LoDo’s Dairy Block development, Milk Market “is a little bit unique in that all of the things are under one guy, and that’s [prolific Denver chef] Frank Bonnano,” he adds.

While Denver perhaps approaches saturation, Imbergamo sees the suburbs, Boulder and Golden as ripe for the concept. “I don’t think you want to be the 15th food hall opening in Denver, especially in a concentrated area,” he says. “It’s like being the 15th steakhouse in Denver. It’s too much of the same animal.”

Mark Shaker, partner at Denver-based Flightline Ventures, developed Broadway Market after opening Stanley Marketplace in a former aviation factory in Aurora in 2016. While Stanley is what Shaker calls “a modern-day interpretation of a shopping mall,” Broadway Market is a true food hall. “We do have a little bit of retail, but it’s driven by food,” he says.

Broadway Market’s “celebrity chef lineup” includes established restaurateurs such as Justin Brunson and Daniel Asher. Shaker says the model lets them focus on the food. “We remove a lot of extraneous stresses from the chefs,” he says. “Chefs are artisans. As they move to restaurateur, they get into a lot of pains of running a business.” At Broadway Market, “Chefs have to just bring their knives and food.”

The rent is higher per square foot, but Shaker says Broadway Market counters that by providing dishwashers, busers and marketing support. “We gain efficiencies,” he says, with a system “that leverages economies of scale” for less financial risk to the operators.

Shaker says the area’s daytime office workers and nighttime residents offer two distinct customer bases for Broadway Market. At Stanley Marketplace, he says, “We had to create our own daytime traffic” through tenants such as a dental office and a Pilates studio.

Flightline is next opening Golden Mill, a historic 1865 mill on Clear Creek in Golden, which Shaker calls “a hybrid between a beer garden and a food hall.”

Kyle Zeppelin was a pioneer in Denver’s food-hall landscape when he opened The Source in 2013. The campus expanded with the addition of The Source Hotel and a second market hall last year.

“It’s really responding to the casual evolution of people’s tastes,” Zeppelin says. As e-commerce booms and shopping malls shutter, he says, “People want to be around other people. People and place are still highly valued.”

Zeppelin calls the original Source, built in an 1880s foundry, a “restaurant-driven market hall,” highlighting Milwaukee Public Market, Philadelphia’s Redding Terminal Market, and Union Market in  Washington, D.C., as inspirations.

Near the 38th & Blake light-rail station in 2018, Zeppelin Station is what Kyle Zeppelin calls “a traditional food hall combined with a new take on retail.” There’s a built-in clientele, he adds. “You have a couple million square feet of office around it. You’re getting the daytime flow.”

Location is key, he says, and transit hubs are ideal. And there’s a sweet spot in terms of scale: Too many square feet dissipates the energy too much. “The massive version of it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Zeppelin sees plenty of room for more food halls in Colorado, and mentions Winter Park and Breckenridge as possible targets for a complex encompassing a modern ski lodge. “There’s still too much strip-mall retail,” he says. “I don’t know if there is a saturation point for a collaborative format.”

For restaurateurs, food halls offer a chance to experiment and prove concepts before making a major investment. Notes Imbergamo: “There is a logical process from concept to food truck to food hall to opening a regular restaurant. It’s a step-by-step process that might work for some people.”

Several Avanti tenants have opened (or are in the process of opening) as standalone restaurants in Denver, including Brava Pizzeria, American Grind, and Bamboo Sushi.

Kristofor Lofgren, founder of Portland-based Bamboo Sushi, the world’s first restaurant certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, saw Avanti as a great entry point into Denver before moving to a standalone location in LoHi after about a year. “The strategy was quite simple,” he says. “Start small, start humble and work our way up.”

With five locations in Oregon, Bamboo Sushi is “in expansion mode,” Lofgren says, highlighting upcoming openings in Northern California and Seattle as he searches for a second location in Denver.

While Lofgren is happy with the decision to launch in Denver at Avanti, he doesn’t plan on diverting from standalone restaurants again in the future. “I think we’re kind of done with food halls,” he says, calling it a “less scary and less expensive” option for fledgling restaurateurs.

Like most culinary trends, there is something of a tipping point. “When you get saturated,” Lofgren says, “you get a lot of food halls — and a lot of mediocrity in food halls.”

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