by Tierra Smith, Bisnow Houston
One of the hottest trends in the Downtown Houston restaurant scene is food halls. The four new concepts — Bravery Chef Hall, Lyric Market, the Conservatory and Finn Hall, all in place or coming soon — are a critical key to the submarket’s expansion and revitalization efforts. While it was pioneering a few years ago, Downtown is on track to become a solid foodie market, Transwestern Managing Director Nick Hernandez previously told Bisnow. During Bisnow’s Future of Downtown event at The Rice in Houston Tuesday, the panelists had a lively discussion on the similarities and differences of food courts and food halls. We have edited and shortened their comments for clarity.
A’ La Carte Foodservice Consulting Group principal Chris Tripoli (Moderator): Are food halls the next [retail-driven] destination? And, can you comment on how you see that as different than the independent restaurant? What are the similarities and the differences? Bravery Hall partner Anh Mai: “Food halls are a disrupter and have a different business model. With food halls, you can open a business for less, operate a business for less, and there is a user experience for most food halls. The compromise is you don’t get to control it as a single operator. You control it when they come up to your booth, but not overall experience. So our job, and Jonathan [Enav’s] job, is to try to curate a bunch of concepts that can [provide] the experience we are hoping to produce.”
TAG Restaurant Group owner and chef Troy Guard: “We are looking to do a food hall, as well. To me, that is the next phase of what everyone is doing. I look back at Whole Foods and Eataly as those who set the trend. And, the food hall [operators] took it to another level. You have amazing chefs. It has something for everyone. It has a social aspect. It is quick if you want it to be. Or, it can be a longer term, where you sit, socialize, have a couple drinks and eat food. If someone doesn’t like a certain cuisine or style, there are many [concepts] to choose from. You put them in certain locations and the diversity and the accessibleness of it is just amazing. Food halls are a cool trend, and I love them.”
Gin Design Group founder and Creative Director Gin Braverman: “Food courts have been around forever, but food halls are the new fabulous thing. The difference between the two is the design. You are essentially reinventing the mall food court, which was successful for decades. Now, the bar has been raised on the type of food that is offered. But, the community aspect is the same. [A food hall] is kind of like a food court but better.”
Moderator Tripoli: “At another conference, a marketing company that specializes in restaurants said that is what we do best in this country: rename and repromote. Food halls are basically the new food courts. That is what happens when you have some chef-driven new concepts, make the food better, enhance the design and change the name. Now, you have variety but at a higher level.”
Mai: “There is also another element to it. With the traditional food courts, you would see a lot of big chains and brands. But, with the food halls, it is an emergence of the entrepreneur. We did not intend to be an incubator, but we ended up being one. If you look at the Conservatory, all seven vendors are first-time concepts. For many of them, it was their first time opening a business. The same thing with Bravery, every single concept is brand new. A lot of these chefs have been in the industry for a long time. But, not many have owned and operated their own restaurant. The whole spirit of entrepreneurship and passion you see in a food hall, you won’t see in any food court. That is the difference for us.”
Braverman: “This is an awesome first step for people who haven’t entered [the market] yet.” US Property Management CEO Jonathan Enav: “For us, the big difference is the curation. We call ourself a market, because not only are we going to have food but offer other experiences. For the chefs, even if they [have] several restaurants, this is an opportunity to do something else. They love the challenge — getting people to experience their food at a significantly lower price point and entering the fast-casual scene. Even if you have eight to 12 sit-down restaurants, you have to figure out how to do all of that in 300-to-500 SF [and] deliver food at a high level. People are not willing to compromise on the quality of the food. You need to provide that in 10 to 12 minutes, at the max, but more like four to six minutes.”