Grand Central Market may be the godfather of the L.A. food hall, and its offspring have become too numerous to count.
Just as the food truck craze went from fad to fixture, food halls across L.A. have debuted, expanded and been updated at breakneck speed. From Altadena to Century City, downtown and Highland Park, they range from the upscale and carefully curated to the organically assembled hodgepodge. From downtown’s Smorgasburg, a loose interpretation of a food hall that operates on a weekly, pop-up basis, to Chinatown’s Far East Plaza, a culinary mashup of both veteran establishments and new-school additions, these collections of bite-sized restaurants have become a quantifiable movement.
“I would argue L.A. was an early adopter of the food hall trend, with the Farmers Market (adjacent to the Grove) and Grand Central Market downtown well established,” said Lisa Jennings, associate executive editor for Restaurant Hospitality, in an email. “It's a trend that's taking off nationally, though still in early stages, so it's no surprise to see more coming to L.A.”
In fact, in the next year alone there are seven new food halls slated to open across Los Angeles, LAist reports, and the city is not alone in its obsession. Massive food halls are slated for not only major urban areas such as New York, D.C. and Chicago, but also in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Plano, Texas, Jennings said.
Just last month in downtown L.A. the Corporation Food Hall debuted in its namesake building. While some argue this eight-stall location is more of a “food court," it doesn’t lack in variety; vendors sell everything from poké bowls to Mediterranean food, tacos, coffee and macaroni and cheese burgers. Building owner and real estate developer Izek Shomof had recently renovated the Corporation building, built out creative office space, and saw opportunity for a food hall on the ground floor.
“I saw there was a huge demand and said why not try it,” Shomof told the Los Angeles Times.
Many other developers appear to feel the same way. In the Beverly Grove neighborhood, an in-progress food hall dubbed Edin Park stretches 50,000 square feet and is slated to include more than 30 vendors spread over two floors and a rooftop. Just a stone’s throw from that will be a food hall at the Beverly Center called the Street. Curated by chef Michael Mina, it’s expected to include up to 14 stalls, including an outpost of LA Mill Coffee and a barbecue spot from Ayesha Curry.
Across the city in Highland Park is the incoming Billie Bird marketplace on York Boulevard. In Echo Park, a development called BrickWorks — while still in its infant stages — plans to rebrand the “existing collection of tired retail buildings” along Sunset Boulevard into a “trendy urban food court,” among other things. Just a few blocks west of this project is the near-complete Mohawk Collective, which, while advertising lease space for “designers, specialty brands, merchants, restaurateurs,” has so far landed mostly chain restaurants, including Starbucks, Chipotle and the Habit Burger Grill.
While many of these projects are popping up in increasingly “hip” or “gentrified” neighborhoods, packaged in a shiny exterior of exposed brick, the expansive popularity of food halls is more than skin-deep. The format and function of these places are rooted in the hall’s ability to address the current needs of both consumers and entrepreneurs. For one, a big challenge in the restaurant industry right now is getting people off the couch to actually go out and eat, said Jennings.
“Food halls offer a dining experience that you can't really order with DoorDash,” she said. “Groups can scatter and get what they want — there's no veto vote — then come together to eat.”
It’s a choose-your-own-adventure for food, requiring no compromise among diners and catering to the customization-crazy eater in all of us. Food halls also provide an accessible portal of entry for restaurants just starting out, offering the chance to dip a toe in the water without the increased financial risk that comes with opening a full-service restaurant. At a time when the minimum wage is increasing, food halls are a “lower-labor format” with typically limited service requirements, said Jennings. While some halls contain full-service, sit-down options, most stalls require customers to order food at a register and then pick up their meal themselves — eliminating the need for servers or additional staff, and thus cutting down on costs. Food halls also offer shared facilities, meaning responsibilities like bathrooms and trash disposal are shouldered by multiple outlets.
“There's a lower cost of entry, and leases in food halls are much shorter than a brick-and-mortar,” said Jennings. “In some cases, the food hall operator serves as a business incubator and may even offer help with financing. It's a way to test the waters.”
In many ways, food halls seem to be headed down the same path as food trucks, from a creative culinary experience into an all-out phenomenon. That’s because the two have a lot in common; both require a smaller investment than opening a full-scale restaurant, both utilize less in the way of labor, and both operate in a small space that necessitates a short menu, said Jennings. However food trucks don’t have the luxury of selling booze like many halls do, she added, and chefs who work off of wheels often have to also pay for approved kitchen space.
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While the food hall rage shows no signs of slowing, not every hall is created equal. Many locations do feature vendors who are all independent entrepreneurs, but some halls are actually opened by one, very large restaurant company simply looking to test out its own culinary concepts, said Jennings. Locations like Mario Batali’s Eataly — an upscale Italian food court and grocery — are actually best described as “multiconcept restaurants,” said Jennings, because all the stalls are operated by the same owner. Eataly’s West Coast location is planned for the Westfield Century City shopping mall and expected to open by the end of this year.
It’s worth noting that as many L.A. food halls are still in early stages, the development, construction and permitting of these outfits can pose significant problems. For example, plans for the Altadena Marketplace, “a unique food-lover’s destination with an array of options to satisfy all taste buds,” were announced more than two years ago, but just last week the operators wrote a lengthy Facebook post that they may abandon the project.
“For the last 21 months, we have spent a lot of time, capital and resources in obtaining plans and permits. We had to work through all eight government agencies to ensure that the project is permitted and done correctly,” the post states.
While the open letter goes on to reference a variety of bureaucratic hurdles, it also points to pushback over their application for a license to serve alcohol, and an overall waning sense of community support. The owners have announced they put the building up for sale and are continuing to weigh their options.