Artisanal movement reaches food court scene

The Associated PressFebruary 7, 2014 

Prime cuts of meat were on display at Eataly’s grand opening in New York in 2010. The spate of new “food halls” in the U.S. caters to the country’s emerging culinary sophistication.

CHARLES SYKES/ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE, 2010

In Singapore’s equivalent of food courts, hawkers sell steaming bowls of noodles, giant crabs in pepper sauce and slices of pungent durian. In Barcelona, patrons at the La Boqueria nibble finely aged ham and buy fresh produce to prepare at home. In the United States? Historically, it’s been a wasteland of spongy pretzels, giant sodas, greasy fried rice and endless burgers.

But that was Food Court 1.0. Recently, shoppers from New York to Seattle have witnessed a reboot of the food court experience, as sumptuous farmers markets-slash-gourmet eateries become increasingly common.

“They’re exciting, delicious, affordable, democratic places to eat,” says Stephen Werther, the chief executive officer of Wink Retail Group, which has partnered with food personality Anthony Bourdain to create a New York food hall — today’s preferred nomenclature — featuring dishes from around the world. “It’s really just America catching up with some of the wonderful ways the rest of the world eats.”

Bourdain joins other name-brand chefs such as Todd English, who opened a food hall in New York’s Plaza Hotel in 2010 and Mario Batali, whose Italian-themed Eataly, now in New York and Chicago, may be the best known of the country’s food halls.

“In history, markets and collective food areas have been around forever,” says Sam Oches, editor of QSR Magazine, which covers the quick service and fast-casual dining industry. “What Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain are doing is to brand it and make it something that’s a little bit bigger in terms of its scale and its exposure.”

In Washington, D.C., retail developer Edens revived a vintage venue to create Union Market, a 40-artisan food hall that is just over a year old. In Seattle, a high-end “shellfish deli” and other local vendors reside in Melrose Market, a 4-year-old project housed in a renovated auto garage. In Chicago, the French Market brings together more than 30 vendors, from a crepe shop to a kosher deli and a bakery from “Top Chef” veteran Stephanie Izard.

There have also been recent changes to food courts in the South Sound.

Spokeswoman Megan Kamitsuka said Thursday, “Tacoma Mall is already home to a variety of international flavors for its guests, such as Flaming Wok, Cajun Grill, Sarku Japan and Sushi Express. Recent openings including Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt, Blazing Onion, and MOD Pizza show our commitment to expanding and enhancing dining choices to meet the desires and tastes of our shoppers.”

Markets, of course, have been around for decades, even in the United States. Venues such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market and North Market in Columbus, Ohio, have long attracted tourists. And of course there is San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, a farmers market and collection of high-end purveyors such as Recchiuti Confections and Cowgirl Creamery that opened in 2003.

But for most Americans, the food hall experience has mostly been limited to the mall food court, a pale imitation of what the rest of the world has long enjoyed.

The spate of new options caters to the country’s emerging culinary sophistication. Difficult economic times also have fostered the trend of multiple independent vendors in a communal space. At the same time large retailers have been reluctant to take on new spaces, smaller merchants have seen an opportunity to share rent, utilities and other costs. The growth of Internet shopping, some say, also has supported the trend toward food halls.

“Food and beverage venues can afford to pay the rent in renovated buildings like ours or in new buildings versus retailers that are getting squeezed by the Internet and the big box stores,” says Scott Shapiro, co-developer of Seattle’s Melrose Market. “Looking at it from a landlord’s perspective, our tenants are people who can have a sustainable business. It tends to be more food- and beverage-focused.”

The shopping mall food court pre-dates today’s food halls by at least several decades, according to figures from the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York-based trade association that tracks the first shopping mall food court as we know it to a Paramus, N.J., shopping center in 1974. Industry experts say even these venues are evolving.

Staff writer C.R. Roberts contributed to this report.

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