The rise of the food-hall concept

Photo credit: MAURO MOTTY

For years, food courts dominated the scene as a go-to destination for fast-food operators. But as consumer tastes evolve, so has the rise of the food-hall concept. Today’s food-halls come in all shapes, sizes and offerings, ranging from upscale dining-only venues to multi-purpose destination experiences, to down-home gathering places for locals and tourists alike.

“While the traditional food court is typically designed as a fast-food concept featuring a multitude of cuisines, the traditional food hall tends to be more localized to the market and finds the balance between the seated-restaurant experience and a quick meal on the go,” says Nico Dagnino, managing director, Eataly Canada in Toronto.

While they may be relatively new to the North-American scene, the origins of what we now consider to be food halls harken back to a time when the Singapore government consolidated centuries-old hawker markets under one roof in the 1950s for hygiene reasons, says Didier Souillat, co-CEO of Time Out Market, in London, U.K. “The concept since took hold in Europe, where meeting places for fishmongers, butchers, and grocers began added eating spaces, and brands like Harrods, Selfridges offered [high quality] takeaway-ready meals.”

Time Out Market Montreal, the company’s first Canadian location, opened in November of 2019. Located in the Eaton Centre, Montreal, the 40,000 sq. ft. of space is home to 17 editor-curated eateries representing a wide array of local and international cuisines, a pop-up kitchen, three bars, a cooking academy, and a retail shop. Chef offerings range from upscale comfort food such as Americas BBQ and Burger T!, to Asian, Italian, Portuguese and plant-based options and more.

Everything about the space is designed for mingling. Guests can walk around, speak to chefs and order takers, and pre-order their food and drinks using the Time Out app. “Unlike fast food, they can good quality food served on chinaware, and listen to great music in a great environment,” says Souillat.

Promoting the local vibe
One common thread at food halls is their commitment to local chefs, markets, and vendors. “We wouldn’t open in Montreal the same way we would in Toronto or Vancouver or New York,” says Souillat. “Our focus is on chefs and the culture of the city — as well as beverage components that make it famous.”

When Chefs Hall, described as Canada’s first chef-driven food community market, was established in the heart of Toronto’s financial district in 2017, its main goal was to serve as launchpad for young up-and-coming local chef entrepreneurs. It has also become a popular gathering place for a diverse array of local guests and tourists, from business professionals looking for a quick lunch or coffee, to sports lovers, theatre goers and weekend tourists.

The Forks Market in Winnipeg has been home to local food vendors since its first iteration in the 1980s, says Jenna Khan, communications specialist, The Forks North Portage Partnership. In 2014, it embarked on a major overhaul of the existing market to better represent the community.

“One of the barriers for local young entrepreneurs is that they can’t afford to outfit kitchens and long leases. So we looked at outfitting spaces for tenants offering shorter leases that would allow them to come here and operate in a communal setting.”

She describes the relationships as more of a partnership. “If something is not working, we can identify issues that can help vendors keep things fresh.”

Shorter leases serve a practical purpose beyond giving new chefs a leg up in their communities, says Souillat. “Food evolves, chefs evolve, society evolves, which is why all vendors are on one-year leases.”

A wealth of choices
A crucial factor in determining tenancy is the choices they can provide consumers, Souillat adds. “Not everyone in a party wants to eat burgers. At Time Out Montreal, people sitting at the same table can choose from more than 200 dishes. It’s a great communal environment that brings together people from offices, the local community, and tourists.”

A communal setting is the benchmark for Eataly Toronto, which opened in November 2019 at the corner of Bay and Bloor Streets. The site has become a sought-after gathering space where guests can enjoy authentic Italian dishes in its restaurants, learn how to make them in its cooking school, and/or bring the ingredients home from the marketplace.

“As one of the most multicultural cities in the world, Toronto has a large Italian community and an appetite for new experiences, and Eataly saw it as a strong opportunity to set down roots in a new country,” says Dagnino.

The company prides itself on offering unique experiences with each visit, along with more than 10,000 products to choose from, including artisanal pastas, locally sourced meat and fish, and house-made baked goods. “We often say, ‘we sell what we cook and cook what we sell,’ says Dagnino.

The Eataly Toronto experience encompasses a variety of venues — from restaurants to quick-service counters to a marketplace. Guests can choose from one of five restaurants for a sit-down meal, each with its own unique menu, explore the variety of quick-service areas such as the Roman-style pizza counter or Eataly’s house-made gelato lab, or shop the marketplace to create the Eataly experience at home.

Quality meets convenience
Ultimately, today’s food halls are about marrying quality, affordability, and convenience. “With concepts like Eataly and other experiential food and market businesses, there are so many options to choose from within one space that pretty much every guest has food they can enjoy on location and/or bring home to continue the experience further,” says Dagnino. “Consumers enjoy the ease of enjoying good food while on-the-go. It resonates with the busy lifestyle of the everyday worker.”

“We’re in an age where everyone is much more cost conscious,” says Souillat. “People want to make sure they are spending their money wisely. Food halls offer good value and good moments and quality-driven food at good prices.”

He notes that Time Out Market will be expanding in Canada when the time is right. “We would love to open more locations. Canada has major cities with very, very talented chefs. We just need to find the right locations and partners.”

By Denise Deveau

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