Competition | May 2015 | By Daniel P. Smith

This Restaurateur Went to Market

Markets and food halls across the U.S. give foodservice entrepreneurs a chance to prove their concept.
Fast food operators are testing menu concepts at food halls across country.
New York City’s Gotham West Market features nine artisan food stalls. Daniel Krieger

A world traveler, Mary Nguyen Aregoni marveled at the markets peppering international destinations she visited around the globe—the flurried action that attacked the senses, the swirling energy that inspired wonder. So captivating were those visits that when Aregoni finally settled in Chicago and decided to start her own restaurant, one location stood out for her startup eatery, Saigon Sisters: the Chicago French Market.

“There was no place else I wanted to start this concept,” Aregoni says.

One of the Chicago French Market’s original tenants upon its 2009 opening, Saigon Sisters is now one of the market’s celebrated stars. From her 250-square-foot market kiosk, Aregoni has built a loyal following, stimulated brand awareness, and kickstarted development for Saigon Sisters. Now operating a traditional brick-and-mortar storefront in Chicago’s downtown—a shop that functions as the market location’s commissary and was launched inside a former Quiznos—as well as a third unit inside Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Aregoni has established Saigon Sisters and its modern Vietnamese fare as a budding player in Chicago’s dynamic culinary scene.

“And it all began at the Chicago French Market,” Aregoni says. “We’re not where we are today without landing that fortunate spot right out of the gate.”

About 350 miles away from Chicago, in Columbus, Ohio, Brittany Baum shares a similar tale. For two years, Baum ventured to local farmers’ markets in Ohio, peddling her hand-rolled Bavarian-style pretzels under the Brezel moniker. Though thoughts of opening a traditional storefront lingered, Baum rejected those plans and chased a spot in Columbus’s historic North Market, believing the history of the market, its foot traffic, and adventurous customer base would embrace her artisan product.

“I knew we could thrive at North Market, and a spot there was my ultimate goal,” Baum says.

In 2011, Baum succeeded in gaining entry into North Market, a 138-year-old landmark that covers 33,000 square feet with 35 merchants hawking everything from cookware and flowers to pierogies and bean sprout salad. Baum’s North Market spot elevated Brezel, delivering an enthusiastic following and propelling Baum to open a second store in Cincinnati, with plans for a third.

“Being at North Market has been everything I thought it could be and more,” Baum says.

The market defined

For more than a century in the U.S., markets have attempted to mimic the boisterous format found in distant international locales, placing ambitious prepared-foods vendors alongside fresh purveyors peddling dairy, ethnic delicacies, pastries, produce, and more.

Responding to consumers’ increasing appetite for novel culinary creations and higher-quality fare, specifically dishes with a local and artisan angle, markets have enjoyed a 21st-century surge in the U.S. Resourceful entrepreneurs like Aregoni and Baum are accelerating the momentum.

Once-downtrodden markets have been reinvigorated, oftentimes fueled by urban renewal and downtown rebirths, while old stalwarts like Faneuil Hall in Boston and Pike Place in Seattle have held their ground through generations and shifting urban dynamics.

“These are places where people can shop for produce and groceries, but also have lunch or grab a meal for dinner at home,” says Chicago French Market owner and manager Sebastien Bensidoun, a Frenchman whose fourth-generation family business runs dozens of markets around the world. “It’s about convenience and community.”

The market landscape, however, continues to evolve as consumers push for fresh culinary experiences, particularly as the food-truck scene slows from its recession-era highs.

In addition to legacy markets like Pike Place, Faneuil Hall, and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, a new wave of markets—many embracing the “food hall” label—have emerged in major metros across the country. A slimmed-down version of their forefathers, food halls typically favor a smattering of quick-service vendors over the more traditional mix of prepared-foods stalls and fresh goods.

Take Los Angeles’s recently debuted Stir Market, which bills itself as “a modern California take on the classic European food hall experience,” or Gotham West Market, a polished, 15,000-square-foot food hall that opened in November 2013 below a 1,250-unit luxury apartment tower in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Gotham West features nine artisan food purveyors ranging from tacos and sandwiches to barbecue and ice cream. It’s a strategically curated blend of proven New York City successes and segment leaders, says Gotham West Market president Chris Jaskiewicz.

For much of 2014, meanwhile, culinary insiders tracked the movement of famed chef Anthony Bourdain for details about his prospective global food hall planned for New York City. In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that Bourdain Market would open this year, a move that comes on the heels of the Mario Batali–backed Eataly food emporiums in New York City and Chicago, of which a Forbes headline in December 2013 asked: “Is this the future of food retailing?”

Intriguing advantages

Many markets, particularly those located in high-density urban areas surrounded by residential towers and offices, can deliver consistent and predictable foot traffic from locals as well as tourists. An estimated 6 million people visit Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market each year, while North Market in Columbus, which sits across the street from the city’s convention center, captures about 1.5 million visitors annually. In 2014, total merchant revenue at North Market topped $12.2 million, a tally that continues to rise year after year, says North Market executive director Rick Harrison Wolfe.

Traffic counts typically jump during special events and promotional activities that market management creates to spur visits and boost vendor sales. About 6,000 guests attended last September’s Ohio Craft Brew Festival at North Market, a three-day event that brought Brezel its largest weekend of the year.

“Our sales were about four times what they are on the typical fall or summer weekend—and we didn’t pay a single marketing dollar for that,” Baum says.

When the Chicago French Market opened on December 3, 2009, an estimated 50,000 people came through the doors. That energy provided Saigon Sisters and its market brethren—all of whom had bet on the Chicago market’s potential site unseen—unparalleled opening-day access to eager diners.

“That’s never something I could have accomplished myself,” Aregoni says.

And though the market stalls are typically small—just a couple hundred square feet at most destinations—Aregoni unabashedly promotes their potential. “Don’t let the size fool you,” she says. “Revenue per square foot can be amazing.”


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