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    Inside Chicago's Forum 55: A Food Hall for All

  • Forum 55 rethinks the food hall model by incubating start-ups with a focus on woman- and minority-owned concepts.

    Conscious Explorer
    Last November, Olga Marroquin road-tested her kombuchas through the incubator program at Forum 55.

    With seemingly every week comes another food hall opening, as the urban remake of the food court spreads like wildfire across U.S. cities of all sizes. Highlighting popular local eateries and boutique food vendors, these upscale marketplaces grew 37 percent in 2016, bringing the total to more than 100 (and counting), per the Wall Street Journal. But as the landscape grows more crowded, some wonder how to guard against a possible culling like the one that befell the food hall’s less hip predecessor, the suburban mall food court.

    Enter Forum 55, a “reimagined” food hall, which vending giant Eurest debuted in Chicago last fall on the heels of such splashy openings as Revival Food Hall and Latinicity. This modern marketplace deepens the community connection beyond showcasing local restaurants; it also acts as an incubator for woman- and minority-owned start-ups and sources directly from regional and urban growers.

    “In our business, you have to stay current—this [model] will get old,” says Jim Kallas, chairman of the Illinois Restaurant Association and central division president of Eurest, which is also an arm of foodservice management company Compass Group North America. “I remember when mall cafeterias were all the rage 30 years ago. It’s all a matter of supply and demand.”

    “Edgy, chef-forward marketplace” might not be the first descriptor that comes to mind when you think of Eurest. But this foodservice giant has technically been in the food-hall business for years, via public-facing cafes that feature the Eurest and Compass brands, like the bygone Under 55 Cafe where Forum 55 now stands. But with the advent of upscale food halls around the country, the company started losing its competitive edge.

    Under Kallas’ direction, the team orchestrated Under 55’s remake into a trendier food hall, implementing a cashless order-and-pay system using kiosks and flatscreen order tracking. The 10 vendors comprise a mix of proprietary brands and local, chef-driven concepts, including TV personality Jeff Mauro’s fast-casual sandwich chain Pork & Mindy’s, high-end coffee roaster Sparrow, Mexican stalwart Mercadito Taqueria, and Butcher & Larder Grill from cult favorite Butcher & Larder.

    After visiting a local pop-up market for nascent businesses, Kallas also saw a unique opportunity to leverage Compass Group’s broad reach on behalf of local start-ups looking to reach the next level.

    “I’m a Chicago guy,” Kallas says. “I thought, what a great chance if we could get these fledgling companies into one of our cafes where they could have exposure to thousands of people throughout a week—like the best urban-market survey they could possibly get.”

    Thus, the Apron Exchange was born. Forum 55 began soliciting local, mainly minority- and woman-owned food start-ups to set up shop for a week or two at a small booth stationed at the hall entrance. Participation is free; vendors need only provide staff and product that meet the quality-assurance criteria set forth by Compass. During their stint, they have access to Compass chefs for consultation on issues ranging from recipe design to pricing.

    The program kicked off with Dia de los Tamales, a grab-and-go tamale shop founded in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood by Jeni Wahl, her husband Sam Wahl, and executive chef Keith Carlson. The five-year-old business was preparing to open a second location a few blocks away, inside a downtown shopping development.

    As an experienced pop-up vendor who had done everything from catering TV shows to peddling tamales at the massive annual music festival Lollapalooza, Wahl was taken by the company’s willingness to listen and focus on actual small businesses.

    “Forum 55 is really open to feedback and growing accordingly based on what trends they see, and that’s a breath of fresh air,” she says. “The fact that they’re picking these small, community-focused businesses makes a huge difference. There are a handful of so-called ‘small businesses’ that already have big investors behind them that continue to get picked for certain events over and over.”

    The exposure to the downtown lunch crowd helped Wahl fine-tune the menu at her second outpost.

    For more recent participant Conscious-Xplorer, which makes kombuchas using seasonal fresh-pressed juices and roots, the Apron Exchange gave founder Olga Marroquin the chance to see how her products are received on a mass-market scale. She aims to eventually open a kombucha brewery and event space on the city’s South Side.

    “This week has made me realize that I do have a really special product, and some people are ready to receive it and some are not, and that’s OK,” she says of the experience last fall. “To see such a big, established company giving an opportunity to someone who would otherwise not have it is amazing.”

    A second original feature that Kallas hopes has legs is the Community Garden, a sprawling salad bar stocking seasonal, handpicked produce; locally made tofu; and locally produced cheese from farms across Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois—mostly via local distributor/grocer Local Foods. A second partnership is in the works with Urban Transformation Network (utn), a group of South and Westside churches that partnered with the city and USDA National Resources Conservation Services to turn vacant lots into vegetable gardens.

    Kallas hopes to extend the model to other markets with Compass cafes. He sees similar growth potential extending the Apron Exchange program beyond Forum 55.

    Such efforts also point to ways massive providers like Eurest can wield their influence to effect change at the community level.

    “We are a big company, and people tend to think there’s no face to Eurest, but there is,” Kallas says. “Most of the folks that work in our facilities are from these communities and see that we’re helping.”