Craving a slice of Detroit-style pie, but your friend wants Thai and you’re both looking for a beer to wash it all down? Food halls have you covered.

From Atlanta’s famed Ponce City Market to the institutional Chelsea Market in New York City and the newbie Little Italy Food Hall in San Diego, food halls have claimed a corner of the fast-casual market as their own, offering a new, growing business model for the industry. While these concepts do not necessarily pose a direct threat to the top drive-thru chains or even to emerging fast-casual concepts, they are disrupting the industry by catering to customers’ elevated expectation for quality and convenience. As their growth continues, the food halls are developing even further to contain greater variety, menu innovation, up-to-the-minute technology, and entertainment under one roof.

“The convenience of food halls and their high-quality product seem to be what’s attracting customers most,” says Benjamin Mantica, CEO and cofounder of Fulton Galley, a food-hall operator with locations in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. “These concepts offer lots of variation in one place, so people can go out to lunch or dinner together and get different things and still sit together. Food halls make it possible to get a high-quality meal from relatively independent operators at an approachable price point.”

Chef-driven fast food

Unlike the large quick-serve chains, the typical food hall offers a cornucopia of concepts and cuisines driven by local chefs. Fulton Galley features five options from local chefs, from a high-end deli and bagel concept to a street Thai and Mexican joint to a homemade pasta stall from a husband-and-wife chef team.

Halls like Fulton Galley are often located near office spaces, making them notoriously busy around lunchtime and happy hour. This puts pressure on stall operators and chefs to develop high-end menus while also keeping speed and throughput in mind. “Our operators have had to learn how to cut ticket times, even if they are producing higher-quality food,” Mantica says.

At the 30,000-square-foot China Live in San Francisco, chef and restaurateur George Chen takes it a step further. Rather than host a team of separate concepts with corresponding separate operations, he showcases different types of street food and elevated Chinese food from his team’s portfolio, united on one changing, seasonal menu and served from specialized kitchen stations within one dining room. This not only keeps the menu and guest experience more streamlined, but it also simplifies operations. “Developers know that consumers today, and especially millennials, want more experiential products and services versus commoditized ones, and it all starts with the food,” Chen says. “Food halls show people where the food comes from and how it’s made. At China Live, we show real Chinese cooking in various ways to really entice people to understand a popular and great cuisine—not just offer cheap, fast food.”

Easy access

Forget the shopping-mall food courts in the ’90s; food halls of today offer chef-driven food along with a seamless guest experience.

“It’s not enough in foodservice today to just serve good food,” Mantica says. “You have to provide an amazing atmosphere.”

For Fulton Galley, this means restaurant-style add-ins like table runners and premium dinnerware. There’s also a separate full-service bar and a private dining space that remain open after-hours. And service style varies from hall to hall; Fulton Galley patrons who want to sample different items visit each stall separately to order, pay, and receive their table number.

Other food halls offer cards that are swiped at various stations, with customers receiving a final total at a central cashier station. And Newer Hogsalt’s Astor Hall in Chicago takes this a step further, leveraging technology in the form of self-ordering kiosks where customers order food from one or several stalls, pay all together, and then visit each stall individually to pick up the various items.

Some food halls don’t even have four walls and have evolved beyond the point of a physical space; Sous Vide Kitchen in New York is a virtual food hall powered by online ordering, with the ease of delivery as the ultimate experience.

Real estate meets hospitality

Food halls continue to change the landscape of how restaurant and hospitality concepts run their businesses and search for real estate. Take, for example, the Food Hall Co., which grew out of a single concept: Legacy Food Hall in Dallas. The operator has essentially entered the real estate business, with plans to open multiple halls around the country. The company will open its third location, a two-level, 150,000-square-foot food hall and entertainment space, in Nashville, Tennessee, next summer.

“We like to call ourselves a food-hall company that’s in the real estate and entertainment business,” says Joe Magliarditi, CEO of the Food Hall Co. “The benefits we offer at these destinations is food, beverage, and entertainment that will drive bodies from brunch to happy hour to late-night,” he says.

The Food Hall Co.’s model differs greatly from the traditional “land-based” models of most restaurant chains. Instead of establishing units in locations that will hopefully remain relevant or heat up, the Food Hall Co. focuses on the popularity of a location from the get-go, using a set list of criteria for choosing new markets that include population density, proximity to office and residential buildings, and demographics.

Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Emerging Concepts, Restaurant Operations, Story