One of the best ways to navigate a crisis is to focus on the few positive outcomes that it brings. In the case of coronavirus, the quarantine has helped us perfect our mother’s focaccia recipe or master our Negroni game. However, there is no doubt that it has also helped us think about the future of our businesses, how they will be shaped after a pandemic of this magnitude, and how the ‘new normal’ will look.
The hospitality industry has not only been among the hardest hit, but it is probably one of the industries that will change the most. Alongside concert venues, clubs and stadiums, it will take the longest in the process of getting back on track. Even for food halls - the latest and hottest trend in terms of dining concepts - the future is uncertain, making it necessary to rethink their business models and their role in the communities they serve.
For almost two years, I have been working as a consultant on an ambitious food hall project in Miami that goes far beyond the simple act of bringing together a variety of food vendors under one roof. It intends to transform a whole area, bringing life, security, and livelihood to the already up-and-coming area of Downtown Miami. During this time, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by visionary real estate developers, contractors, chefs, restaurant operators, big hospitality groups, small entrepreneurs, and even startups. I have learned from every one of them, and have also witnessed how a project of this magnitude is capable of bringing together such a talented group of professionals towards the same objective, for the right reasons.
No one was expecting what happened. We were planning to announce the project a couple of weeks after it became evident that the pandemic was putting the world on pause, regardless of what people were working on. As I write this, construction is ongoing as planned, but we understand that permits will take a bit longer, and signing the last couple of tenants might be more challenging than expected. Are we planning to open as soon as possible in spite of capacity regulations, or public fears about visiting crowded places? Absolutely. More than ever, I believe it is a responsibility to the tenants and the community.
These days there is much talk about when and how the economy will start to reopen. Each country, state, and city is defining its own guidelines, juggling public health and safety, economy, and in some cases, even popularity. For restaurants and food halls, the first days will be, to say the least, awkward. Common practices will include a reduction of dining capacity, greater separation among tables, and reduced opening hours. Also, the experience will be a bit different. People will peruse menus on their mobile phones, and have waiters covering their usual smile with a mask, while they place pre-wrapped and sanitised silverware on the table.
So, what is the future of food halls after the coronavirus crisis? Will they have bigger challenges filling more seats than a traditional restaurant, or making sure all their tenants thrive under the uncertainty of the ‘new normal’? Of course they will. As the world starts to open, restaurants could be some of the slowest to reach the point they were at before the pandemic. People may be cautious, either because they fear the virus by mixing with crowds, or because they will be facing economic hardship. Alternatively, they may have realised that spending some nights cooking at home, after all, is not that bad.
Right after the reopening of the economy, food halls will have to adapt for the first months. Some might use a booking system to limit the number of patrons in peak hours. Delivery and take-out will no longer be a side business. More than ever, menus and processes will be designed with delivery in mind. Food should travel well, and clients will be expecting a richer, more elevated and even interactive experience at home. Food hall tenants, just like restaurants, will have to make their dishes available for take-out, so diners can plate them at home right before enjoying them.
Will this be the new status quo? Or will the ‘new normal’ look very much like the old normal? Only time will tell. Food halls are social by nature, and in a world where the phrase ‘social distancing’ has become commonly used, it might seem that the challenges are even bigger. However, the reasons why food halls became so popular around the world are stronger and more relevant than ever.
Nidal Barake is the owner of the Gluttonomy food agency based in Miami.
The concept of the food hall relies on the principle of community, a sense of collaboration, and the act of sharing. I don’t know how businesses will look in the future, but as a society we hope to be walking out of the quarantine more united than ever. We are valuing so many things we took for granted, and missing the warmth that close friends and family bring, that can only be transmitted in person. Zoom and WhatsApp have their limitations.
Food halls will have a role in rebuilding neighbourhoods and bringing new life to cities. Consumers will value the small businesses inside them. Their appeal is aligned with supporting independent concepts, and moving away from soulless corporate restaurant chains, where each city is a copy/paste version of the other. Some multinational brands, such as Ruth’s Chris, Shake Shack, Eataly, or Sweetgreen, who took multimillion-dollar loans from the Paycheck Protection Program intended for small business, were held up to public scrutiny. Even though those loans were eventually returned, it was probably too late, leaving a ‘been caught stealing’ feel.
From a business perspective, food halls still seem like the perfect platform for chefs or restaurants to venture into new markets or test new concepts, in a controlled environment, and with reduced investment (and risk). More than ever, many new ventures will be launched at food halls, avoiding big investments and maximising the use of space and personnel. This will create more opportunities for entrepreneurs who cannot invest big amounts of money, especially after COVID, where revenue streams where lost, literally overnight.
As we rebuild our businesses and our communities, it seems that we will come together as a stronger and wiser society, valuing some of the things we took for granted in the past. Once the fear of getting closer to one another has vanished - and it will - we will be back sharing communal tables with strangers, sharing different foods among friends and family, and experiencing new cultures through their flavours. And for that, I can’t think of a better place.