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The Origins of the Food Hall and Its Booming Popularity

Daniel Hautzinger
Revival Food Hall
Revival Food Hall is just one of several food halls recently opened or planning to open in Chicago

Humans have been gathering to shop, buy foodstuffs, eat, and converse in a single, fixed place for centuries, so why have “food halls” lately become all the rage? In Chicago alone, several have opened in the past few years, including Revival Food Hall, which will be reviewed on Check, Please! on February 15 at 8:00 pm. How are they any different from markets, cafeterias, or that mall staple, the food court?

The food hall is essentially the millennial iteration of those concepts. It’s typically urban, post-industrial, and local where the food court is suburban, corporate, and franchised. Instead of offering simple, standard “American” dishes in an environment designed for quick, solitary eating like the cafeteria of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it contains a diverse assortment of vendors with foods from around the world and encourages lingering socialization (hence the frequent presence of a bar). And while you might be able to do your grocery shopping at a market such as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (established in 1461) or Cleveland’s West Side Market (opened 1912) in addition to grabbing a bite to eat, food halls mostly offer prepared dishes, with the possible addition of a specialty vendor such as a baker, florist, or butcher.

Food halls are well suited to the tastes of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings, and as such are popular with developers – which helps explain the recent explosion of them. From 2010 to 2017, there was a roughly 700% increase in the number of food halls in the United States, and in 2017 the number was expected to double by 2019. Landlords and developers love them because they draw crowds even in a time of declining retail sales and changing shopping habits. Food halls capitalize on the fast-casual trend of higher quality but still quick-service restaurants like Sweetgreen, Chipotle, and Shake Shack. Plus, if they’re on the ground floor of a residential building, they’re appealing to tenants, who don’t have to leave their building for a decent meal or drink.

Wells Street MarketFood halls like Wells Street Market also provide a social gathering place and usually contain bars to encourage lingering

Chefs also benefit, given that operating out of a food hall reduces the startup costs of opening a restaurant, provides near-guaranteed foot traffic, and takes away some of the logistical burdens involved in food service. “It’s like the difference between owning a home and owning a condo,” Barry Sorkin, the co-owner of Smoque BBQ, which has an outpost in Revival Food Hall, told the Chicago Tribune. "In a condo, you don't have to worry about fixing the roof. At Revival, we show up and prep and serve, and most everything else is taken care of."

Whereas the food court emerged in the postwar period due to the boom in suburbs and concomitant development of shopping malls, food halls seem to have originated in the 2000s as a part of the postindustrial movement of adaptive reuse and re-urbanization. Eataly – which is generally considered to be the first modern food hall in its consolidation of various vendors, specialized groceries, bar, and both sit-down and quick-service restaurants under one roof – opened its first location in a shuttered vermouth factory in Turin, Italy in 2007. It now boasts locations around the world, including in Chicago; its first American outpost opened in New York in 2010.

Chicago’s French Market at Ogilvie train station has been in business since 2009, while our outpost of Eataly opened in 2013, followed by Block 37’s Latinicity in 2015. Lettuce Entertain You’s Foodlife in Water Tower Place was an early pioneer, having opened in 1993. And suburban outposts of East Asian supermarkets such as the Japanese Mitsuwa Marketplace and the Korean H Mart, which recently opened a branch in the West Loop, have offered several food vendors along with groceries since opening.

Eataly ChicagoEataly is considered the first modern food hall, with its combination of specialty groceries, vendors, and restaurants all under one roof

But Chicago has a long history of similar institutions. There was the vibrant Maxwell Street Market on the near West Side, which featured vendors selling everything from food to trinkets to furniture; the foods it served changed with the shifting demographic population of the area from Eastern Europeans to African Americans. Demolished in part to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway in the 1950s and then further in the ‘80s and ‘90s for the University of Illinois, it now takes place along Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt and Harrison and is largely Mexican in character – and still offers delicious food, from tamales to mole to churros.

Another fast, varied food service style originated in Chicago in the 1890s, when the entrepreneur John Kruger adapted the smorgasbord restaurants of Chicago’s large Scandinavian population into the cafeteria. (He got the name, which means “coffee shop” in Spanish, from a visit to Cuba.) Several chains serving dishes such as frankfurters and cold corned beef sandwiches soon emerged to cater to the burgeoning population of workers in the Loop, featuring one-arm wooden chairs that allowed for quick solo dining. Soon the idea had spread to other cities around the country, while the area around Madison and Clark Street became known as “Toothpick Alley” for its concentration of cafeterias. Today, Valois Cafeteria in Hyde Park, opened in 1921, carries on the tradition, as does Manny's in the South Loop, located there since 1964.

Now, a century later, the downtown area is once again filling up with large food service places, though in a millennial form. In addition to Revival, Eataly, Latinicity, and the others, there’s Wells Street Market and the new Aster Hall at 900 N. Michigan Avenue. Two additions are planned for the West Loop this year: Time Out Market and a hall developed by the Galley Group, which already operates halls in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Detroit. They may be an adaptation of an old idea, but it’s clear that the popularity of food halls is only just beginning.