New Year, New Food Trends, No Poke

As Mothersauce wraps up its first calendar year of operations, I am looking back with pride at all that we have done, but I am mostly looking ahead to what we are going to do. Our future is very bright, and I will soon announce some incredible projects for 2018.

In the meantime, I get asked a lot about trends—what is the next one, which one is a fad, what’s my favorite. Occasionally, I get asked a better question—where do I see the food and beverage business going? While that question is mostly tailored to DC, it is always valuable to think more broadly and ask also where is the business going nationally?

This seems like the perfect topic for my end of the year blog post.

Thinking about where the food and beverage business is going is critical to deciding where to invest my company’s resources.

There are trends that I don’t think have any staying power (I love poke, but…), and there are trends that seem to be holding on and even growing (cider). Instead of exploring them all, l am looking at one that will continue to have a major impact:

Food halls.

Not food courts, of course. A food court is the place in Pentagon City where I get my hair cut and NEVER, EVER go to Panda Express. Especially not for beef with broccoli.

Dammit.

A food hall, or sometimes a food market, is a curated collection of vendors under one roof that eschews the traditional one building, one concept model. The key is a multitude of offerings, but not too much overlap (think of an all hamburger joint food hall. Overkill. And, gross). Like many things, the model is simple but not easy.

In our area, we are fortunate to be punching above our weight class (like we always do in food) by having two food halls in the nation’s top 20, Eastern Market and Union Market. Union Market, in fact, is in Bon Apetit’s top 5.

Newcomers like The Block have added more flavor and penetrated the suburbs, and there are so many more variations on the theme on the way, it is hard to count. Mike Isabella is claiming 40,000 square feet in Tyson’s (it is in a mall, but it is NOT a food court—got it?). Notable chef Jose Garces is opening a 20,000 square foot Latin-themed food hall around the corner from Union Market, and developers know that to offer the latest to their tenants, they need to get in on this—Forest City is planning to open “Quarter Market” as a part of their remodeling of the Ballston neighborhood in Arlington. Will Ballston finally be a cool place to go? Doubt it, but it’s a start.

There are many more, and there are some interesting twists. Incorporating retail not just for F&B, but clothing and home goods is an interesting way to create stickiness and offer vendors a platform other than a traditional shop. This winter, The Block borrowed from an Asian tradition, huge in LA, to open a “night market.”

What is consistent is the customer’s desire to access many different options in a setting that is cool, informal and easy. Everyone gets what they want, the experience is seamless and fun, and you want to go back.

But, how do they work for the partners involved? The landlord, the management company, and the vendors themselves? Hard to say, but what seems like an amazing thing from the customer’s perspective is rarely as clean and smooth behind the scenes. The logistics and the economics are far more complicated than with a traditional restaurant setup. Figuring that out will be the key to long term success for all the partners involved.

And if they do figure it out and pack the places, will they kill restaurants? No, not at all. But it is already having an impact on the food and drink scene, and it will continue to do so.

The real interesting question is how will they evolve. Right now, a food hall is basically a mixed-use development with tenants paying rent and sharing some amenities. Simple.

What more could it be? Is there an evolution that truly creates a win-win-win for the property owner, the customer AND the vendors? Perhaps someone out there is already working hard on that model…

Ahem.

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