The Low Down On South Florida's Food Hall Craze

May 15, 2019

Food halls have been showing up all over South Florida the past couple years. The concept is simple: a communal space with various food vendors from local restaurants in the region. Last week, Time Out Market opened on Miami Beach, becoming the second food hall on Lincoln Road alone. Nationwide, the number of foodhalls is growing too -- from 70 in 2015 to 118 in 2017, according to real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield.

But the financial sustainability of food halls remains a big question. Jackson Food Hall, which opened in the Jackson Health District last year, only lasted a few months before shutting down. Chris Vila, the owner of Grandview Public Market in West Palm Beach, thinks there's a sustainable future for food halls. He argued, “There are different markets for every food hall, small, medium and large. There are a lot of gaps that will be filled and I think a lot of operators will get very savvy about how to do it as this grows."

Vila joined Nick Hamann, owner of The Citadel in Little River, and Zachary Fagenson, food writer for the Miami New Times on Sundial on Wednesday to discuss the food hall craze hitting South Florida.

WLRN: Tell me what a food hall is Nick. Tell me why it's not a food court. 

Hamann: There are two major differentiators for us. One of them is definitely the sense of experience that you get when you walk into the space. And the term food hall, at least for me and the way we've always envisioned it, always denotes a sense of community. So you're sitting down and you're having a conversation with people that you may or may not have met before and you're doing it over amazing -- and in our case local -- food. So that sense of community is something for us at the Citadel that differentiates a food hall from the term food court. It has to be both the experience and the space. 

Fagenson: There's so many of these popping up right now. And there's so much interest in them, as we're sitting here right now obviously shows. But you need to think beyond the first six months of an opening, what is going to happen that's going to keep drawing people back? In Miami, people love to try new things. The question I get asked a lot is, "What's the new hot restaurant?" And I tell people, well these are my favorite standbys, I know I'll get a good meal. So after somebody goes (to a food hall) the first two or three times and they've tried everything, if they don't love it what's the reason for them to keep returning? And I think that is really something we're going to be seeing play out over a period of a year or two.

One of our listeners messaged us with a question on Facebook.

Chris, I'll let you respond first.

Vila: Yeah I think that's an interesting interpretation. I think that you have to be competitive in any marketplace and that's important because at the end of the day, you are running a business. So it's important to charge prices that are going to make sense to a wide range of people. As Nick was saying and I would echo his sentiment, we are creating an experience here. There are beautiful seating arrangements, places for people to hang out all day and spaces that you can just come sit in all day. So I think you're creating kind of a hub for people to just enjoy. 

Fagenson: Peter in a sense is spot on. I mean I think he's talking about the "hawker" markets that you see in Singapore, which just have this amazing rainbow of cuisine. And there's the wet markets in Hong Kong where you could go buy all this fresh seafood and have it cooked right there for you. We're sitting here with real estate developers. So they're obviously putting together a business plan and they're trying to think what's going to be most successful. This is the path that they've found that's most successful. I do agree that this cuisine is a little bit expensive considering what the reality is of what Miami can afford. We all know the statistics on the wealth disparities that exist here. 

We also heard from Alex from North Miami about what she thinks food halls are doing to neighborhoods like Little Haiti. She said, "It's going to be an engine of completely redistributing population and capital. They raise questions about who's space it is and who feels comfortable and at home there."

Nick, there were protests by residents in Little Haiti prior to the opening of the Citadel and I'm wondering if you've had those conversations with locals about these issues. 

Hamann: We certainly embrace the conversation. We are extremely inclusive. For me, the easiest thing for me to do is to tell somebody to go to the Citadel because a lot of these criticisms come from people that sometimes haven't even been there. In fact, tomorrow we have an event at the Citadel which is a hyper local Haitian event. We are not by any means excluding any sort of group whatsoever. 

Fagenson: I think in this criticism there should also be attention paid to local government. Real estate in Miami is a steam roller, it rolls over things. You could see right now adjacent to the Citadel, there was one little strip mall that had a bodega and a small cafe, that got bought out and got gutted and redone. Perpendicular to that, right across the street, is another one where the same thing is happening. So the question is, "Where has the government been for decades that essentially allowed this real estate development?"