Can Chicago’s Food Halls Survive the Pandemic?

When Hayden Hall opened in February, it was simply the latest food hall in a city increasingly saturated with them. Every few months, some impeccably designed project opened promising a collection of top-notch chefs, from Time Out Market Chicago in the West Loop to Wells Street Market in the Loop. Some were even getting national attention. On Feb. 26, Margaret Pak’s Thattu in Politan Row was selected as a semifinalist for best new restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation.

With a few exceptions, the public’s insatiable appetite for food halls looked like it would never end. For developers, the format was an easy way to attract crowds to downtown projects. And for restaurateurs, whether aspiring or established, it was an affordable way to test new ideas.

But with all Illinois restaurant dining rooms closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the idea of stuffing hundreds of people together in one room sounding unsafe, will food halls be able to survive?

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“I’ve never felt so ill prepared to answer such a big question,” says Bruce Finkelman, managing partner of 16″ on Center, which runs Revival Food Hall in the Loop. Finkelman says he’s been focusing on the immediate issues. “It’s heartbreaking the amount of people we had to furlough,” says Finkelman. “I’ve been worried about how we pay rent. Do we have a workforce when this whole thing is over? It’s really hard to look at the bigger picture right now.”

It doesn’t appear that food halls in Chicago will be able to open any time soon. According to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s five-phase reopening plan, restaurants will be able to reopen their dining rooms with 50-person capacity limits in phase four. (Currently, we are in phase two.) But food halls, which depend on attracting large crowds, probably won’t be able to fully reopen until phase five. And as the governor’s plan details, phase five won’t happen until a vaccine or some other effective treatment is widely available. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates it will take a year or more to develop a vaccine.

Will food halls be able to survive being closed that long? And will customers want to return to crowded spaces? Already, a few food halls in the works have pushed back their opening dates.

London-based Urbanspace, which has U.S. food halls in New York and suburban Washington, D.C., has pushed back its planned opening at 15 W. Washington St. in the Loop, which had been set for April. A larger, 14,000-square-foot food hall is expected to open in the city’s tallest skyscraper, Willis Tower, in August or September, Urbanspace president Eldon Scott says. “It’s really, really tough,” Scott says of the pandemic. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall in the old Cook County Hospital building, was expected to open in July or August, but according to Chicago developer John T. Murphy, that will now depend on when restrictions are lifted.

Revival Food Hall, which remains closed Monday, May 18, 2020, in the Loop in Chicago, has been an opportunity for small restaurants to get a start on the scene.

Revival Food Hall, which remains closed Monday, May 18, 2020, in the Loop in Chicago, has been an opportunity for small restaurants to get a start on the scene. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Finkelman believes there’s no way for food halls to reopen without input from doctors. “We’re looking toward the medical community to help us to provide a safe space,” says Finkelman. “We could come up with different ways to make our customers feel safe, but we really need the medical community to help us.”

John Williamson, the general manager at Wells Street Market, echoed that view. “Unfortunately, the regulations and stipulations required for reopening are vague right now and we want to make sure we have all the guidelines before we comment,” writes Williamson in an email. “The safety of our staff and guests is our top priority and we’ll share steps we’re taking with you as soon as we have more direction from the government.”

But that hasn’t stopped Chicago chefs and restaurateurs from wondering just how a food hall can possibly adapt.

“Here’s the problem,” says Ravi Nagubadi, owner of Art of Dosa in Revival Food Hall, “everything that is good for a vendor (at a food hall) is predicated on crowds, which are no longer going to be allowed. The financial mechanics of a food hall for the next year or more could be called into question. What made it financially viable in years past is no longer in the new normal.”

The last customers visit Time Out Market in the West Loop on March 15, 2020, as the market announced plans to close indefinitely. Soon after, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced all bars and restaurants would be closed to dine-in customers beginning March 16, 2020.

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