Food halls will be among the last dining destinations to reopen in most of the world. The models for these massive, multi-concept operations rely on vendors in close proximity, high customer traffic and communal tables, making it difficult to enforce safety protocols. Industry naysayers believe the model is unsustainable post-pandemic, at least in the short term. That may be the reason for the closure of Foodlife, Chicago’s “first food hall,” according to parent company Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.
However, Foodlife operated in a retail mall and was laid out more like a grab-and-go market. Food halls have evolved considerably in the 27 years since it opened, and many of today’s operators are optimistic about their post-COVID future. Those halls that were in development before the pandemic are moving ahead with opening plans, and these concepts may reach 300 in number by the end of 2020. Plus, operators of established food halls have been busy upgrading technology, rethinking the space and strategizing safety guidelines in preparation for opening.
Didier Souillat, CEO of the six Time Out Markets worldwide, hasn’t reopened any of these food halls yet, but expects Lisbon to be the first, with Montreal following. “It’s challenging in the U.S. as the regulations change from state to state and often, city to city,” he says. But he is aiming for late July or August to open locations in Chicago, Boston, Miami and New York. “We only have one shot at opening and we have to make sure it’s the right time,” says Souillat. “We [Time Out] lost a tremendous amount of money during the shutdown and we don’t want to open and close again.”