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What can the new wave of food halls learn from one of the concept's pioneers?

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

What can the new wave of food halls learn from one of the concept's pioneers?
The food hall is being talked of as the next big trend. But what sets a true originator of the concept apart?

Food halls are poised to play a significant role in F&B’s future. According to property agents Cushman & Wakefield, there are 16 in development in London (the most notable is Market Halls’ huge Oxford Street site​), and, following the success of Altrincham Market House (AMH), northern councils, landlords and investors increasingly see the food hall as a relatively low-risk anchor for wider regeneration schemes.

But is this concept – high-quality communal dining areas where people eat from several kitchens – easily replicated? To answer that, it is instructive to look at precisely what differentiates AMH, a place I know well. As this bandwagon gathers pace, some operators will inevitably crash the gears.

Ownership:​ AMH was an original, pivotal regeneration project in a then failing town. It mattered and, consequently, the community feels great ownership of it. Will third-gen copycats generate such interest, goodwill and loyalty?

Vision:​ For good and ill (elements of it grate on me), AMH is an idiosyncratic expression of owner Nick Johnson’s vision. It has, if not soul, then personality. That is impossible to achieve by committee or marketing calculation.

Independence:​ A coalition of new-ish, genuinely independent operators, which launched with no PR hype, AMH felt like an underdog – one explicit in its opposition to the high street. That took nerve. It is risky. But it is, arguably, more durable than courting known chefs/restaurants and hip street food slingers.

Populism:​ AHM’s core offer (pizzas, burgers, steaks, pies) is populist. Cooler, more fashionably foodie items are available, but less so than in London. Provincial food halls need not be exotic. Primarily, they need to be good.

Familiarity:​ Instinctively, food halls seem a natural forum for pop-ups, rotating traders, guest chef events and endless novelty. Instead, AMH stuck with the same traders, adding a few new ones at its Manchester spin-off, Mackie Mayor. It has proven the value of quality, consistency and familiarity.

Solidarity:​ Food halls are often described as launch pads for new traders, but the corollary of that (local cannibalisation, turnover of units, diffusion of talent, etc.), undermines their long-term appeal. AMH’s Neapolitan pizza star, Honest Crust, could easily launch its own restaurants. But it has not. Instead, Johnson has provided relative unknowns with space to grow, organically, as a loosely affiliated team.

Market​: AMH is attached to a covered market where it can experiment and provide greater variety. More importantly, at weekends, that market’s footfall gives AMH an energy that stand-alone food halls will struggle to replicate.

Tribes:​ AMH is unusually family-friendly until late, in a truly European way, and it attract tribes (CAMRA nerds, hipsters, glam Cheshire housewives, hardcore foodies, curious day trippers), who ordinarily might not mix socially. Maintaining that delicate, diverse ecology, so that no one group defines the space and exclude others, is an under-appreciated art.

Anarchy:​ No bookings help maintain that demographic mix but, at peak times, if you do not have a seat, AHM can feel uncomfortably crowded. That could be ironed out, but that element of chance, of roughing it, is essential economically (to turn tables efficiently, to keep prices down, etc.) to retain the atmosphere. It splits opinion, however. It riles some critics and it would be untenable if, for instance, AHM attracted large numbers of tourists.

Quality:​ Down to its coffee and ice cream, every element of AMH is exemplary. At the edges, where most businesses begin to fray, it does not. Curating third-party operators to deliver that quality at such a granular level is tough. Many food halls will get it 75% right. That may not be enough.

This column first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.

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