It's past midnight. As your stomach growls, you can't help but follow the intriguing aromas coming out of the Asian convenience store. As you step inside, you realize it's a prop for something bigger. There are hordes of people walking in and out, eating at communal tables, or browsing through the different food stands. They have plenty of options to choose from—ramen, Peking duck, sushi, dumplings, poke and even banh mis. In the back of the room, the bar pours frozen beer and cocktails to a boisterous crowd. The modern, industrial venue is right in step with the trendy neighborhood. There’s even has a patio where a second bar is set up, a DJ does his thing, and the ice cream shop serves colorful soft serve on fish-shaped cones.
The place just described is 1-800-Lucky, Wynwood's uber-popular, Asian-themed food hall, the first one of many to debut in the Magic City in the past months. Other recent arrivals include Italian-themed La Centrale and Casa Tua Cucina in Brickell, New Orleans export St. Roch in the Design District, and most recently, health-centric Jackson Hall in the Miami Medical District. With no less than five additional openings anticipated by December, every indication shows that 2018 will be the year of the food hall in Miami.
But these are not your typical shopping mall food courts. At these high-end markets, the vibe is hip, the vendors are (mostly) local, the food is gourmet, and there is not a fast-food chain in sight. There are many different types, from themed to eclectic, from compact to multi-leveled, from local to imported, and it seems like most major Miami neighborhoods will boast with at least one in the coming months.
Upscale food halls have been in style for the past several years in the US. The trend traces back to Europe, with long-standing institutions like El Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid and Harrods in London serving as examples, and later became popular in the U.S. with the opening of Turin-based Eataly. Following the success of its NYC location, Eataly expanded all around the country, inspiring many others to replicate its business model. The rest was history—these days, the food hall craze is so significant that real estate company Cushman & Wakefield predicts that there will be more than 180 food halls in the U.S. by year-end and 300 by the end of 2020.
Variety is the name of the game when it comes to a food hall's appeal. Under the same roof, you can find a myriad of cuisines ranging from French to Vietnamese, grab coffee and freshly baked pastries while working on your computer, hang out with friends for happy hour, buy imported snacks to go, or get a nightcap.
"For the new generation of consumers, going to a single restaurant is not enough anymore," says Jacopo Giustiniani. His Italian food hall La Centrale features no less than 14 food stands, seven sit-down restaurants, and three individual bars. According to the restaurateur, today's consumer wants it all and wants it fast. Long are the days of spending three hours at a fancy, white-tablecloth restaurant and paying hundreds of dollars for a multi-course meal. "Consumers these days prefer a more approachable experience, and they appreciate the variety and fast-paced service that food halls offer," he adds.
Simultaneously, the growing costs of restaurant ownership have also driven many up-and-coming players in the food industry to opt for a food stall instead of a brick-and-mortar shop. Recognizing this gap, founder and CEO of St. Roch Market Will Donaldson made it his company’s motto to make restaurant ownership attainable for any hopeful restaurateur in America.
“First-time restaurant owners have to speculate on so many things—food traffic, permitting, construction. They have to go through a long, arduous and unexpected path just to get back to doing what they love, which is cooking," says Donaldson.
Fortunately, joining the industry doesn't have to be as hard as it once was. Ultimately, what food halls are doing is enabling new restaurateurs to take manageable risks. At St. Roch, for example, vendors are not required to make personal guarantees—all they have to do is pay an initial deposit to get in. "It's kind of like moving into an apartment”, says Donaldson. “It's not a three million build-out, which is what you would pay to open a brand-new restaurant in South Beach," he adds.
Regardless of the trends fueling their growth, we are thankful for the diversity that food halls have brought to our culinary landscape. All we can say is—keep them coming!
Interested in visiting one of Miami's many food halls? Check out any of the below haunts.
Number of vendors: 7
Number of eateries: 14
Number of stations: 10
Neighborhood: Design District
Number of vendors: 12
Number of vendors: 10
Neighborhood: Miami Medical District
Number of vendors: 6
Header image courtesy of La Centrale.