Local, artisanal concepts give consumers on-trend food options for snacks and treats.
The modern food halls that have been popping up around the country represent a giant evolutionary leap from the shopping mall food courts of decades past.
While food courts are traditionally filled with a variety of national quick-service restaurant chains, food halls tend to focus on artisanal food and beverage offerings, often interspersed with craft retail venues such as gourmet butcher shops.
These gastronomic pavilions often feature an eclectic mix of cutting-edge restaurant concepts, from the experimental menus of established chefs to start-ups that tap into current culinary trends. The snack and dessert offerings in these venues are no different.
“People come to food halls to experience a variety of unique dining options,” says Bryan Lewis, founder of Dallas-based Press Waffle Co., which has locations in food halls in Texas and Oklahoma. “Desserts are an essential part of a good tenant mix. Being a dessert concept in a food hall means you are capitalizing on the visitors to dozens of other restaurants, many of whom will be craving a little something sweet after their meal.”
The food hall phenomenon has been growing rapidly. About 300 major food halls are expected to be open across North America by the end of 2020, up from 86 at the end of 2016, according to research from real estate developer Cushman & Wakefield.
Most of the newest food halls offer some local, artisanal snacks and dessert concepts, from gourmet ice cream shops featuring fun flavors to high-end, chef-driven French patisseries offering delicate baked goods.
Following are some of the key considerations for operators weighing the opening of a dessert concept in a food hall:
1. Curate the food hall menu
High traffic volumes and visibility are strong selling points for operating in food halls, but these venues can pose some challenges for operators. Many food halls have limited or shared space for storage and equipment, and operators often need to have a limited menu of top-selling items that must be at least partially prepared off-site.
At Time Out Market in Miami Beach, Fla., for example, renowned pastry chef Antonio Bachour has opened a scaled-down version of his flagship Coral Gables bakery that features a simple menu of croissants, petits gateaux (small, filled cakes) and coffee. The petits gateaux were recently cited by the Miami Herald as being among the top offerings at the newly opened food hall, which was Time Out’s first in the U.S. Time Out also recently opened a food hall in New York City, and has additional locations planned for Chicago and Boston.
“The volume has been greater than we expected,” says Javier Ramirez, managing partner of Bachour. “We have had to increase the quantities sent.”
The most popular dessert item at the food hall location, he says, is the Red Velvet Croissant.
Likewise, Press Waffle Co., which operates in food halls in Texas and Oklahoma, generates about 80 percent of its sales from just three menu items:
- The House waffle, topped with fresh-cut strawberries, a chocolate-hazelnut syrup, cookie butter and homemade whipped cream.
- The Build Your Own waffle.
- The Chicken & Waffles entrée. This item, along with other savory fare such the Monte Cristo waffle sandwich, helps to drive sales at peak mealtimes when customers might not be craving a sweet dessert, says Lewis.
2. Create an interactive dining experience
One of the characteristics of a successful food hall snack/dessert venue is that it enhances the customer’s overall experience of being in the food hall. This often translates into made-to-order snack and dessert options that allow guests to customize their selections.
“Desserts can no longer be stagnant,” says Lewis. “The day of the well-decorated cupcake sitting in a bakery display is being replaced by more interactive options.”
At Press Waffle Co. customers have the ability to fully customize their waffles, which are assembled right in front of them.
“Guests want speed, variety and something worth filming for social media,” says Lewis.
3. Keep food options interesting
Kristina Ostrom, owner of Mac & Moon, which offers vegan treats in two Louisiana food halls, also offers a level of interactivity with her menu of made-to-order desserts in the form of vegan Thai-style rolled ice cream, vegan bubble tea and milk shakes. But the signature product, vegan French macarons made under her own brand, Karmacaron, also keeps customers coming back for the ever-changing kaleidoscope of flavors.
“We never have the same offering of flavor combinations at the same time,” she says. “We are constantly rotating.”
The most popular Karmacaron flavors — which include red velvet, birthday cake, wedding cake and chocolate hazelnut — are almost always available, she says, but Mac & Moon has also enjoyed success with “some really funky flavors.”
“I love weird flavors, and I love to see which weird flavors other people like,” Ostrom says.
Her desire to experiment with herbed flavors led to the creation of a lemon-blueberry-basil macaron, for example, which has become one of the most popular flavors at Mac & Moon. Other experimental flavors that have won over customers include:
- White chocolate-lavender.
- Black sesame-ginger.
For snack and dessert operators who offer the right products and dining experiences for today’s consumers — and have the right systems in place to work within the confines of these modern foodservice mash-ups — food halls can deliver high traffic volumes directly to their cash registers.