Prezzo, Chimichanga, Jamie’s Italian, Square Pie, and Byron are among the growing number of restaurant brands that are either ceasing trading or the shutters are being pulled down on many of their outlets. This is proof if it were needed that this is an increasingly tough environment for food service businesses to operate and that nobody in their right mind would be on the expansion trail at this point in the cycle.
But along with the can’t-put-a-foot-wrong wizards at JKS (Gymkhana, Trishna, Hoppers etc…) there are a number of other people very aggressively growing their businesses – within the food halls category. For every restaurant brand that ceases trading it feels as if it is being replaced by a new food hall. This phenomenon is predominantly concentrated in London but not exclusively as it is spreading to other major conurbations around the country.
There are two ways to look at this: it either represents a complete changing of the guard in restaurant-land that hints at what the future of the eating out industry will look like; or we are seeing the creation of white elephants that will ultimately succumb when the hubris around street-style food goes out of fashion.
What marks the movement out is the credibility of its supporters. Some of the most intelligent and charismatic individuals in the industry are pinning themselves to the category. They are massively passionate and have proven the model for their large food hall/market concepts in various locations.
At the head of the pack has been Jonathan Downey, co-founder of Street Feast – that operates Dinerama, Lewisham’s Model Market and has just received planning permission to open an indoor food market in Woolwich. Alongside him is Roger Wade, who initially created the Boxpark container concept to showcase unique fashion brands but which has since morphed into a food hall business successfully operating in two locations. It has also just received planning permission for a new food market near Wembley Stadium.
Also in the mix is Simon Anderson, an original backer of barbecue pioneer Pitt Cue Co, who is opening three market halls in London including a massive 37,000 sq ft premises in the former BHS building on Oxford Street – apparently it will be the largest food hall in the UK. Between them these three markets will house 50 bars and eateries. Another operator in this field is Incipio, which recently opened Feast Bar & Kitchen – a sizeable 300-seater venue in White City – having made its name with the nearby Pergola on the Roof.
What is most interesting – and potentially alarming – about these markets is their sheer scale. It is because of this we can be sure that property companies love them. They take up serious square footage at a time when retail and food service businesses are vacating premises. And they are frequently in locations that are in desperate need of a prod in order to get some form of gentrification going.
In keeping with the hip relaxed vibe these venues look to create the fit-outs are equally laid back (AKA make-shift), which helps keep costs down of course, but it also sits well with the transient nature of the food offerings that constantly evolve. The core customer base of these food halls demands a different food and drink proposition on each visit. In the case of the Woolwich market the whole concept is temporary because it is effectively a two-year pop-up that will run until the site is redeveloped.
The temptation to move into an ‘on-the-up’ area to take over a disused/empty building and fill it with small food operators and bars is very real for operators and their conspirators, the desperate landlords. But there is a warning from Wade that delivering just a food and drink offer – regardless of how cool the foods providers are – is simply not good enough.
Hence he is adding music and entertainment to his Croydon site and this element will also be integral to his Wembley development. The same thinking is coming from Downey who has highlighted that Woolwich will include a pool hall, trampolines, and other activities.
Such food hall offerings are absolutely not for everybody – just as fine dining isn’t – but the tastemakers like Downey, Wade and Anderson among others are certainly redrawing the food and drink landscape. Their actions will increasingly filter down into the mainstream and have a marked effect on all parts of the industry for some years to come.