A former mill that is more than a century old is being transformed into Tompkins Hall, rendering above provided by Paces Properties and Morgan Street Market. The project will be a mix of offices, restaurants and bars, and a massive food hall. It sits north of downtown Charlotte in what once was a mill village and is now a neighborhood whose proximity to center city jobs is attracting hundreds of apartments.
By Page Leggett
Ask Jay Levell of Charlotte’s White Point Partners and Merritt Lancaster of Atlanta’s Paces Properties how a food hall is similar to a food court, and you’ll get stunned silence. Lancaster finally says, “A food hall isn’t an afterthought. It is the experience.”
Unlike mall food courts filled with national chains, food halls typically mix local artisan restaurants with boutique shops and other eats-oriented vendors under one roof. Their ability to draw crowds is appealing to landlords battling the growth of e-commerce
or looking to land more tenants in office buildings. Food halls are one of the newest and hottest ways to combine dining and entertainment in one place.
The two real-estate developers are bringing the idea to the former Tompkins Mill in Charlotte’s gentrifying Optimist Park neighborhood north of downtown. In downtown Raleigh, restaurateur Niall Hanley plans to open Morgan Street Food Hall & Market next month in a 22,000-square-foot space that will be home to more than 60 tenants. They’re part of a trend that migrated to the U.S. from Europe, with as many as 300 halls opening by the end of this year, about triple the number online in late 2016, according to brokerage firm Cushman & Wakefield.
Tompkins Hall will be more than a food hall when it opens later this year. Its three sections will include 80,005 square feet of office space pre-leased by Duke Energy, 33,470 square feet of bars and full-scale restaurants, and a 22,250-square-foot hall of food. Paces, one of the developers behind the $50 million project, also developed Krog Street Market in a 1920s Atlanta warehouse, which has become a foodie destination since its 2014 opening.
The concept isn’t new. Chelsea Market in New York and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, a National Historic Landmark building, are favorite tourist attractions. After an indoor market opened in the basement of New York’s Plaza Hotel, such markets were rechristened and other food halls began to flourish, large and small. There are 16 in Manhattan alone.
But food halls can be found in cities of all sizes, often representing the best local restaurateurs. “People are craving authenticity,” Levell says. “Food halls bring together local chefs and food-truck operators already known in the community. They have soul.”
In Raleigh, Hanley believes Morgan Street will fill a void in food retail and revitalize a long-abandoned industrial space. Exposed brick, high ceilings and hardwood floors are hallmarks of the Morgan Street and Tompkins halls.
These halls of gastronomy have broad appeal. “We expect to see everyone — all ages, locals, commuters and visitors,” Hanley says. But it’s millennials who most crave the concept. “Food halls’ surging popularity is a sign of younger generations looking for choices — and a lot of them.”
Lancaster says Tompkins Hall invested time into assembling the right tenant mix. “It’s a thoughtful process,” he says. “We look at categories we want and then seek out the best and brightest in each category. We pursue them. It’s a very different approach from sticking a sign in front of a space and hoping somebody calls.”
At Raleigh’s Morgan Street, visitors will find everything from curry (Curry in a Hurry) to crepes (Morgan Street Java & Creperie) and sushi (City Sushi) to sausage (Hook & Cleaver). The average fast-food burger will be replaced here by artisan burgers made by a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef: Dan Yeager’s Cow Bar is not to be mistaken for the golden arches.
Restaurant startup costs are often daunting, though the payoffs can be substantial as Americans began, for the first time in 2015, spending more on dining out than groceries. The trend shows no sign of slowing. “Costs are significantly lower for an entrepreneur coming into the food hall versus starting from the ground up with their own entire brick-and-mortar development,” Hanley says.
At Morgan Street, equipment costs at a smaller stall could be as low as $2,000. Stalls will vary from a compact 30 square feet to more than 550 square feet. Monthly rents ranging from $500 to $8,000 cover utilities, common areas, taxes and insurance. In general, proprietors don’t have to worry about keeping up a dining room or parking, though on-site cooking facilities are sometimes limited and the hours long.
“You don’t need the front-of-house staff you do with a stand-alone restaurant,” Levell says. “And you’re not just relying on yourself to get people to come out. You’re going to be exposed to large numbers of people just by being part of a concept like this.”
If you’ve been to food halls in New York or Philly, you know the vibe is often loud, boisterous, colorful, even chaotic — sensory onslaught. North Carolina’s food halls won’t have flying fish, as Seattle’s Pike Place Market does, but visitors can expect a steady volume during the busiest times of day.
“I can see commuters coming here for a cup of coffee on the way to work,” Levell says of Tompkins Hall, which is within walking distance of Charlotte’s expanded light rail line that is slated to open this spring. (That coffee will likely be locally roasted, shade-grown and fair trade.) “And you’ll have moms with strollers, retirees camping out with coffee and a newspaper, business meetings held over dinner and drinks, and then the cool kids showing up late to drink beer.”
A latte or a lager? Indian or Chinese? A grass-fed burger or a vegan wrap? It’s all here. At a food hall, you really can have it your way.