Food hall craze flourishes in Baltimore

With three new projects, food hall-market craze flourishes in Baltimore

Food halls are the latest fashion in dining out, but they're a concept as old as the first street market.

With multiple eateries sharing a space, modern food halls satisfy social cravings for communal entertainment while serving up more local, arguably healthier food options than their forebears, proponents say. In many ways, they're like mall food courts gone crafty.

Now, spurred by demographic trends and changing patterns in how people eat, they're popping up in reinvented form around the country, including in Baltimore.

The Time Group installed the Mount Vernon Marketplace on the ground floor of its new $32 million apartment building at 520 Park Ave. A few of the more than dozen vendors, including a dumpling stand and bar, are open, with more expected for the Oct. 14 grand opening.

Along the Jones Falls near Hampden, Terra Nova Ventures has started a $22 million renovation of the Whitehall Mill, courting vendors for an 18,000-square-foot market it hopes to open on the first floor next spring, with a beer hall, Italian grocer and coffee shop.

And Seawall Development Corp. said Tuesday it's already "oversubscribed" for the $12 million, 10-kitchen emporium called R. House it's planning to launch next fall in the first floor of a former car showroom in Remington.

"We've been absolutely overwhelmed with the amount of folks that have reached out to us already," said Jon Constable, a partner in Seawall.

The renewed attention to marketplaces is often traced to celebrity chef Mario Batali's Eataly, a 50,000-square-foot, always-mobbed mix of restaurants and expensive Italian food products that opened in New York in 2010.

But the idea is much older than that. In Baltimore — home of the "World Famous Lexington Market" since 1782 — the concept is familiar, if sometimes associated with beleagured buildings and merchants struggling to compete in the age of supermarkets. There's also the private Belvedere Square Market, which offers an array of eateries, including Atwater's and Hex Ferments.

Economic and demographic trends have driven the shift in tastes, analysts said.

The Baltimore developers involved in the food halls in Mount Vernon, Remington and Hampden are supporting residential investments they've already made in those neighborhoods. The new, often younger populations living in those buildings are looking for neighborhood hangouts, and they're creating a density capable of supporting new establishments.

"Remington's been growing" said Constable, whose Seawall completed the Miller's Court apartments, rowhouse rehabs and has a new building underway close to R. House. "The neighborhood wants more food options, and rather than doing one or two standalone restaurants, which are always an option and a little more par for the course, we thought, 'Well, how do we do this differently? How can we add this whole social element to it?'"

People also are cooking less, while caring more about the quality and source of their food. That's produced a shift to pricier prepared foods that makes the enterprise more likely to succeed financially and more appealing to the private sector, said Larry Lund, principal of the Chicago-based Real Estate Planning Group.

"A lot of this is being driven because there's more profit in prepared food than there is with raw food products," said Lund, adding that the grocery-eatery mash-up is even appearing in places such as Whole Foods and Wegmans. "You have a value-added product that they're able to deliver."

Meanwhile, Lund said, vendors born of a resurgent farmers' market scene — there are now 8,268 farmers' markets in the United States, nearly double the number from 2006 — are maturing and looking for space.

Pinch Dumplings launched at farmers' markets in the Washington area in 2013 and was the first stall to open last month at Mount Vernon Marketplace. Patrick Exon, 32, who founded the business with two longtime friends, said he liked the idea of locating in a food hall, where vendors can cross-market and keep overhead costs low.

"It gives the same feel, same concept [as a farmers' market] but more stability," he said.

Food halls also reflect an increasingly casual, "spontaneous" attitude toward food, said Irena Stein, who started three restaurants in Baltimore and who, with two chefs from Alma Cocina Latina, has signed a letter of intent to open an Venezuelan-style arepas bar at R. House.

"If you want to eat something and you don't want a full restaurant experience, you can go to a market such as R. House and have different choices," said Stein, adding that the format is also "user-friendly" for starter chefs. "I think it's a wonderful approach."

The revival of Belvedere Square, remade in part thanks to city financing at the start of the 2000s and now often cited as an inspiration by the newcomers, heralded the city's first private, modern push into the field. The shopping market's evolution in the years since underscores the wider trends.

Meghan Walsh has worked as a consultant to former Under Armour executive Scott Plank's War Horse LLC on its mixed-use projects, including Belvedere Square and The Hall in San Francisco. War Horse and other partners are also in negotiations with the city about taking over management of Federal Hill's Cross Street Market.

Finding the perfect mix of tenants to produce that comfortable, entertaining, return-again-and-again hub, is an "art form," especially in Baltimore where familiarity and nostalgia for the city's historic markets raise expectations, she said.

"It's tricky," said Walsh, the owner of City Slicker LLC. "You can't approach food markets like any development project. … It's never going to be a cash cow. It will lose its authenticity if you approach it that way."

Walsh said she is aware of criticism that Belvedere Square has become overly focused on eateries. The market is looking for a fishmonger, but finding small, viable merchants is difficult, she said. She is worried about the city's burst of new establishments.

"I just wonder where the supply is going to come from of great operators," she said. "I think you have to reach far outside of Baltimore once Cross Street's filled up to find great merchants. So I'm fearful, but I trust that if someone's putting it in, they're doing the research and they are confident."

The developers of the new places said they believe their projects are complementary and each will find its own niche.

Seawall representatives, for instance, said their R. House project is focused on five-year leases to prepared-food operators. The firm's model involves taking care of many of the back-of-the-house responsibilities — permitting, hiring waitstaff, even washing dishes — in hopes of allowing the tenants to focus on food, in an effort to appeal to starter chefs.

Terra Nova Ventures hopes to distinguish itself with its central location, selling more groceries and goods such as cheese, as well as offering a historic building with views of the Jones Falls, said development manager Jennifer Tufaro Nolley. The firm still is negotiating with the city over flood plain regulations.

"Everything is in place," she said. "The columns and the beams are there and it's open. It's really beautiful, so it's going to be different from the other markets in that sense, because it's a very old building, so it will just be kind of fun to visit."

The new privately owned spots also present competition to the Baltimore's six public markets, where city officials have steered investment in recent years. Northeast Market, near the Johns Hopkins Hospital campus, received a nearly $2 million facelift, while the city recently selected a design firm for a proposed $27 million overhaul of Lexington Market and is negotiating about Cross Street

Robert Thomas, executive director of the Baltimore Public Markets Corp., said some of that timing has been driven by aging facilities in need of repair, but it also reflects the wider trends.

Thomas said he is not worried about the competition from the new private markets, so long as public markets make sure they define their niche, remaining committed to fresh produce and lower-income clientele.

"That was my initial half-second response, but it's really not comparable," he said. "It's important for public markets to appeal to people all along the socio-economic spectrum. ... Food halls have great appeal, but they may not have that universal comfort level."

nsherman@baltsun.com

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