In this unpredictable world in which we all live, one thing is assured and that is change constantly occurs. We’re all seeing this first hand with the structural shifts taking place in the retail sector and the consequential grip it is having on our beloved high streets. The reasons for these changes have been well-documented, but we are now seeing these adjustments transcend through to the restaurant/dining market with a number of high profile restaurant casualties, brands disappearing and more vacant units littering our neighbourhoods.
However, juxtaposed to this is the rise taking place in a new eating concept - the ‘food hall’. Street food per se has been around for many years, but only since the arrival of places like ‘Street Feast’, ‘Pop Brixton’ and ‘Boxpark’, along with the amalgamation of catering choice, has the popularity really taken off. Whilst there are many different approaches now established including pop-up units, container parks and market halls, they all generally share a consistent theme - good quality food, affordable prices and a positive dining experience.
Food halls are especially appealing to groups. With the increase in demand for vegetarian and vegan options, as well as more variety in eating preferences, it’s often difficult to choose a restaurant to satisfy the whole group. But food halls allow groups to choose from different stalls offering a range of cuisines and then reconvene to eat together at shared tables. The informality of shared tables in communal food halls makes for a dynamic atmosphere that many restaurants can’t match.
But food halls are not just appealing for consumers. For budding restaurateurs, opening a restaurant comes at a great risk – high rents, substantial business rates and rising costs mean the overheads can be too great to gamble on, even if you have a tremendous talent in the kitchen.
In contrast, food halls offer the opportunity for aspiring chefs and traders to showcase their skills and try to build a reputation, without the financial risk. Make a name for yourself and that restaurant you’d like to open becomes less daunting and more achievable.
And the market is backing the growth of the food hall too.
Last month, it was announced that food hall operator Market Halls was set to secure a £20 million funding deal with private equity firm Bridgepoint to accelerate its growth plans. This summer Market Halls will open its flagship Oxford Circus site in the former BHS building which, at 37,500 sq ft, will be the UK’s largest food hall, and the operator has set its sights on other major cities across the UK.
This is an excellent example of how a former retail unit can be repurposed to create an interesting venue that adds to the area and draws visitors. In the current retail landscape, there are plenty of other opportunities like this – and not just in London. Tired high streets across the UK could benefit greatly from food halls – hosting pop-ups of local restaurants and cafés, increasing footfall and in turn boosting local economies.
Food halls can also be great meanwhile uses for temporarily empty buildings or commercial units, providing developers and landowners with often much needed capital and bringing life to an area before permanent development begins.
Retail-led developments, especially out-of-town, often need an added pull to encourage visitors and food halls can be a great solution. We’re looking at incorporating a food hall into one of our retail-led schemes and I’m confident it’ll prove to be valuable for us and could be a great addition to other future mixed-use developments.
Whilst food halls aren’t likely to be the saviour of the high street, they are certainly an expanding attraction, one that the discerning customer will see as a positive change.
Nick Scott is head of Ashfield Land’s London team and is responsible for sourcing property development opportunities in London and across the UK