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Atlantans clamor for food halls and developers continue to deliver

The formula for success should balance variety, convenience and community.

When David Cochran, original developer of Inman Park’s Krog Street Market, saw the former iron stove factory warehouse cleared of vines and gutted of partition walls left behind by Tyler Perry’s former studio, he had an “aha moment.” The vast space with natural light spoke to him.

“The energy was compelling,” he said. “This place had purpose.”

Fast forward almost 10 years and the food hall has been lauded as one of America’s best food halls by Travel & Leisure magazine and garnered James Beard Award nominations for the Ticonderoga Club. The once-abandoned property that very well could have been converted into apartments instead became a trailblazer for the city. Today, Atlanta is brimming with 11 other food halls, and eight more are in the works.

Food halls are changing the way Atlantans eat as diners are increasingly drawn to a single place that offers a myriad of choices for dining and shopping. But it’s more than convenience that drives customers. So what exactly makes a food hall successful?

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Credit: Courtesy of Barry Cantrell

Credit: Courtesy of Barry Cantrell

After speaking with food hall developers past and present, one thing is clear — these are not the food courts of yesteryear malls with a mission solely to provide sustenance for shopping power. Whether it’s a destination spot or a community-focused business model, the successful food hall combines convenience, variety and communal space.

In an America where 80% of people live in urban areas, food can serve as a powerful vehicle to foster a sense of community. At a food hall, people of diverse backgrounds and means mingle, eat and afford an opportunity to connect as “neighbors.” But it’s not a recent invention.

“When you look at a modern-day food hall, you are basically looking at a shuk in the Levant 3,000 years ago, Pompei before the volcano, places where vendors would gather to serve food,” said Andrew Zimmern, chef, TV personality and co-owner with Robert Montwaid of Chattahoochee Food Works in Westside. “People think they have to be big, but they don’t,” he said. “Small ones service the neighborhood. It’s like a neighborhood restaurant with a 50-item menu divided amongst 10 places … and it’s convivial.”

The success of a food hall is a delicate equation of convenience and experience while delivering high-quality food. There are many factors that contribute to the achievement for the consumer, restaurateur and developer.

Vendor mix is crucial for success. Cochran called it “conceptual separization.” After prioritizing the restaurant concepts and types of cuisine he wanted for Krog Street, he began to fill up the stalls with independently own, chef-driven restaurants so that “the strength of the group was more massive than the individual tenant.”

Jeff Kimmel and David Heymann of forthcoming Chamblee Tap & Market thought similarly. “The first piece is talking to potential vendors and working on a mix,” said Kimmel. “There can’t be overlap.”

“It’s a challenge,” said Heymann. “You want an eclectic mix, and also we want to be complementary to neighboring businesses.”

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Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Credit: Andrew Thomas Lee

Luca Varuni, owner of Varuni Napoli in Midtown, joined Krog Street after coming back from a trip to Spain, where he enjoyed the “high-energy environment” of the indoor market Mercado de San Miguel. “What makes a great market is the perfect combination of quality and diversity,” he said. “An environment where people can walk around and smell different flavors, see cooks and vendors in action and test things before buying them.”

Being one of the first to curate a new food hall in Atlanta, Cochran said the challenge was breaking the mold for how restaurants used to work in Atlanta and convincing restaurant operators to cohabitate.

Starting out in a food hall has many benefits for up-and-coming restaurateurs, including lower start-up costs, shared expenses and an increase in foot traffic and exposure.

“Food halls are a wonderful way to jump-start people and help with those who don’t have a million dollars and a line of credit to open their own food business,” said Zimmern.

Being part of a food hall is also a way to get into a highly sought out area like The Battery, said Poke Burri co-founder Seven Chan. He said he would not have been able to find an affordable space nearby otherwise. The more Atlanta expands, the opportunity to find a space can be limited.

“They’re not making any new great downtown areas,” said Heymann.

While an eclectic mix of desired tenants might enhance the owner/developer’s bottom line, being a part of a collective has bonuses for vendors beyond marketing and cheaper rent. It provides the opportunity to share expenses, to unite when landlord issues arise, to co-brand and to work together for festivals and events.

“A rising tide raises all boats,” said Chan.

For restaurateurs who don’t have the upfront capital to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, the food hall comes with less risk, often shorter contracts and the ability to see what works on a smaller scale. For some, it provides the foundation to expand a business.

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Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Chan started Poke Burri in East Atlanta’s Global Grub Collective food hall (now known as Qommunity), “the smallest, cheapest thing we could find,” he said. He now has locations in Ph’East at The Battery, the Collective Food Hall at Coda in Midtown, Duluth and other cities in the South. Spiller Park Coffee started at a kiosk in Ponce City Market and now has locations in Toco Hills and northwest Atlanta, and owner Dale Donchey has a bagel shop and Jewish deli in the works.

For food halls to succeed, they need to be flexible, ebbing and flowing with the times, and the pandemic was a good illustration of this. For Montwaid, that meant allowing for more outdoor dining. Chattahoochee Food Works now has outdoor patios covering 22,000 square feet of space.

The developers of Chamblee Tap & Market included garage doors to open up and increase air flow, and they tinkered with plans for well-spaced common areas. “The biggest challenge really,” said Heymann, “is deciding today (if) the right decisions are the right ones for the future.”

Credit: Via Failla

Credit: Via Failla

With so many food halls in existence and even more on the horizon, could Atlanta become oversaturated? Zimmern says no. “I don’t think there are enough food halls in any city,” he said. “They can be large; they can be small, but they will continue to be a part of our cultural fabric for as long as we have people eating.”

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