When I think of food halls, I am reminded of the open air market I visited in Cádiz, Spain established in 1838 and situated in Plaza de la Libertad. To borrow from a piece I wrote in 2015 while I was there “Walk through the market with flip-flops on and you will have saltwater on your toes, the smell of the morning’s catch in your nostrils, and an earful of friendly banter from one stand to the next.”
Travel 8,150 miles from Cádiz and we have arrived at our topic du jour: the modern food hall. With a short Uber ride, we can journey to an experience similar to that of what we might have had 200 years ago. We wanted to explore why this model of eating is so successful and what brands and marketers can learn from its prosperity. So, we did our research the one way we knew how: by eating our way through three of Denver’s favorite food halls.
You may not leave the Denver Central Market with saltwater on your shoes, but you might leave with a renewed appreciation and connection to the food you eat and the people preparing your meal. Situated in the heart of RiNo, Denver’s arts district, Denver Central Market is a work of mastery in of itself, from the beautifully converted building to all the expertise brimming inside. The feeling of disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with food and friends is palpable inside, and with this ‘Do Not Disturb’ mentality comes a renewed admiration for the food we purchased and the vendors we spoke with. So, in layman's terms, food halls are the perfect example of experiential retail in action and millennials are literally buying in. At Denver Central Market we enjoyed clam chowder and fresh oysters from Tammen’s Fish Market and then grabbed a coffee from Crema before we headed to our next stop.
After a brief Lyft ride from Denver Central Market, we arrive at The Source.The Source scores major points for food variety, and patrons have 25 vendors to explore, ranging from wood-fired barbeque to authentic Greek cuisine. We went with Greek at Safta and the warm, dense pitas did not disappoint. Every time our waitress asked us how we were, we said “amazing, but could use some more pita.” And in that moment I knew that’s what I would like to title my memoir. The Source is also the perfect venue for pop-up stores to get their start while enjoying short term rentals instead of committing to the long-term investment of a storefront. For the food hall, rotating retailers keep the space fresh and drive incremental foot traffic.
Within walking distance from The Source is Zeppelin Station. The building is juxtaposed to the train tracks, and you’ll walk in to find the first level devoted to food while upstairs a swanky drink lounge awaits you. Zeppelin Station has the broadest range of ethnic foods to choose from: From banh mi, to ramen, to a rotating regional stand (featuring Montreal-inspired cuisine when I was there). Zeppelin Station achieves the perfect balance between being a great weeknight dining spot and a casual weekend watering hole. I was so full at this point, I got ice cream from Gelato Boy and a drink upstairs. Admittedly, I’d been to Zeppelin Station before and their banh mi and poke bowls are to die for.
At this point we are stuffed with enough food to kill a horse, so let’s whip out our elastic waistbands boil it all down. Food halls are masters of agile innovation. They are constantly recreating themselves with seasonal menus, rotating pop-up shops, and always fresh community art exhibitions. The whole experience of dining in a food hall is photogenic and conducive to sharing, not to mention the delicious and varied culinary offerings you’ll find. Maybe the loudest message we should heed from food halls is a lesson in transparency: From sourcing, to production, to the name of the man or woman preparing our food we are more intimately acquainted with our buying experience. Food halls have come a long way from the school cafeteria and we can’t wait to see what’s next.
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Feb 28, 2018