Even During A Pandemic, Food Halls Just Keep Opening
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Last year, food halls were all the rage. A wave of new openings from Minneapolis to Houston heralded a booming niche in the hospitality industry. "What used to be touristy rarities have become landmarks of Southern Californian cuisine," we reported back in September 2019.
A lot can change in a year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended all expectations for the Southern California food scene. With most indoor dining prohibited, takeout has surged as have food delivery apps. Every day brings new stories of restaurants closing or desperately revising their menus and business models. Food halls face many of the same obstacles.
Like traditional restaurants, food halls need to bring in enough customers to justify their overhead while adhering to the physical distancing mandates of the pandemic. These expansive, multi-vendor marketplaces are designed to cultivate social eating experiences -- pretty much the opposite of every coronavirus public health directive urging us to stay home and, if we do go out, to stay away from other people.
"Opening inside a food hall or public market is much more cost effective than opening a standalone brick-and-mortar," says Christian Solomona, the co-founder of "Hawaiian-inspired" eatery Shootz, located in the recently opened Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton, just north of Westminster.
Although this is Shootz's first physical location, he says business has been "crazy," even during the pandemic. "We've had nonstop lines since day one with maybe 30-minute breaks of no lines. We serve anywhere from 250 to 275 guests per day," Solomona told us in mid-November, prior to the most recent round of stay-at-home orders.
With so many activities cancelled or disrupted, the demand for takeout, a relatively accessible pleasure, makes sense. Like restaurants, food halls around the county have had to adapt by implementing temporary safety measures. They've expanded outdoor dining, bulked up their janitorial staffs and experimented with a handful of socially-distanced events.
On top of those challenges, food halls face a unique set of issues. Instead of managing the licensing, permitting and utilities for a single establishment, they have to do it for eight or a dozen or three dozen outfits. That hasn't stopped them from opening.
Glendora Public Market opened in late September. SocialEats Hollywood and Rodeo 39 (which Orange County classifies as an "outdoor center") both opened in October, and Rodeo 39 implemented a curbside to-go program in December. The Citizen Public Market opened in Culver City in mid-November and just added a new vendor, Jolly Oyster.
Jason Hsiao, who as managing director of Shaw Investments oversaw the Glendora Public Market opening, says he and his team spent more than two years developing the project. One of the draws was the opportunity to restore a 1940s Wonder Bread factory. They managed to keep much of the original design, including 20-foot-high vault ceilings and a handsome wooden truss, intact.
"It's just such a beautiful building, and it falls in a section [of Glendora] that the city is trying to revitalize. It required a little bit of vision," Hsiao says.
Aiming to create a hub where locals and visitors could hang out any time, Hsiao's team assembled a roster of breakfast businesses including Cassidy's Corner Cafe and Penny Coffee Roaster, quick lunch stops like Bolo and Belly Bombz, and happy hour favorites such as Smog City Brewing.
Before a single customer was allowed inside, the Glendora Public Market had to, in Hsiao's words, "figure out how to get to the next stage."
At an all-hands meeting, the tenants agreed to convert parking spaces on the building's north side into additional outdoor seating (there was already a small patio at the front entrance) and to lean into takeout ordering as a group. For Hsiao, that meant barricading a side entrance to traffic to create space for produce deliveries and pick-up drivers without interrupting the flow of customers.
Hsiao also installed socially-distanced seating areas with shade covers, hired more janitors and helped each vendor make sure their build-out and permitting met new COVID-specific protocols. Even so, Glendora Public Market's opening was ultimately delayed by several months.
Hsiao had been planning for a February or March debut. The Glendora food hall's opening was pushed to Memorial Day, then to the July 4th weekend and, ultimately, to September.
"We were in a tough spot where some of our tenants are more financially sound than others. Some were comfortable or able to move at the pace that we needed them to, versus some that were just dragging their feet because their hair was on fire," Hsiao says.
One of the 10 original vendors was forced to drop out. Such stories are commonplace these days among both up-and-coming food halls and veteran ones like the Grand Central Market in downtown L.A.
Adam Daneshgar, the co-owner of the 30,000-square-foot venue, says the pandemic caused a "significant loss" in the market's foot traffic. He says it also allowed him to recalibrate priorities at L.A.'s oldest food hall.
When L.A. County officials banned indoor dining, Daneshgar says Grand Central Market launched a much-needed floor-to-ceiling deep-cleanse, including in its massive, underused basement area. Plexiglass barriers were installed for each vendor and one-way directional signage and data tracking were added to prevent crowding inside the market.
Like the Glendora Public Market, the vendors at the Grand Central Market also partnered with ChowNow to create an unprecedented workaround that allows customers to place a single order from multiple vendors within the market.
Daneshgar also spearheaded the GCM Bazaar, which has brought vendors you'd mostly see at flea markets and craft fairs -- like House of Mosaic Candles and Highland Gift Shop -- into the market every Thursday through Sunday. He says he intends to continue the project after the pandemic ends, provided his tenants approve.
"My goal is for everyone to get through this together," Daneshgar says, "for us to come out the other side with all of our tenants intact and have them in a position to thrive once again."
Grand Central Market had, in recent years, ramped up its roster of live events. COVID brought that to a halt, so Daneshgar and his team created Grand Central Comedy, which has hosted socially-distanced comedy events like Andrew Santino's MelloComedic Comedy Show and Heavvy Sets on the rooftop of the parking garage.
Still, the hall has struggled to balance "appropriate, safe and sanitary" protocols while maximizing its profits, according to Daneshgar. He concedes that there is no current plan should the Los Angeles winter be especially rainy. Since the start of the pandemic, two vendors have left the market. Neither case was "specific to COVID," Daneshgar says but, "The challenges that were forthcoming as a result" of the pandemic were key factors in at least one departure.
"Look, there are tenants that are having a hard time. We're working with them to adapt, and we're being flexible," Daneshgar says.
With L.A. County entering what could be a particularly deadly winter, officials have imposed temporary bans on outdoor dining, curfews for businesses and forbidden all public and private gatherings with people from separate households. They're hoping to curb the spike in coronavirus cases. Unfortunately, that's not the direction the numbers are trending. L.A. County keeps hitting record-breaking numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths from the virus. How risky does that make it to eat out?
Liza Frias, the Director of Environmental Health with L.A. County's Department of Public Health, notes that since August of this year, the agency has investigated 10 coronavirus-related "outbreaks and/or non-compliance complaints" tied to mixed-vendor marketplaces (a category that includes food halls, food courts and cafeterias).
For food halls to once again allow indoor seating, even at 25% capacity, L.A. County needs to reduce its number of daily COVID cases to below 7 per 100,000 people, notes Frias. As of early December, that seems at least a couple months away.
The county's health department will continue to "provide guidance to the food industry on how to safely operate their food business during the pandemic," Frias says, but no guidelines will protect food halls from the pandemic's financial devastation.
For Hsiao and Daneshgar, their challenge is maintaining the stringent safety protocols at their venues while help vendors stay afloat and keeping customers healthy.
"We've adapted as much of our operation and design as we can to sustain and help get people to when this thing is over," Hsiao says. "It won't be all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. Us and the vendors and maybe 95% of the public understands that."
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