Forbes Travel Guide editors named Raleigh one of 2017’s top 12 places to visit in the world. Though Raleigh has been commended over the years for its tech industry, urban living and startups, what made North Carolina’s capital city a must visit for the Forbes editors was the thriving food scene.
Eateries like Poole’s, Chef and the Farmer and The Durham Hotel have received a lot of that praise, but a growing bench of artisanal and niche food makers may draw attention once a trio of food halls open across the Triangle.
Food halls are an evolution of the traditional mall food court—local makers rather than national chains set up together in a shared space—and they’ve been popular so far in major markets like San Francisco, New York and Atlanta. According to Intuit, about 60% of restaurants fail by their third year in the $372 billion industry, which has caused both food makers and their investors to gravitate toward lower risk operations.
Food halls are appealing because they provide individual kitchen and retail space to small or startup businesses that want a permanent space to make and sell food, but might not have the resources to open a storefront of their own.
By the end of this year, halls in Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill will be open, with around 90 spaces for food makers to create, sell and market their products.
Over 190 people gathered at the Triangle Food Makers event at HQ Raleigh last week to hear about the local food hall movement. The event brought out food makers, food partners, and food lovers from around the Triangle to hear from leaders of Blue Dogwood Public Market in Chapel Hill, Durham Food Hall and Morgan Street Food Hall in Raleigh.
“It is a very exciting time to be a food maker in the area,” says Jill Willett, founder of Triangle Food Makers. “Projects like the food halls will help highlight and lift up what [local] food makers are already doing.”
Food halls serve and drive community
Willett, an ex-food entrepreneur, chose food halls for the topic because she believes that the need for commercial kitchen space and equipment, as well as resources like marketing and mentorship opportunities are going to make food halls very popular with food startups.
For consumers, the one-roof concept allows them to roam and purchase food items from individual vendors made on site. And for cities, food halls round up an assortment of locally produced artisanal foods that, according to a recent story on CNN, paint a picture of a community’s cultural identity.
The national trend has been working its way inland from the coasts, the article says, and is finding a home in large cities where there is a recognized food scene. Even CNN food show host Anthony Bourdain is joining in, announcing he will open the Bourdain Market in New York in 2019, which is rumored to include around 100 New York vendors (New York Times).
Food halls aren’t popular with everyone, though. CNN reports that there has been criticism that specialty, high-priced goods are sold only to the benefit of wealthy customers or tourists. But owners of already established markets disagree, and so does Adair Mueller, founder of the Durham Food Hall.
Mueller says that her market in The Reuse Arts District will include vendors and amenities that match what is important to the community. The 14,000-square-foot retired Kroger store will use responsibly-sourced and organic ingredients, participate in composting and food waste disposal, and feature an outdoor space equipped with a beer garden, stage and family play area.
“The community has really invested in us,” Mueller says, outlining how the food hall will be an enriching place designed for everyone to gather and learn about food.
It will feature 10 vendors creating primarily made-to-order dishes from high quality, local, whole foods. Vendors will be required to participate in a co-op buying program set up by Mueller, and her partner, a Triangle area venture capitalist.
“We’re keeping everything as local as possible, down to the last penny,” Mueller says.
Like Mueller, Blue Dogwood Public Market’s co-founder Kelly Taylor has a two-fold mission. She wants to build a space where Chapel Hill residents can congregate and enjoy products from local makers. She also hopes to create a food community that leans on one another and celebrates the uniqueness and ingenuity of the food they create.
Estimated to open this spring in the renovated Fowler’s Food Store on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill, Blue Dogwood will house around 16 vendors, including Taylor’s own Italian bakery, Pizzelle. Stalls within the 3,800-square-foot space can be flexible in size, and the price will reflect that—vendors will pay for the space they need (between $450 – $800 a month, which includes common area maintenance).
Along with her three business partners, Taylor wants to avoid walls as much as possible. Even the shared kitchen has glass walls so customers can watch chefs make their food. Blue Dogwood will also provide space for pop-up vendors to sell prepackaged local goods.
Finding a food home
April Morey and her husband, Darrin, of The Cookie People are prime candidates for food halls. After selling cookies at farmer’s markets since 2010, the husband and wife team are considering leaving their licensed home kitchen for a commercial kitchen and storefront in a food hall.
Though they’ve gradually grown the business each year, the cost of signing a lease, outfitting space and marketing the business have been barriers to opening a traditional retail store. According to a RestaurantOwner.com survey, the average cost of opening a restaurant is $498,888, and QuickBooks reports that a food truck takes between $30,000 and $200,000 to start up.
Meanwhile, the starting monthly rents for the food halls opening in the Triangle are dramatically less (ranging from $450 to $8,000), and the cost of outfitting stalls and renting equipment won’t break the bank either. These will range from around $2,000 to $60,000, depending on stall size and needs.
Food halls will be a good option for companies like The Cookie People that already have a following, says Nathan Spencer of Craft Financial LLC, who has been behind the scenes of both successful and unsuccessful food ventures. He wants food startups to be cautious when deciding how to take their food to market, especially if they are new to the business.
“A common thing people believe is that you can jump out with a product and you’re good,” says Spencer, “But in food, you have to have a financial footing and a brand, and definitely be able to weather the storm.”
Determined to push forward with finding a permanent venue for her business in 2017, Morey has her eye on Morgan Street Food Hall opening in downtown Raleigh’s Warehouse District in the fall.
The hall will house local restaurants, artisanal food makers and merchants in a 22,000-square-foot building that used to house a Jillian’s night club. The vision is driven by Niall Hanley, who owns the Hibernian and Raleigh Beer Garden, and pledges to bring his wealth of experience in the Triangle food scene to those who want to break into the industry.
This food hall will feature over 60 vendors that will be able to choose between stall space outfitted with a full service kitchen, retail space and kiosk carts. Hanley hopes that this space will act as a test kitchen for Triangle chefs and will be used as a way to introduce the community to innovative new flavors.
Coming into 2017, Hanley says that he has noticed a shift in consumer preferences that make way for the food hall concept. With the instant gratification associated with social media, he feels that long, drawn out meals will become a thing of the past. Food halls and public markets will provide the speed, selection and ambiance for what he is calling an “impatient audience.”
“Food halls are going to combine  trends and our fresh, local, young talent to create for customers an expedited version of the perfect night out,” says Hanley.
Creating supportive, complimentary food communities
Visitors of the coming food halls will enjoy an intentionally diverse landscape of food under one roof. All three food hall representatives at the event stressed that their space would not be a place of competition. They plan to bring in businesses that will compliment each other and make it easy for them to market the space.
“We are going to choose businesses that we know will succeed.” says Hanley, admitting that this truth may be hard for some to swallow. “If you have a good product, people are going to come to you no matter what. However, we want to nurture our clients and help them grow.”
Marketing assistance is just one of the included perks food halls offer, and all three Triangle food halls plan to host events like outdoor concerts, cooking classes and themed weekend markets that are predicted to bring in large crowds.
Hanley’s Hibernian Company Inc. will also provide business services like accounting and financial planning to the Morgan Street Food Hall vendors.
As construction completion dates close in on the food halls, Willett feels encouraged by what could come of the support of likeminded entrepreneurs created from these shared spaces.
“To have these places and outlets to be heard, especially collectively and a big environment like this, I think gives [food entrepreneurs] a lot of opportunities going into 2017 and years beyond,” she says.