Architect Ed Eimer is a food hall advocate who maintains that the model could be an important recovery vehicle for the U.S. restaurant industry, hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. And he's not alone.
Eimer is president of Eimer Design, a Philadelphia-based architectural firm. He has been involved in some capacity in the design of 40 food halls andsaid some real estate projects are now changing course. His work includes the Inner Rail Food Hall in Omaha, Nebraska, as well as an outdoor mall project in Miami called The Oasis.
“We actively are having developers who were developing projects as full-service restaurants pivoting on that and moving to a collective environment because it gives them a lot more protection,” said Eimer. "A well-designed food hall has so much more flexibility than full-service or fast-casual restaurants and offer a much higher level of safe socialization.”
It can seem counterintuitive that food halls, designed to lure big crowds in an indoor space, might be an answer, but Eimer and other architects argue that the large spaces provide flexibility for social distancing in the pandemic. In addition to working on food halls, Eimer and other architects have been called on to incorporate health and safety features in existing or planned eateries. The challenge is to seamlessly install those new elements so they are not intrusive but still make diners and restaurant employees feel safe, according to design experts.
The number of U.S. food halls was dramatically rising before COVID-19 struck this year. Cushman & Wakefield released a report in May that identified 223 open and operating food hall projects, pre-coronavirus, with over 165 announced as in development. Some critics have claimed the category was approaching saturation. But now Cushman & Wakefield sees food halls as a more important, sustainable and permanent part of the dining scene.
"Large swaths of the independent restaurant community are going to need a rebuilding mechanism; one with lower inherent risks for all, a better operational model that allows for higher profit margins, and low barrier-to-entry," the report said. "Food halls will be where the industry rebuilds first."
While food halls often seemed crowded before the pandemic, limiting the number of people can mean added space. Amid the pandemic, seating in food halls can be easily switched around. In the projects he’s working on, Eimer is including more seats per vendor, so those extra chairs can act as place holders to separate patrons from other diners. The large common dining areas that are the hallmark of food halls can give patrons a sense of being in a safe yet social setting, with less risk of contracting the coronavirus, according to Eimer.
“We have to remember that food halls are the purveyors of lifestyle and community,” he said. “That’s why they’re popular. We can go back and socialize again, but we want to do it in a safer environment. The socialization environment of a food hall will become even more popular.”
Compared to a full-service restaurant, a food hall is “a larger space, so there’s the ability to spread out and have 100 people in a 10,000-square-foot space instead of 100 people in a 3,500-square-foot space,” Eimer said.
Of course, Eimer has a vested interest in promoting food halls as a solution for reopening in the wake of the arrival of the coronavirus: His firm would benefit. And he has worked on projects with Phil Colicchio, a Cushman & Wakefield executive managing director who co-authored the food hall report.
Even so, they say the financial model for food halls is obvious to others in the industry who aren't food hall builders because the model helps independent restaurateurs in terms of capital expenditures and other costs, according to Colicchio.
“If a developer will build out a food-hall space, the overhead required for the restaurant to participate in that space as a vendor is very modest, minuscule when you compare it to a standalone restaurant,” he said.
Cushman & Wakefield's report went into more detail.
"The economic model of a food hall operates most efficiently on an all-inclusive percentage rent," according to the report. "Revenue generated by the food hall vendors is shared, then distributed by the owner and venue operator of the food hall to resolve operating expenses (including a rent component), with heightened attention on revenue sharing of beverage sales."
Projects Forge Ahead
Restaurant design firms across the country, including the Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry, are responsible for preparing dining rooms for the COVID-19 era. The restaurant projects that company has “on the boards are moving forward fast and furious,” according to Anita Summers, an architect and principal in the firm’s Atlanta office.
“I think a lot of the people we are working for are just thinking there’s going to be a vaccine,” she said. “Most of our clients are just moving forward thinking there is going to be an ‘after,’ [when] we’ll be able to open at the same density that we have opened before. A few of ours have asked for planning for immediate purposes to space everything 6 feet apart. So we are seeing that.”
The challenge is to incorporate safety features — be it acrylic partitions, sanitizer stations, sneeze guards or using plants and mirrors to space tables — that appear to be seamless design elements, according to Summers. Wider aisles and more defined queuing spaces may be part of the equation, designers said.
“It will different,” Summers said. “There will be less energy in a dining room with tables spaced apart, but I do think with mirrors and open kitchens it can be done.”
Restaurants make most of their profits from beverages, not food, and bars on premise will no longer be allowed to have crowds three-people deep for cocktails during Friday happy hour. One way to address that issue is to create an area at the center of a bar where patrons can stand in line to order drinks, according to Eimer.
For bars, Summers said, she envisions a whole new kind of setup.
“It just seems to me maybe we go back to kind of a Paris parlor, like a salon, where there are beautiful little areas where four people or six people can be together, but they’re 6 feet apart from the next group,” she said. “And it’s a luxe kind of environment, and your drink might cost twice as much.”
With the pandemic still posing a danger to the public, restaurants are looking to expand their permitted capacity by offering outdoor dining, making up for revenue they are losing from their indoor dining rooms, which have been closed by the pandemic. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio just unveiled his "Open Restaurants" plan, which will expand the areas outside where eateries can seat and serve their patrons, including parking spaces and the miles of streets the mayor has closed to vehicular traffic for pedestrians.
"Any possible area outside the restaurant that is fair game for adding tables should absolutely be leveraged during this time, as outside dining is preferred for air circulation and lower risk for transmission," Summers said.
"For example, we’re consulting with a local restaurateur to determine how he can repurpose an existing courtyard to cater to guests in creative new ways," she said. "In some cases, restrictions are also relaxing on sidewalk seating to help restaurants add seats in a safe way. Even for guests that want to dine indoors, restaurants can still use outdoors spaces to create waiting areas that are designed for having a drink in groups of twos, fours and sixes, each spaced away from the next party while they wait for a table."
Some industry analysts predict COVID-19-related regulations on restaurants will be in place for some time. Darren Tristano, CEO of consulting firm FoodserviceResults, expects the precautions to last "until we have a vaccine," or at least until there aren't any additional outbreaks.
"Twelve to 18 months would probably be reasonable," Tristano said.
James Cook, JLL director of research and retail for the Americas, predicted restaurant safety measures will be phased out slowly. And even after some of those restrictions are lifted, a coronavirus flare-up could result in them being reinstated, according to Cook.
“Two years down the road, after all this is over, I do think that some of these measures will remain in place," Cook said. "It will not be the masks but it will be a focus on visible cleanliness. And what I mean by that is that you can’t see a virus but you can see all the other things in a restaurant, how clean they keep the floors, how tidy the uniforms are.''