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Inside the Workshop food hall in Charleston

Riding the success of food trucks, food halls became the next evolution, creating spaces with low overhead for new chefs and aspiring businesses to buy into as either long-term options within the food hall or as exploratory short-term restaurants to grow their brand and test items with the general public before deciding on full brick-and-mortars. 

Food halls have exploded as an industry in the past decade. What started as a handful of food halls across the entire U.S. during the early 2010s has exploded into more than 300 such operations nationwide today. 

Recently, two prospective food hall projects were floated here in Columbia that could open in the next two years. 

The first proposed food hall was suggested to be in the location of the outgoing Tapp’s Arts Center on Main Street. Dubbed Tapps Food Hall & Brewery, initial renderings were posted online by Atlanta architectural firm Square Foot Studio, but have since been taken down. 

“We have had plans done for a combined food hall and brewery in Tapp’s,” explains Tim Hose, CEO of the Charlotte-based SYNCO Properties, owner of the Tapp’s Building since October 2017. “That is what SDS showed on their website. We are currently pursuing a different use with a Columbia-based tenant. If that works out, there will not be a food hall or brewery at Tapp’s.”

The second proposed food hall comes from the developers of the Marietta Square Market, which recently opened in the Atlanta suburb of the same name. The location for the potential venture is unknown at this time. 

In a The Atlanta Journal-Constitution story, Richard Dippolito, executive vice president of Concordia Properties — the developer of the market along with Creative Culinary Ventures — indicated that the space was developed to not only be a tourist draw to lure people in Atlanta to the Marietta area, but also be a central community space for the area. The 18,500-square-foot space plays on the city’s history with railroads to further bolster it as a venue that celebrates the city. 

Opened in late March, the Marietta Square Market has been a bustling hub of activity. 

Though successful in the short time it’s been open, there have been some notable impacts to the immediate community. In the article “Square restaurateurs dish on Marietta Square Market” by the Marietta Daily Journal, writer Ross Williams indicated that some restaurants saw an immediate dip in business due to the popularity of the food hall, one indicating a nearly 20 percent drop in customers in the first months of the food hall’s grand opening. 

The developers stated that the long-term goal was to be successful enough to create a trickle effect, drawing outsiders to first visit the hall, then try restaurants in the area. 

While in theory food halls offers many promises from both a business and community standpoint, they also provide many complications. Diversity is often an issue: When multiple businesses within the food hall share similar tastes, it often detracts from the promise of growth. 

In New Yorker writer Elizabeth Dunn’s story “The Inflated Promise of the American Food Hall”, the owner of Brooklyn sandwich shop Saltie cited that it was difficult to compete for business due to other sandwich shops also vying for attention in the food hall. Having the right balance of diversity to help grow businesses is difficult for a food hall to maintain. The business also cited the food hall’s policies as challenging, having to adhere to the standards of the food hall and having limited control of their business outside of the food they serve. 

Food halls can also be difficult for vendors who sell full-on meals. Customers who attend food halls tend to lean towards small purchases such as appetizers or small desserts in order to try as many stands as possible. A vendor focused on a restaurant concept such as Italian food who sells only pasta entrees can have a harder time due to customers wanting smaller bites. This is a challenge a vendor entering a food hall will have to weigh and consider as they lay out their goals for being part of the space.

Charleston’s Workshop demonstrated these challenges. Built to be a startup for chefs aspiring to eventually start their own restaurant, Workshop had issues garnering enough business for vendors early on. Post and Courier food editor Hanna Raskin has covered its progression, citing in early Workshop stories that sales for vendors were so low some days that they weren’t meeting the overhead it took to maintain the business. 

But Workshop was able to rally back and reestablish after some radical changes. Raskin highlighted how stronger management of the facility, daily programming to help draw more customers, and learning what type of customers were visiting the space brought Workshop back to life. 

When it comes to food halls, Columbia has its own distinct challenges to consider. 

Unlike larger cities such as Atlanta and Charleston, which boast a stable population of consumers and large amounts of tourism, Columbia relies more on its university community to sustain businesses. That community disappears during summer and winter vacation, though, which requires restaurants to adjust.

Can a food hall with more than a dozen vendors maintain enough profit during these down times? 

Robbie Robinson, owner of Columbia’s City Limits Barbecue food truck, thinks it’s a tough sell because of the specificity of his own business, which requires a considerable amount of space. There’s also the challenge to maintain it on a daily basis due to the rigorous schedule involved with his barbecue. 

“Food halls typically run six to seven days a week,” the barbecue chef offers. “Like a mall, they typically don’t like or allow food vendors to be closed. Going from one to six, seven days a week is a tremendous challenge.” 

There’s also the question of whether a food hall plays well to Columbia’s strengths as a city. 

“We have amazing natural settings that are underutilized,” says Scott Burgess, owner of Bierkeller Columbia, which hosts regular German-style beer garden pop-ups around the city, now in the midst of a weekly fall series at Riverfront Park. 

“The agility of the pop-up model to access those spots with relative ease and draw people to these cool, interesting places is a big part of our success.”

Burgess has some optimism for the food hall model, but is concerned whether there is a good place to drum up enough business for the vendors. He uses New York’s Eataly, a popular Italian marketplace found in many cities across the globe, as an example, citing the ease of access from subways and its central location in the community as reasons why it works there.  

Though there is room for criticism, there is no doubt that food halls also hold the promise for growth.

In Charleston, one of Workshop’s biggest success stories is Pink Bellies, a Vietnamese pop-up that’s garnered a dedicated fan base The business began as a food truck before moving into Workshop where it picked up attention during its one year pop-up there. It’ll soon open a full-on brick-and-mortar in downtown Charleston.

Perhaps such a story could soon happen in Columbia.

[Update: Pink Bellies reached out to Free Times after this article was published, stating that Workshop “did not have much reason in our upcoming brick and mortar,” and that the experience actually left the owners contemplating relocating to another city.]

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