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How Beer is Finding its Place in America’s Food Halls

August 07, 2018

By Maggie Hennessy, August 07, 2018

Ten years ago, the idea of a food hall was almost nonexistent to most Americans. Sure, we had a smattering of food marketplaces—San Francisco’s venerable Ferry Building, Seattle’s Public Market and Cleveland’s West Side Market—but no one was calling them food halls per se.

Then in 2010, New York’s Plaza Hotel converted an unused basement space into the Plaza Food Hall, a jooshed-up food court peddling chef-driven pizza, carvery meats, salads and sushi. The affordable, perpetually bustling market with its marble counters and communal seating was hailed by the New York Times as just what Midtown Manhattan was missing, and (arguably) sparked a food hall movement across the country. There are now more than 100 food halls nationwide, a number commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield estimates will triple by 2020.

“The food court is coming back in a classier, more sophisticated version,” says Seth Feldman, lead bartender and beer buyer for Grand Central Bar at Chicago’s Wells St. Market. “There is a percentage of people who have the money to enjoy high-end food and beverages and aren’t sure where to start. We’re sort of a step in the direction of those experiences.”

Unlike the mall food courts of the acid-washed 1980s built on chains like Sbarro and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, food halls established a more compelling purview of championing independent, locally owned purveyors and eateries. So you can see the appeal for restaurants, brewers and retailers looking to test out a new concept without staking their whole livelihood on a brick-and-mortar spot. Not to mention their ability to draw crowds as unique destinations that still offer something for everyone.

But how does beer fit into this fast-growing market?

Stephanie Byce, Good Beer HuntingWells St. Market

In the Middle of it All

Wells St. Market, located on the north end of Chicago’s Loop, is the latest in a spate of Windy City food hall openings. Eleven vendors sling ramen, sushi, cured meats and pierogi from beloved local chefs like Jimmy Bannos (Heaven on Seven) and Takashi Yagihashi (Slurping Turtle) and NYC import Dos Toros Tacos. Its physical focal point is Grand Central, a carousel-shaped bar with a brasserie-style menu, five draft beers and 18 packaged beers and ciders, plus wine and cocktails. As the only vendor selling alcohol, the bar also benefits from controlling a quarter of the seating real estate (42 seats between the bar and along the windows).

“We end up being a watering hole for the whole hall just because we take up a quarter of it,” Feldman, a Certified Cicerone, says. “Plus it fits into that very Chicago notion that the bar is the gathering place.”

Grand Central’s positioning allows it to emphasize beer’s friendliness to food—both in the context of the freshly shucked oysters, drumettes and French ham on its brasserie menu, as well as potential pairings for nearby health-centric Fare’s grain bowls or Wagyu hot dogs from Italian deli Tempesta Market. That’s why Feldman plans to start offering weekly beer pairing suggestions with vendors’ dishes.

The beer list also has to reflect the bar’s ability to sell beer from a practical standpoint—meaning two lines are permanently dedicated to an easy-drinking lager and never-say-die IPA. The bar makes the most of the former, pouring exclusive lagers from local Spiteful Brewing bimonthly. “Still, that leaves us with just three lines to play with,” Feldman says.

The other challenges of running a full bar inside a marketplace are that your fellow vendors go dark after the dinner hour, and said bar is located in a part of the city that’s still largely seen as a financial district.

“I don’t think people perceive us as a true bar, so we’re trying to change that,” says bar manager Charles O’Connell. That’s where hosting live music events, evening beer tastings and pairing dinners, in addition to adding outdoor seating, will help it carve out its singular identity as a bar.

Marcin CymmerWells St. Market

The Power of First Impressions

There’s a hell of a lot more than five draft lines vying for your attention at the Central Food Hall inside Atlanta’s ten-story, 2.1-million-square-foot Ponce City Market. Linked to the BeltLine trail in the budding Fourth Ward neighborhood, the mixed-use behemoth in an old Sears Roebuck building houses office, residential and plenty of retail in addition to the 30 food and drink vendors at its center.

There’s plenty of on-premise beers to be had at Ponce, though it’s not the sole focus anywhere except the Tap on Ponce. Part bar, part growler station, part liquor shop, the Tap doles out local craft and high-end imported beer as well as wine from 56 taps into crowlers and growlers from 16 to 64 ounces. It also sells a handful of six-packs and wine bottles to go, though probably 80 percent of drinkers stay somewhere on premise. The unusual model was concocted by the minds behind beloved local liquor shop Green’s, partly as a means of creative problem solving.

“In Georgia, there’s a strange [restaurant] requirement that you have to sell 50 percent food to be open on Sunday, so we were kicking around this idea to service the food hall and be open Sunday,” says Adam Tolsma, beer director at the Tap. “The Tap kind of gave us a new dimension.”

The Tap pours the kind of selection you’d expect in a brewery or bar. Tolsma places weekly orders with the “something for everyone” mantra in mind—meaning someone wanting Bud Light will be steered toward Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Founders Brewing Co.’s Solid Gold Lager, while beer nerds can go for maple syrup barrel-aged stout from Denmark’s Evil Twin Brewing.

“We do take care of our local breweries, but I’m firmly in the camp that quality is the most important thing with so much craft beer out there now,” he says. “With so many first timers coming through, flaws and off flavors can kill our business.”

Amy SinclairNine Mile Station

Ten floors up and a world away, Slater Hospitality operates the 60,000-sq.ft. rooftop, which is divided into the Skyline, an amusement park complete with carnival games and mini golf and a beer garden dubbed Nine Mile Station. First impressions are paramount up here, too.

“The best way to describe this place is an attraction,” says beverage director Randy Hayden. “This is not like walking into a bar. It’s people’s vacation or weekend with family, and they pay to get up here. We have to really be responsible with our food and beverage programs to make these people happy.”

What works at the park might not fly at the beer garden, however, so Hayden’s created different drink lists for each. For example, Hop Shan Diggity, a refreshingly cheeky IPA shandy mixed with Country Time Lemonade from Alpharetta, Georgia-based Jekyll Brewing, is a no-brainer for the park.

But it wouldn’t jibe with Nine Mile’s elevated menu, where seared monkfish with succotash and braised short ribs with parsnip puree call for more nuanced brews, like unfiltered apricot saison from Burnt Hickory Brewery in Kennesaw, Georgia, and tart Petrus Black Currant from Belgium. Like the hyper-seasonal food menu, Hayden believes in heavy draft rotation to keep things fresh an in tune with what the chef is serving. He also leverages local brewery relationships for events like exclusive rare-beer releases with Atlanta favorite Scofflaw Brewery Co., which are a hit with out-of-towners and local beer nerds alike.

“You’re trying to please a mom and dad from Tennessee and a major beer nerd in for the first time all at once,” Hayden says.

Stephan Werk MediaCrooked Stave

If You Build It

As Denver continues its evolution into a food, drink and culture hub, RiNo Art District—a once gritty warehouse area along the Platte River—may well represent its creative backbone. Developer Zeppelin Places opened the Source Market and Food Hall there in 2013, assembling a collection of the city’s buzziest artisanal food and beverage producers, like Mexican street-food restaurant Comida, whole-animal butcher MeatHead and Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project. 

Chad Yakobson’s wild and sour beer-focused brewery already had a considerable cult following when the Source approached it to open a tap room. It originally intended to brew at the Source, but never christened any of the brewing equipment due to the sheer logistical headache, moving it all to its barrel-aging facility instead. Now Crooked Stave occasionally teams with nearby Mondo Market for meat and cheese, and chocolate pairings—“our dark sour raspberry beer goes crazy well with chocolate,” says production manager Danny Oberle. Existing in such a context has allowed it expand its reach beyond its hardcore base for the first time.

“Given the format with the open-style markets, we get a lot of first-time foot traffic and are able to turn a hell of a lot of new people onto our beer,” says Oberle. “I can’t put a percentage on it, but it’s been good for business, yeah.”

At the other end of the spectrum, craft beer giant New Belgium is about to unleash a ten-barrel brewery on the ground floor of the adjacent Source Hotel, which opened this spring. For the country’s fourth-largest craft brewer, the setup not only affords it a chance to explore smaller-batch, funkier beers outside its core brands, but also to test out new markets.

“This is the first time we’ve reached outside our huge Fort Collins facility,” says New Belgium’s director of retail development Leah Pilcer. “Since this is smaller, it gives our brewer a chance to explore unique recipes, styles, and ingredients not using commonly for large production.”

That means wild farmhouse ales and fruit-forward kettle sours. In other words, it’s the kinds of products people don’t typically associate with New Belgium. The rotating brews will be on draft at the Woods, the hotel’s indoor/outdoor rooftop restaurant (aptly named for New Belgium’s Fort Collins wood cellar), and will inspire the seasonal dishes and cocktails on exec chef Brandon Biederman’s menu.

“He’ll play with the same ingredients and flavor notes our brewer is playing with in the beers—some of them coming from the rooftop garden onsite,” Pilcer says. “So it’s really a marriage. From a creative standpoint, it’s pretty nimble. (Biederman) can come up with a concept, walk downstairs and collaborate really quick.”

New Belgium’s experiments with these new business frontiers is a microcosm for the magnetism of the food hall for businesses and consumers alike.

“Ten years ago, RiNo wouldn’t be somewhere you’d go to have great meal and drink. Now, we’re surrounded by plethora of great distilleries, breweries and dining options,” Pilcer says. “It’s a destination for the experienced foodie or entry-level eater and drinker, the art and design lover, the local and the tourist. And for us, this has started the thought process for expanding into other development opportunities.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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