In 2012, Christine Ha beat out seventeen other amateur chefs to win season three of MasterChef. Her attention to detail and inspiring story—Ha is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees and the TV show’s first blind contestant—made her a fan favorite. Her winnings included a cookbook deal and a check for $250,000. Ha felt compelled to strike while the iron was hot, but as she began scouting locations for her first restaurant in her hometown of Houston, reality set in.
“I won a quarter of a million dollars but a lot went to taxes, and when we looked at spaces around town and the numbers, it was going to cost around a million dollars to do the build-out,” Ha says. “I didn’t feel ready to take that on when I was still very new to the food industry.”
So, she put her dream on ice. Ha published a best-selling cookbook, served as a judge on MasterChef Vietnam, and spearheaded several pop-up restaurants. Then, in 2018, developers of a so-called “multi-concept culinary marketplace” in downtown Houston approached her about heading up a concept in what would become Bravery Chef Hall.
While functionally the same as a food court, a food hall is the latter’s hipper cousin. Instead of national chains inside a shopping mall, food halls typically consist of locally owned mini-restaurants and artisan vendors, like butchers or cheesemongers. Small stalls—think anywhere from 150 to 600 square feet—often in what was a former industrial space like a warehouse or factory, are built out to create one massive dining destination. After ordering from separate stands, a group of diners can meet in the middle to share communal seating and enjoy a meal. A bar, retail shops, or an entertainment venue may also be part of the mix, but the dining itself is the main draw.
Food halls have long been popular in Europe and Asia, but it’s only in the last five years that they’ve spread across the Lone Star State. At the start of 2020, nine food halls were in the works for Houston alone. Dallas’s first downtown food hall, The Exchange, arrived in June 2021, while Austin’s St. Elmo Public Market, Houston’s Post Market, and others are slated to open later this year. It remains to be seen what restaurant culture will gain—or lose—as food halls play an increasingly bigger role in the Texas dining scene.
Ha holds part of the answer. “The idea of a food hall has always been intriguing to me because it’s a place that I seek out when I travel,” she says. “It gives you a good cross section of what that region or city’s food scene is like.” In 2019, seven years after winning MasterChef, she opened The Blind Goat, a Vietnamese gastropub, inside Bravery Chef Hall. Her comfort-food staples like chicken fried rice and “rubbish apple pie” with fish-sauce caramel earned her a nomination for Best New Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation.
“It was finally a way to realize my dream of opening my own space, but on a much smaller scale,” Ha says, adding that the food hall was a stepping stone that gave her the necessary confidence, experience, and “investor buzz” to open Xin Chao, her first stand-alone restaurant, last year.
Quealy Watson has a similar story. He served as head chef at several San Antonio restaurants, including the nationally acclaimed Hot Joy, before partnering up with his former coworker and fellow chef Jennifer Dobbertin to open a new space.
“Although I had run restaurants for a long time and made a name for myself, I didn’t have a ton of backing,” Watson says. A traditional restaurant felt financially out of reach for Watson and Dobbertin, the mobile aspect of a food truck didn’t appeal to them, and they weren’t interested in fine dining.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to feed everybody, and not just the people that can afford to eat expensive food,” Watson says. When they were invited to be part of Bottling Department, San Antonio’s first food hall, inside the former Pearl Brewery complex, Watson and Dobbertin jumped at the chance, opening Tenko Ramen in 2017. He thought maybe they’d sell a hundred bowls that first day. They ended up serving four hundred.
Lower overhead costs may make it possible for restaurateurs to get their starts, but there are downsides to being part of a food hall, too. Both Ha and Watson lament the logistical headache that comes with splitting resources with other restaurants’ staff. Shared storage is at a premium, and items occasionally go missing. It’s also harder to tell a story with a distinct point of view, Watson says. He and Dobbertin opened Best Quality Daughter, a full-service spectacle set inside a cotton candy–colored, turn-of-the-century home in the Pearl complex in 2020. The menu, inspired by Dobbertin’s Chinese ancestry, is as playful as the decor, which consists of neon lights and custom chinoiserie-meets–River Walk wallpaper. In other words, the place has character—a feat that can be hard to pull off in the often homogenized setting of a food hall.
“With a food hall, you don’t really control a vibe,” Watson says. “You have a booth and you try to put forward a narrative, but you don’t always have a lot of time with the customer. But here [at Best Quality Daughter], it’s definitely an immersive experience.”
But perhaps therein lies the appeal for food-hall developers: all of the concepts are part of a non-competing collective under one overarching food-hall brand. The return on investment appears to be good, too. Even as the pandemic ravaged the restaurant industry, food halls continued to open. In August 2020, H-E-B unveiled Main Streat, a food hall inside one of its Austin stores. In February 2021, Coury Hospitality opened Harvest Hall in the same building as Hotel Vin in Grapevine.
Part of the development process for Harvest Hall involved touring food halls across the country. Tom Santora, Coury Hospitality’s chief commercial officer, says he picked up tips along the way. Whereas some food halls see a drop in sales after dinnertime, the addition of Third Rail, Harvest Hall’s live-entertainment venue, keeps crowds coming in. Rather than have operators build out their own spaces, Coury Hospitality created a uniform design where all of the stalls fit within the aesthetic of a “grand 19th-century rail station.” With building costs largely covered, Santora says restaurateurs can be up and running with initial investments of $50,000 each.
While there was some concern from locals that Harvest Hall would draw people away from the restaurants and shops on Grapevine’s historic Main Street, Santora says it has helped bring increased traffic to the area.
Roughly eighty miles to the north of Harvest Hall, first-time developer Josh Massey witnessed a similar trend after opening The Railyard in Denison in December 2019. At the time, the town of roughly 25,000 was struggling to attract and retain culinary talent, as well as incentivize people to visit downtown after 5 p.m. Massey believed a food hall could be the solution.
“Incubators for tech companies were really in vogue, and so we felt like we could do the same for restaurants,” he says. He met with administrators at the local high school and community college, devised a Shark Tank–esque program, and personally funded three student-led concepts—half of the food hall’s original tenants. Then, he brought in local professionals to share their knowledge. An attorney advised operators on how to protect their assets, an accountant talked tax records, and a banker discussed the details of small-business loans. Massey also got The Railyard’s building certified by the National Park Service in hopes of enticing history lovers. It all paid off.
“Our original operators were profitable within thirty days, which is unheard of in the restaurant business,” Massey says. He’s also seen property values increase, proof that “ours and other investments of our kind impacted the attractiveness of the downtown market.” Encouraged by the success of the food hall, other restaurants have opened nearby, and businesses are staying open later to capture the growing foot traffic. But one of Massey’s biggest metrics for success is whether concepts break out on their own.
“Some developers want businesses to stay forever and pay rent. I want those people [the food hall’s tenants] to leave. I want them to go brick and mortar at some point,” Massey says. “In eighteen months, we’ve had three successful launches out of our space, and that, for me, is a very visceral sign that what we’re doing works.”
Food halls cultivate community for residents, but also for chefs and restaurateurs. Advice—or that emergency cup of flour—is never far away, Watson says. During the pandemic, many Texas food hall tenants and landlords rallied together. At Bravery Chef Hall, where Ha saw her sales drop by almost 80 percent after the initial shutdown, business owners devised a joint model that allowed customers to pick from multiple food stalls and have their meals packaged into one order. Watson and Massey spoke of regular meetings during which parties shared what was and wasn’t working. Harvest Hall created a spin-off called Harvest Hall on Wheels that utilized two of the vendors’ food trucks to showcase dishes from all of the stalls, bringing in a few extra hundred dollars for their fellow operators.
That’s not to say the atmosphere at food halls is always harmonious. In February 2019, the Dallas Morning News reported that seven restaurateurs had left Legacy Hall since it opened in Plano fourteen months earlier. With 22 vendors—many of which were owned by the food hall’s parent company—the story estimated Legacy Hall had a turnover rate upwards of 33 percent. Top Chef alum John Tesar and chef Tom Fleming were among those who closed up shop, citing slow business and the hall taking too big a cut of sales. (Tesar was reportedly required to pay 28 percent, while Fleming said he was on the hook for over 30 percent.)
“I’ve been in the restaurant business for over 35 years, and if the math isn’t there it doesn’t matter how delicious the food is,” Fleming told the newspaper. “There just weren’t enough people coming through. I’m not going to say they misrepresented, but they said there would be 5,600 to 6,000 a day. There was just one day when we even came close to that.”
The food hall countered that the slowdown was seasonal. Garrick Brown, a consultant with Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate company that often reports on the state of food halls, told the Dallas Morning News that “turnover to a certain extent is actually a good thing for a food hall. It gives people a reason to keep going back to see what’s new.”
At the time, one of Legacy Hall’s former tenants, Andrew Chen of Monkey King Noodle Company, said he was talking to other food halls that were “generally more favorable to vendors,” meaning they charged a smaller percentage for rent. (Monkey King eventually relocated to Harvest Hall.) While it may seem strange or even unfair to have vendors in two similarly sized stalls pay different amounts in rent based on a percentage of their sales, this is not uncommon. In the restaurant business, rent is typically based on the square footage of a space, but, as Eater reported, the footprint of a food-hall stall is too small to be priced this way. As a result, food halls around the country often charge rent based on a percentage of sales, or combine that percentage with a base rent. It could be a percentage of sales per day or a percentage of sales above a certain sales threshold. Rents at both Harvest Hall and the Bottling Department involve a percentage of sales. The Railyard, on the other hand, takes a different approach.
“We do a fixed rent. It’s two thousand a month to start, and then every renewal we bump up the rent, basically stress-testing your business,” Massey says. “This incentivizes you to leave at some point, and it also gives you an idea of the costs the food hall is absorbing that you would otherwise have had to absorb.”
While some food halls, like Austin’s Fareground, currently remain closed, and at least one—Politan Row in Houston—closed permanently as a result of the pandemic, Massey says he believes more people will invest in food halls going forward, adding that he’s received invites to speak to officials in other small towns like College Station and Roanoke. As for whether or not food halls are just a passing trend or here to stay, Ha, Watson, Santora, and Massey are adamant: food halls are not going anywhere anytime soon.