Mike Morris: Expect the 2020s to see a food hall explosion

Mike Morris, a developer of High Street Place in Boston, thinks the latest food and entertainment trend is here to stay.

Editor’s note: Mike Morris is principal of CANAdev, which is currently part of the High Street Place development at 100 High St. in Boston. The 20,000-square-foot upscale food hall, slated to open early this year, will feature 20 food and drink vendors, along with live music, screenings, panels, and more entertainment.

A rendering of High Street Place, opening soon in Boston. —Courtesy of Gensler

The food hall as a concept has existed for centuries; and while its form and function have changed, the basic model is here to stay.

A food hall is not a “one size fits all” solution. Location still matters, as well as typical retail demographics, access and space dimensions. There’s an opportunity to customize the concept, from both the perspective of the operator and the guest. With the food hall’s modern iteration, developers are now realizing the value of experiential placemaking for their assets. And for the guest, the appeal is in the build-your-own experience.

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The goal for any food hall is to become a part of the community it serves. High Street Place will activate the Financial District, while providing not only an amenity for the surrounding buildings, but a key “third place” to spend time. Overall, the food halls and public markets in Boston are geographically and demographically differentiated. It’s not a competition. These markets will continue to thrive, as long as they provide an experience that their guests are looking for.

We can look forward to a few more years of natural growth in most markets throughout the United States and expect to see one to two additional food halls in the Boston metro area. Some “major” markets – namely, New York City – are showing signs of slowing, but with a number of food halls still under development; and those already in place are generally thriving. Guest capture rates (literally how many guests you can draw into a particular food hall) and high-quality operators are the key limiting factors to growth in the industry. The best food halls have their own identity and fulfill that promise through the three P’s: products, people, and programming. There’s room for variety and growth in all of the three P’s.

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Food entrepreneurs are constantly innovating, or at least responding to trends – like more plant-based dining and interesting non-alcoholic drink options. We are actively doing the same from a development, leasing, and operations perspective – adding things like food hall-wide apps, gift cards, seamless online ordering, better delivery process, etc. Further, we have seen a recent spike in Asian-based cuisine in food halls. While we expect this trend to continue, we also expect to see a resurgence of the traditional American cuisine (crafted deli sandwiches, gourmet hot dogs, classic burgers, and fresh seafood), as well as health-conscious options.

As our current world continues to be driven by technology, there will be more ways to involve tech to make the guest experience more appealing and frictionless, while streamlining the operation. This includes “robo-chefs,” more seamless app connection for event ticketing, loyalty programs, and access to exclusive dining opportunities.

Mike Morris —Courtesy Photo

Over the next five to 10 years we’ll see an opportunity for smaller cities that have great demographics and strong economies but are looking to add key amenities to their communities; specifically, we’ll see suburban expansion with a focus on areas connected to colleges/universities and medical facilities. We see a lot of success when incorporating non-food uses in food halls to complement our food and beverage offerings, and predict an opportunity for growth: social competitive gaming (cornhole, bocce, darts, etc.); entertainment-related retail (host gifts, housewares, flowers, etc.); interactive arts (programming, visual and audio experiences, content creation); and service retail (barbershop, blow dry bar, dry cleaning drop-off, etc.).

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In 10 years you won’t be able to tell the difference between an entertainment concept (like bowling or axe throwing, e-gaming), a co-working office, a department store, and a food hall (with flex space for pop-ups and ghost kitchens), because they will all be under one roof in various combinations throughout the country.

CANAdev Principal Mike Morris has been involved in all aspects of retail and restaurant development, including being managing partner at multiple restaurants in Maryland and D.C. Now specializing in placemaking, Morris leads CANA in masterplanning/development projects in several cities across the country. The company currently has more than a dozen food halls and markets under development or construction, including High Street Place in Boston. High Street Place is being developed by locally-based Rockpoint Group, Rockhill Management, and CANAdev.