Likening the rise of food halls in America to Singapore’s hawker stalls, David Chang told a crowd of urbanists this week that he foresees fewer restaurants in the middle of the market. “You’re gonna see the mom and pop restaurant in New York City not vanish completely, but it’s gonna be way more difficult,” Chang said during a panel at The New York Times Cities of Tomorrow conference in Manhattan, which featured panels on issues ranging from immigration to climate change to public art. Instead, the market will skew toward more affordable dining at food halls on the low end, and expensive, luxurious restaurants on the high end. The types of independent, one-off restaurants where dinner costs $40-$50 per person are becoming harder for restaurateurs and chefs to justify financially. “No one wants to do it anymore,” Chang said.
It’s an interesting point, and it came while Chang shared the stage with Jonathan Butler, co-founder of Smorgasburg and the Brooklyn Flea, which tapped into the trend early and in a way helped create demand for food halls. Smorgasburg’s success in Brooklyn has led to offshoots including in Los Angeles, and the casual, multi-vendor setup has proved extremely popular with millennial diners. And with real estate developers.
During a spirited exchange early in the discussion, Chang and Butler discussed the increasingly intertwined relationship between developers and chefs. “Every developer wants a food hall at the bottom of their building or to anchor their big project,” Butler explained. “It’s what tenants want, it’s what people who live nearby want, so developers now see it as a big driver of foot traffic and just general desirability.”
“That’s a seismic shift,” Chang interjected. “When I tried to open my first restaurant in 2004, every place that I went to that was a ground floor space said we don’t want a restaurant. It’s not good for our building. Whether it’s the smells, pests. There just was a general idea that a restaurant did not increase value to a building. And that is completely the opposite situation [today]. It’s very strange.”
Still, as real estate developers court restaurants, landlords continue to push them out in search of higher rents. It’s sometimes bittersweet for restaurateurs and chefs, who helped establish a neighborhood only to get priced out of it. Barbara Lynch recently summed up the dilemma succinctly, speaking to Food Republic about some of her Boston restaurants. “I made developers very wealthy. And they raised my rent! I hate that,” she said.
Chang touched on this as well, suggesting that the chef-restaurateur hyphenate might be getting a new extension: -developer. “The conversation I’ve been having with my peers is we should just develop our own spots. We should just own that real estate.”
Until then, expect more food halls and Smorgasburg-like casual dining experiences, especially, as the panelists noted, due to the social media allure of this type of dining environment. Butler noted that Smorgasburg owes some of its success to patrons taking Instagram photos of ramen burgers against the Manhattan skyline. As Chang put it, “It’s the one thing that you can’t download. You have to go out and experience food.”