1.21.2015 | Issue #9
Food trucks? Please. No offense, food trucks, we love you, but the thing blowing wind up everyone's skirt these days is gargantuan food halls. Composed of anywhere from five vendors to 150, massive buildings dedicated to things we can snarf down as we walk to the next cool place is what we want. And, because we are amazing, we got them. The latest jewel in the eats emporium crown is Pine Street Market in Portland, Oregon, which has begun to release tantalizing nuggets about its offerings in the press. It got us thinking about what it takes to survive in this new game, so we turned to the city where big, flashy, beautiful, creative, and on-trend is the MO: Los Angeles.
Director of Business Development for Grand Central Market, Chris Farber was among those tasked with curating one of the most popular food halls to date. Here's how he did it.
“We just accepted the first fifteen people that walked through the doors,” Farber says, and then cracks up. “That’s the trick of the trade! No, no, it’s a very thought-out, very specific process. We look for, first and foremost, the best food. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised.” Decisions are made by a team of six: Farber, the property owner, the finance guy, an asset manager, and a couple guys who are “more on the food side” to help with initial introductions. “We also talk about whether or not we think the chef or his team have the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s not just the food. There has to be some sense of whether or not they understand business and the modern role of the chef, with social media, how to generate new business, and how their addition to our environment can make us greater than the sum of our parts.”
In the first vendor draft, they received a half-dozen applications for every tenant they signed. “Now we probably get half a dozen requests a day,” he says. “At the same time, we have to recognize that the lifeblood of our market is many of the legacy tenants, who were delivering great food at an incredible price and already had a following.”
The open-mind policy is a biggie when it comes to food halls. Popular food isn’t always great, so Farber and the team approached each new applicant with a blank slate. “We have a carnitas place here called Las Morelianas, and he came to us with the idea for a cevicheria, which is now a tostaderia. He came in and brought a chef he knew from Mexico and we were just wowed beyond what we were expecting, I think. And we all knew Bel Campo was great, but we didn’t quite realize just how good the restaurant side of their business would be. That’s a business that has multiple locations and it’s still chef-dependant, and the chef they brought in here just killed it.”
“We’ve been lucky enough, and perhaps cautious and thoughtful enough, that most things have gone our way.”
“The truth is, Ira Yellin, the original property manager, had an exceptional vision for what Downtown Los Angeles could become,” Farber says. In recent years, Yellin’s widow, Adele has adopted his vision under the lens of spectacular change in the food industry. “The way we perceive food, and how we socialize, and the way restaurants and chefs are a grander part of our life...we’ve gone out, and under her orders, have executed on that vision. It has resonated with the city, we like to think, and from what we can tell, throughout the country.”
Farber has two pieces of advice for burgeoning food halls and would-be developers: “don’t underestimate authenticity and don’t underestimate plumbing. I think those would be well noted by anyone going down this road.”
“I think that there are very few civic spaces like this. There aren’t that many large spaces in the city of L.A., outside of maybe a sports arena, where you can rub shoulders with people who aren’t simply in the car next to you,” Farber says. “That said, if this was a pedestrian city, it would be easier to draw people in. It’s both a boon that we are a large enough space that people feel special when they get here, but on the other hand, if this was New York, the number of people who would walk past our door every day would be exponential.”
Adele Yellin chimes in from the background, “We want to develop lots of other things!” Grand Central Market is made up of apartments, office space, retail, plus an old theatre, so as Farber puts it, “ we have the intellectual curiosity to pursue new projects.”