At a time when restaurant owners are re-evaluating their operating models, foodhalls have taken root from New York to Lisbon – with much success. The concept is set to catch on in South Africa as life gradually returns to some semblance of normality.

Even before Covid-19 dealt a fatal blow to scores of restaurants, it was clear that fundamental changes were needed across the industry. Rising input costs and fast-changing consumer habits were eating away at margins and testing the viability of the traditional eatery, which also had to accommodate third-party deliveries to stay relevant and afloat.

In response, new business models have started to emerge across the globe. One of them is the foodhall – a modern take on a centuries-old format, where local community members and tourists gather under one roof to socialise while indulging in a range of cuisines.

Campbell Stevenson, Managing Director and Co-Founder of CHEFS Foodhall, says consumers are looking for new dining experiences, and are being drawn towards those that offer inviting social settings and well-priced, creative food. 

“Market-style eating is the restaurant of the future. With great cuisine at the core, this format provides a central space for local communities to gather – much like town squares once did. Having a wide food offering in one vibrant space is a compelling proposition,” Stevenson adds.

Time Out, the magazine focused on travel and experiences, became an unlikely pioneer of the foodhall concept in 2014. Its Portuguese team opened a foodhall in Lisbon’s historic Mercado da Ribeira building, with an assortment of chefs and food offerings. The next year, the market attracted 2 million visitors, and it soon became the country’s single largest tourist attraction. 

Eately has achieved similar success, albeit with a slightly different approach. Rather than providing a shared space for independent chefs, Eately runs the entire operation, meaning it can curate its offerings and maximise supply chain efficiencies. Outside of Italy, the group’s traditional Italian marketplaces have become institutions from Toronto to Tokyo.

But Time Out and Eately are by no means the only players. Real estate services group Cushman & Wakefield counted 223 operational foodhalls in the US alone going into the Covid-19 pandemic, with another 165 in development.

The resurgence of the foodhall is being driven by millennials and Gen-Z consumers, who tend to prefer experiences over goods, and who value inclusive spaces.

According to the Food & Drink Futures 2020 report by The Future Laboratory, as many as 55 percent of millennials prefer to eat at communal tables. This segment of the population is also constantly in search of something new, with the study showing that 40 percent of millennials always order something different. 

They are also the digital generation, meaning that the modern foodhall must have a strong online presence. Social media content and on-demand delivery are now as important as the physical market itself.

By leveraging economies of scale to ensure the offering to consumers remains affordable, this operating model has proven its resilience in the face of rising labour, rental, electricity and food prices.  

A Cape Town launchpad

In the first quarter of 2022, South Africa’s first dedicated foodhall will open. CHEFS Foodhall will use the country’s cuisine capital, Cape Town, as a natural starting point. 

The marketplace, which will offer a range of cuisines under one roof, will be positioned in the city’s bustling Cavendish Square. To maximise cost efficiencies and the sustainability of the supply chain, ingredients for the foodhall’s different stations will be collectively sourced, with a strong bias towards local produce. 

“This, we believe, is the restaurant model of the future. By offering a carefully crafted range of cuisines, and by tapping into the desire for unique experiences, foodhalls present a more sustainable operating model,” Stevenson says. 

As is the case in other markets, the fundamental shifts that were underway in South Africa’s food industry have been accelerated by the pandemic. The foodhall, which is even more relevant as consumers prepare to socialise and connect once again, is an enticing solution.

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