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VOL. 45 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 5, 2021

Nashville gets a taste of something big

Fifth + Broadway food hall will be largest in the US

By Catherine Mayhew

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We’re No. 1 – and in a really good way. This week, Phase 1 of Assembly Food Hall, the largest food hall in the country, opened in the new Fifth + Broadway development, which also includes retail, office, residential units, the National Museum for African American Music and abundant parking (cheers to downtown parking!). It fills the entire footprint of the old convention center.

Food halls are a relatively new concept that involve a collection of artisan eateries, themed bars and an events space to host concerts and other community gatherings. There’s not a Sbarro or Pizza Hut (sorry, standard mall food court offerings) in sight.

All the restaurants are local and are names you already love such as The Pharmacy Burger Parlor, Prince’s Hot Chicken, Thai Esane and Coco’s Italian Market and Café. And for dessert, there will be Belgian waffles, ice cream, crepes and cannolis. Wash everything down with local and imported beer or curated wine and then head to the events space to hear some tunes.

And although the food hall movement began before the coronavirus took over the economy, it has proven to be if not pandemic-proof at least pandemic-resistant because of large open spaces conducive to social distancing and a business model that’s friendly to local restaurants.

“Whether you’re here with a group of friends, by yourself or with a convention, we have 110,00 square feet, and over 25,000 of that is outdoor space,” says David Daniels, senior vice president of marketing for The Food Hall Co., the parent company of Assembly Food Hall.

Workers race to ready DeSano Pizzeria at the Fifth + Broadway food hall. The pizzeria is one of eight restaurants opening this week, followed by 12 more in May.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“The way we designed the interior, there’s plenty of room to move around, but you can also find areas you can fit a large party or a small party.”

Good for business

Long a standard tradition in Europe and other parts of the world, food halls had their infancy in the United States when the high-end Italian food hall, Eataly, opened in New York City in 2010.

The Wall Street Journal counted just more than 100 food halls in the United States in 2016. That number was expected to grow to more than 300 in 2020, a report by global real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield states.

The reasons are many. First, food halls are an easier way for local restaurants to expand in the market because the development company shoulders most of the costs of doing business, including building and maintaining the facility and offering marketing services. In the Assembly Food Hall’s case, tenants will pay rent based on the size of their sales.

“We share on the upside, and then with something like COVID your risks are mitigated on the downside,” Daniels says. “The beauty of the concept is whether you have a brick and mortar or you want to expand in a denser area or you have a concept you want to test it gives you the opportunity to put it in front of more consumers than you’d ever get with a storefront.”

Leasing a traditional brick-and-mortar space is an expensive proposition, including the costs of building out the space, paying utilities and risking a rent increase that could price them out of their building.

Whisk Crepes Cafe, one of eight restaurants opening this week at Assembly Food Hall.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“I think it’s a great idea, especially when Nashville gets back into full swing,” says Chris Crowell, owner of Hattie Jane’s Creamery, which has fixed locations in Columbia and Murfreesboro (and soon in Franklin) and will open in the hall’s Phase 2 in May. “It’s a low barrier entry way to the downtown market without investing in real estate downtown.”

Assembly Hall is the second food hall project for parent company The Food Hall Co. The first was Legacy Food Hall in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas.

Chuck Cinelli, owner of Coco’s Italian Market, says he was intrigued when he heard about the project in Nashville.

“We were one of the first ones to sign up,” he says. “I went to Dallas and checked it out before the pandemic. This one is going to be even more stellar. It sounded unique and interesting and a great way to be downtown with a reasonable price to build out.”

Pharmacy Burger Parlor owners also are eager to tap into the downtown market.

“It’s going to be great to be in front of some different clientele,” says Daniel Frazier, assistant general manager and beverage director. “It will be nice to see the downtown lunch crowd. And also the conventions. It’s a fun thing, and it’s nice it’s happening in May for us.”

Another advantage to the food hall model is that restaurants can try out experimental concepts that carry relatively low-risk consequences if they need time to grow.

Construction continues on the second level of Assembly Food Hall.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

“It’s kind of like an incubator,” Crowell says, “so (guests) could discover things growing out of that food hall that could be the next big brand in Tennessee.”

No longer experimental, that’s how Horu Sushi started out in Legacy Hall. Chef Steve Liang spent 20 years working in Japanese restaurants in Dallas, but always for other people. In 2019, his first restaurant opened at the Plano food hall.

“Steve is a perfect example,” Daniels says. “He was a chef and did not have his own brick and mortar. He always wanted his own restaurant. We sampled his menu and were blown away by the quality. We launched his first restaurant in Legacy Hall and it was immediately a success.”

Now, chef Liang is bringing the second Horu location to Assembly Hall.

“The reason I chose the food hall model is it takes less risk and investment,” he says. “Especially during the pandemic, the rent is the biggest cost for restaurant operations, but food hall rent is based on your sales. The reason I am expanding my second location at Assembly Food Hall is because of the location. I heard so many exciting things about Nashville.”

The Assembly Food Hall’s location will open the downtown market to the tenant restaurants, especially as pandemic restrictions ease and both locals and conventions return to the area.

“It’s such a vibrant, densely populated growing area,” Daniels adds. “Couple that with the tourists coming in and out. We identified a real gap in the downtown core and Broadway in particular.”

Once conventions return to nearby Music City Center, those visitors offer a special opportunity to the food hall. Entertainment, event space and the offer of introducing out-of-towners to local restaurants congregated in one indoor place are all draws.

Hall Pass

Consumers visit food halls for a variety of reasons. Research done in 2019 by Technomic, which specializes in trends in the food service industry, found that 59% of visitors are interested in food halls that highlight a city’s most popular food offerings.

Fifty-three percent want familiar, established restaurants that food halls congregate in one space. A majority of consumers also want food halls that offer variety in experience with grab-and-go options as well as sit-down restaurants along with the food stalls.

“[They’re] a place to grab a quick, convenient meal, a place to socialize and a place to discover new foods or flavors,” explains Anne Mills, senior manager of consumer insights for Technomic, told Foodservice Equipment Reports.

The plan is for the fully operational Assembly Hall to include 23 local restaurants, 10 themed bars and two sit-down eateries. “Most people love the counter serve nature of the environment and others want to sit down and be served,” Daniels points out.

Guests will feed money into a machine that will give them a Hall Pass, a card they can present for food and beverages to restaurants and bars.

“We’re a cashless environment,” Daniels adds. “We have one POS (point of sale) system across the building so the process to order is the same across all the locations. We have mobile ordering as well. We’re trying to optimize the customer experience.”

A side benefit to the common accounting is that tenants won’t have to handle cash, which has proven highly unpopular during the pandemic.

Time to eat

So, let’s get to the fun part. What are we eating at Assembly Food Hall?

Coco’s Italian Market is bringing its most popular sandwiches, paninis and pastas, all handmade with treasured family recipes, plus salads, subs and appetizers. Can we talk about homemade burrata cheese and lasagna Bolognese? In a separate stall they’re offering Italian sweets, including a mix-and-match cannoli with different shells and fillings.

About 90% of Horu Sushi’s menu in Plano will travel to Nashville. Expect (we hope) not only a variety of sushi but snacks that include shishito peppers with a balsamic soy glaze and tuna tostadas with ahi tuna.

Hattie Jane’s Creamery uses locally produced milk to make their ice cream from scratch. They offer traditional flavors throughout the year, but add specials based on the seasons. “We try to run about a season or two seasons ahead in terms of ideas,” Crowell says. “We just like to play. I draw a lot of inspiration from Southern cookbooks.”

Two of its recent specials were red velvet cake with cream cheese icing and chocolate-covered strawberry. Mint from Crowell’s own garden has found its way into some flavors.

And The Pharmacy Burger Parlor is bringing some of its greatest hits and adding a sausage stand in a separate stall.

As for Prince’s Hot Chicken, well, we know what we’re getting and it can’t get to the food hall fast enough.

That’s just the tip of the culinary iceberg with 23 local eateries and two sit-down restaurants Assembly Hall will develop.

It’s going to be a delicious summer.

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