By: Alexander McQuilkin
Landlords, developers, brokers, and food lovers converged at Eataly Downtown last Tuesday for Urban Land Institute New York’s Changing Tastes: What’s Next in the Evolution of Eating, for a sampling of ideas—and charcuterie—from some of the leading figures at the intersection of New York’s food and real estate worlds.
Moderated by Adam Saper, Managing Partner of Eataly USA, the discussion centered around the changing role of food and drink in retail and the built environment. As Saper related about his 2010 introduction of Eataly to New York City from Italy, his friends told him he was crazy – they didn’t want to eat in a grocery store. Today of course Eataly is a resounding success, both in New York, where demand spurred the group to open a second location in 4 World Trade Center last year, and in new locations across the country.
The brand is also increasingly a model for “food halls” of every stripe – a new and evolving retail segment akin to a grown-up food court, and including the likes of places like Chelsea Market and Gotham West Market. One currently under development is the 100,000-square-foot Market Line under the sprawling new Essex Crossing development on the Lower East Side. Beth Lieberman, the Market Line’s Director of Operations was on hand to discuss the challenges and excitement of curating a huge food hall from the ground up.
Having worked on the build-out of Urban Space Vanderbilt, a similar concept near Grand Central Terminal, Lieberman wasn’t a stranger to the stresses inherent in bringing together dozens of small food businesses under one roof on a tight deadline. But the Market Line is primed to be in a category of its own – 60 restaurants and food sellers are being brought together for an anticipated opening next summer, with not a single national chain among them.
Eschewing well-known brands that are reliable rent-payers can be a difficult decision for a landlord to make, but Steven Cornwell, Chief Marketing Officer at The Howard Hughes Corporation agreed that it can be the right one. “Any developer who thinks they can operate like they did last century won’t be around in 20 years,” he speculated. Retail is going through a major pain point, and food—as well as what Cornwell termed the “experience economy”—can help sustain its viability.
Saper agreed. He said Eataly simply wouldn’t be the draw it is if he calculated which operators were generating the most profit per square foot and reshuffled them. Instead he’s created what he calls a “theater of food.” Lieberman took the same approach at Market Line – she had to get a bread vendor and a fish vendor onboard she said, even knowing they wouldn’t generate quite the volume of, say, a burger joint. Customers want to hear a story.
With more and more developers gunning to capture the prized Millennial demographic and inject some vibrancy into their street-level spaces, the food hall concept may seem like it’s having more of a moment than the market can absorb. An audience member even pointed to the conspicuous similarities between Eataly and Le District, the French-themed marketplace just a block away in Brookfield Place. But Saper is certain the phenomenon isn’t at saturation. The real competition, he maintains, is “Big Food,” and the traditional grocery store model.
Indeed, the food market model isn’t new at all, pointed out Marcel van Ooyen, President & CEO of GrowNYC, a nonprofit that operates farmers markets and community gardens across the city. The current iteration is a rebirth of the way people ate and shopped for hundreds of years, including in New York City’s own Dutch-built Washington Street Market. It’s a tradition that’s survived more heartily in places like Europe, with its Boqueria in Barcelona and London’s Borough Market.
The observation that the modern consumer is seeking out more authentic experiences jives with another trend: a rediscovered desire for locally and seasonally grown food that isn’t packed with preservatives and fertilizers. GrowNYC’s world-famous Union Square Greenmarket has been both a leader and a beneficiary of that movement. With help from Michelin-starred Union Square Café across the street, the neighborhood has been transformed into a foodie hotspot and (coincidence?) a sizzling residential property market.
As retail landlords and brokers contend with e-commerce and shrinking malls, a cohort of food and drink obsessives is driving a placemaking approach that is rooted in the shared human experiences of growing, cooking and eating, and one that can’t be replicated online. To that they say, “buon appetito!”