Food Halls Growing In Popularity In Milwaukee And Across The Country

Oct 10, 2019

What does it take to get people out of their homes and willing to sit in a restaurant these days?

That's a question a lot of businesses are grappling with in the era of Uber Eats, Grubhub and other food delivery services. Across the United States and in the Milwaukee area, some developers are betting on food halls.

To put it simply, food halls are where prepared food is sold. Usually the restaurants are chef owned and operated. They focus on high quality menu items that run from a few bucks to $15. There are no waiters — you order from a small menu written on a chalkboard at the counter, wait while your food is prepared, and then have a seat and enjoy your meal.

Crossroads Collective is Milwaukee's first food hall, says Tim Gokhman, director of Milwaukee-based real estate development firm Newland Enterprises. The food hall is on Milwaukee's East Side (2238 N. Farwell Ave.) and has been open for almost a year now. 

"So yeah, you look at Frida over there, they do soups and sandwiches, except they have sandwiches like a seared duck po'boy and a ginger soy pork loin," Gokhman says.

Gokhman is a bit biased, but he says Crossroads is a food lover's heaven. The food hall is one of smallest in the country, occupying only 7,000 feet and eight vendors.

At Crossroads Collective vendors write their menu on chalk boards, which make them easy to change.
Credit LaToya Dennis

"The pasta guys are doing really creative things with a cheese wheel and torching it. And the barbeque is one of the best in the city. We have a raw bar with oysters and crab claws," Gokhman says.

While food halls aren't new, Gokhman says they're growing in popularity. And not just because they’re trendy — they make sense in a world where you can order online and have almost anything you want delivered to your home.

"In my mind, in order to get people to come out and be social and interact in a space like this, you have to give them an extraordinary experience," Gokhman says.

For example, there's a speakeasy attached to the back of Crossroads Collective, but you've got to know how to find it. And Gokhman says Crossroads can be a lot of things to a lot of people because you don't have to pick just one cuisine.

"In order to get people to come out and be social and interact in a space like this, you have to give them an extraordinary experience." - Tim Gokhman

But what's in it for vendors? Adam Pawlak owns Egg & Flour Pasta Bar. It's been open for about five months.

"I'm 75% Sicilian, so pasta and pizza and stuff like that was always a huge thing in my life," Pawlak says.

Pawlak is only 29, but says he's been cooking for nearly 20 years. This is his first venture into entrepreneurship.  

"With more to come, hopefully," Pawlak says.

Adam Pawlak says that opening Egg & Flour in Crossroads Collective has given him the opportunity to figure out if the concept will work without investing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Credit LaToya Dennis

Pawlak says for him, the food hall model was appealing because you don't need nearly as much upfront cash and there's a shorter lease period.

"I think the food hall works really well, not only just in Milwaukee but anywhere in general for someone who might have a really, really great idea and doesn't want to invest a ton of money into a standalone with a five-year lease, servers and bartenders and a huge staff. I wouldn't say it's a commitment thing, it's more so of a risk to opportunity," Pawlak says.

He has six full-time employees.

Pawlak says there's nothing better than being able to try out your idea to find out if it works before investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into a business.

Food industry experts say it can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $75,000 to open in a food hall — but it's 10 times that for a standalone business. At Crossroads, and a lot of other food halls across the country, there's no set amount for rent. Instead, vendors pay a percentage of their sales.

Phil Colicchio, executive managing director of specialty food and beverage at Cushman and Wakefield, predicts there will be more food halls in the future.

"I would tell you a year ago, there were probably 120 food halls in the country. By the end of this year, we will see that just about double," Colicchio says.

"I would tell you a year ago, there were probably 120 food halls in the country. By the end of this year, we will see that just about double." - Phil Colicchio

He says it's projected that by the end of 2020, there will be more than 400 food halls. They're popping up everywhere — places like Boston, Denver, and Rosslyn, Va.

Back at Crossroads Collective on Milwaukee's East Side, Gokhman says efficiency is key for its vendors.

"All somebody has to worry about is you come, you bring your raw goods and you cook them and you sell them," Gokhman says.

He says the food hall his company is building in Bay View will open in May of 2020. That's around the same time the food hall is expected to open in the former Grand Avenue Mall in downtown Milwaukee.