Indoor food markets are suddenly getting pretty popular in London.
So opening three new ones this year isn’t just a bazaar pipe-dream.
Especially when overseeing it all is the pretty experienced pair comprising Pitt Cue Co co-founder, Simon Anderson, and investor/architectural guru, Andy Lewis-Pratt. Their new venture, Market Halls, will see three communal dining rooms spring up later this year in a set of unloved and unusual old London buildings; from the former BHS flagship store, to a hidden, Grade II listed tube station ticket hall. And into these formerly abandoned spots, they’ll be packing in a horde of vendors – from street food-style start-ups to miniature versions of established restaurants – from which you’ll be able to order dishes like a giant culinary pick’n’mix. It’s something other countries have been doing pretty well for decades – so why haven’t we seen it in London before?
“We talk about this a lot”, Simon tells us, “and there’s lots of reasons. There’s a cultural thing; historically we just haven’t had it. We’ve had dining in the food hall sections of the big department stores – Harrods, and Selfridges – but they’ve always tended to be owner operated. Another interesting thing,” he adds, “is that people just don’t share food – and other cultures are very good at sharing food. That might be one of the more basic reasons!”
But it’s not just good timing with our increasing appetite for small plates; it’s also a smart idea for a city where solo restaurateurs are finding it more and more difficult just to stay afloat. Our visually-dominated culture is seeing traditional and independent spots priced out in favour of aesthetically pleasing ‘concepts’ that are better at news feeds than feeding; while soaring rents, challenging business rates, higher wages and import costs are putting the pressure even on well-established eateries that have to be absurdly dependent on lunchtime trade to balance the books. Could a set-up like Market Halls offer a little more stability to the restaurant scene?
“That’s one of the main things that excites me as a restaurateur in the project,” he enthuses. “There are so many barriers to entry these days, whether you’re trying to open a restaurant, or even grow your current restaurant business. We seem to be (as restaurateurs) being attacked from every side; so whether its increased rents and rates, Brexit, changes in employment law… it’s a difficult time for restaurants” he explains. “So what we’ve tried to do is create a model that works in a way that there is a low barrier of entry for people to get involved.”
Essentially, as the owners of the spaces, Simon and Andy will take on all the ‘traditional risk elements’ – the rents, business rates – as well as the upfront costs of kitchen fit-outs and pricey extraction systems. That way, he explains, “for a minimum amount of investment, [vendors] can begin trading with us in areas that they either wouldn’t normally consider trading in – somewhere like Fulham, or in areas like the West End, which is traditionally very expensive. They can be in an area that they could never really imagine operating in.”
Simon and Andy hadn’t specifically imagined these areas, either. Instead, they set out with an open brief and a keen eye to find empty buildings that could be polished up again for the project – which, by its nature, meant finding somewhere big, too. “When you work in this industry, you get to walk around, you find the odd gems – and to me, finding those buildings is always a really fun part of the job,” he says.
There are three set to open this year, although there were some rumours of six (“I mean, we’re mad, but we’re not mental,” he laughs). First to launch will be the Fulham branch, making its home in a 19th century tube station ticket office that’s been closed off to the public for 15 years. Inside, he says, it’s completely untouched. “We’ve had to be really respectful with the planning – every part of it’s Grade II listed – so we’re trying to do something that really complements the building, and brings it back the justice that it needs,” he says. “But it will be quite cool, because each kitchen has its own individually branded frontage, that’ll be out there a little bit. But for the actual overall feel of it, the building itself will really shine through.”
As for those kitchens, they’re staying tight-lipped on the vendors for now – but they’ve used the pretty failsafe method of picking places they’d like to eat personally. “I always think people in the food industry should be quite selfish and driven by their own belly,” he laughs. He and the team have scoured the London food scene to find a proper range of traders, aiming to cover all the bases as much as possible. “You’re gonna see people from all kinds of different levels, people that have got maybe one or two restaurants, to people who have been operating as street food traders… what we’re looking for is independence, passion, and quality,” he says. And it’ll be slightly tweaked for each location.
“When we get to the West End, where we’ve got more scope and more space, then we can be more adventurous with the kinds of kitchens that we put in,” he continues. One of the spaces will be an intimate, ‘chef’s table’-style room, which he’s hoping will be used for everything from visiting international chefs or London restaurateurs wanting to strike out and try something completely different, to educational school visits, launches and more.
Down in Fulham, meanwhile, they’re focussing on the unique feel of the neighbourhood. “We thought very much about the location we were in, and what other traders were around. We tried to put an offering in that complements the area.” And a big part of that is community – they’re already in discussions with charities who work with refugees and that support young people trying to get into the food industry.
“I think Fulham’s going to be one of the most exciting ones that we do. We’re bringing something that traditionally you’d expect to open in the East End, to the West End,” he says. “We’re bringing a bit of the East End back to the homeland.”