For the past 10 years, since The Source introduced the concept of food halls to Denver, diners have filled them up, looking for the latest ideas from hot chefs or restaurants.
Take Meta Asian Kitchen (now called MAKfam), which started at Avanti Food & Beverage before moving out to open a standalone spot, or The Budlong, which drew enormous lines at The Source before expanding in Denver. Currently, Black Box Bakery in Edgewater Public Market has gained a huge following, as has Lunchboxx at Denver Central Market.
These days, the 20 or so food halls in metro Denver range in style, vibe and price point, and include Avanti, Edgewater Public Market, Denver Central Market, Zeppelin Station, Stanley Marketplace, Freedom Social, Grange Hall and the Golden Mill.
In the past year, however, three of the most high-profile halls — The Source, Grange Hall and Milk Market — have changed hands. For some people in the industry, like restauranteur Jared Leonard, the sales are a sign that the market has become oversaturated with these dining destinations.
“Food halls, the ones that were popular before there were so many of them, had cool restaurants that otherwise wouldn’t build restaurants downtown because downtown was too expensive,” said Leonard, who owned The Budlong, and now runs A.J.’s Pit Barbecue, Au Feu Brasserie and Grabowski’s Pizza, which operated inside The Source until recently.
Now, it’s no longer a “build it and they will come-type concept.” With so many food halls, they’ve become less interesting, “and there aren’t enough good restaurants,” he said.
But food hall operators across the metro area say the recent sales — two of them to out-of-state companies — aren’t indicative of a larger problem with the model. They were simply necessities brought on by the pandemic, a slow summer or specific problems, like construction. In fact, most are optimistic about the future and believe food halls are only going to become more popular.
At least one business analyst agrees. Technavio Research forecast in a 2022 report that the global food hall market is expected to grow by $71.69 billion between 2021 and 2026.
“If a food hall is run well, if it’s activated, if you have it structured correctly, then there’s no reason why it can’t be incredibly successful,” said Adam Larkey, the chief operation officer for Zeppelin Development, which owned The Source and still runs Zeppelin Station,
Recent food hall sales in Denver
When longtime Denver restaurateur Bonanno opened Milk Market in 2018, it was a somewhat novel idea: all 16 concepts inside the food hall were his.
That included a pasta shop, a salumeria and restaurants specializing in Nashville hot chicken, poke and bao buns, as well as a couple of bars. Not only was Bonanno a proven name — his restaurants, including Mizuna, Luca, the Vesper Lounge and Osteria Marco, are some of the most well-known in Denver — but Milk Market was located in a hot area between Coors Field and Union Station.
Then came the pandemic, and Milk Market’s lunchtime crowds dipped by 70% to 80% as office workers stayed home. By 2023, business had picked up somewhat, but not enough, and last month, Bonanno sold Milk Market to Sage Hospitality, a well-funded Denver-based hotel and restaurant company that also owns the nearby Maven Hotel.
So would Bonanno do it again? Yes, with the right partnership and landlord, he said. “Food halls aren’t dead. I think there’s a place in the right environment. It’s just hard when you’re downtown. You need huge density, and we don’t have that downtown right now.”
Guard is another well-known Denver chef and restaurateur who got in and out of the food hall game fairly quickly. In 2019, he bought a 13,000-square-foot former restaurant in Greenwood Village and began turning it into Grange Hall, which featured a few of his own eateries, along with a brewery and concepts from other chefs. But by the time Grange opened in 2021, the world had changed.
“It was challenging,” Guard said. “Not a lot of people came back to the offices (post-pandemic) … Also, there used to be 120 concerts a year at Fiddler’s Green nearby, but there were only 10 to 15 in our first year. When you plan your performance around things like that, it really throws things off.”
Guard sold Grange Hall in December 2022 to Houston-based RCI Hospitality Holdings for $5.2 million; the publicly traded company owns 26 restaurants and strip bars around the country, including several in Denver, but was interested in Grange Hall as a vehicle to introduce its Bombshells brand, a sports bar concept similar to Hooters or Twin Peaks.
“We weren’t interested in selling, honestly, but RCI came back to us three different times, and each time they did, the price was more and more and more,” Guard said.
RCI has since opened a small-format version of Bombshells in Grange Hall, which David Simmons, the company’s director of restaurant operations, said has brought in a whole new sports crowd. Bombshells “has actually done really well there,” Simmons said. “It’s exceeded my expectations of what we thought we would do with that small footprint.”
RCI plans to open two standalone Bombshells locations in the near future, one in the former Oceanaire Seafood Room downtown and one in the Southlands Town Center in Aurora.
The first of the food halls to sell, though, was also the first to open: The Source Hotel + Market Hall. In August 2022, Los Angeles-based Stockdale Capital Partners bought the complex at 3330 Brighton Blvd. from Denver’s Zeppelin Development for $70 million.
“The final years when we owned The Source, we were dealing with more external pressures, like Brighton getting torn up for nearly three years, construction on the hotel and COVID,” said Zeppelin Development’s Larkey. “We were incredibly proud of the culinary lineup we brought in there. We signed Temaki Den in 2020; we had Safta, one of the best restaurants in the city, Smok, and Reunion Bread. You’d be hard-pressed to find a culinary lineup like those four.”
Since the sale, there have been a couple of market hall closures, like Grabowski’s and Bellota. But Grabowski’s Leonard said it was a lack of parking that pushed him out, not the change of owners.
Ismael De Sousa, who owns Reunion Bread inside The Source, said he might be next as his business has slowed down dramatically (even before an oven fire in his bakery reduced his product capacity) after a string of closures in the market hall.
“The places that are staying, like Safta, Temaki Den, us and Smok, have a product that exceeds the average of Denver, so people are willing to drive and come to us, but there’s no constant steady flow of traffic,” Sousa said.
Stockdale Capital Partners didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Industry veterans and newcomers
Even though Zeppelin Development sold The Source, the company is holding on to its other RiNo food hall, Zeppelin Station, which it opened in 2018.
“Inherently, the fundamentals of a food hall are sound and stable and should mitigate a lot of the typical pressures in the restaurant industry, like labor, food costs and rent,” Larkey said. “It’s almost like culinary co-working, where the cost burden is spread out.”
Over the years, Zeppelin has figured out strategies to keep visitors enticed, like seasonal holiday bars, pop-up food concepts, such as Sandoitchi, and a changing rotation of vendors.
Over in Arvada, Freedom Street Social, which opened in 2022, suffered through a slow summer, according to founder and food hall newcomer Nick Costanzo. He attributed that to families who were traveling again after the pandemic rather than hanging out around town.
“You have these pretty big highs and lows, and it’s hard to control the costs on those days,” he said. “We kind of got the rug pulled out from us a little, but now we’re climbing back into it.”
To fill the gaps, Costanzo courts school-related events, like fundraisers, reunions and holiday parties as an additional revenue source.
But as the first food hall in Arvada, he is still working to educate people on the concept. “Now that we have a little bit of a roadmap for these events, we’re making those bigger and better and relying on what we did last year and what was fun for people,” Costanzo said.
Unlike Freedom Street Social, which relies on young families nearby for business, Denver’s Avanti caters to tourists and 20- to 30-year-olds, said managing partner Patrick O’Neill.
The LoHi food hall debuted in 2015, and O’Neill said it actually has come out stronger on the other side of the pandemic in contrast to some other local operators, and he said the same for its Boulder location, which opened in September 2020.
“We’re not going anywhere, and we hope to be here a long time,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill feels strongly about the future of food halls, but even though the company has been approached by developers to open more locations, he doesn’t plan to jump on one unless it appears to be the exact right location and demographic. “We want to create landmarks … and make sure they’re in killer locations where we know our customer base,” he explained.
Further west, Arielle Israel, co-owner of Black Box Bakery, is thrilled by her spot inside Edgewater Public Market. It has constant foot traffic, she said, and a built-in community, which has been “a huge plus for a business like ours, just starting out in the retail side of things.”
“What’s unique about Edgewater is they’ve done a great job of being the center of the community and providing a lot of activation for the public, like movie nights and yoga,” Israel said.
“Market halls do have a place in the future, it just depends on how you integrate them into a community. People always want to gather. That’s never going to change.”
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