Food halls aim to offer a new experience
The Dairy Market is a cavernous place – a 23,000 square foot food hall built in a milk processing plant from the thirties. Today it hosts a dozen stalls intended to attract a large crowd of people with diverse tastes.
Visitors find the familiar – hamburgers and fries, tacos, pizza and coffee – but there are also places offering soul food, a variety of veggie burgers and Filipino fare prepared by Fernando Dizon and his family. “My mom, my dad, my cousins, a lot of my aunts and uncles work here.”
Customers Cathy Thomas and Emaline Winter are here to celebrate over ice cream sundaes from Moo Thru – a spinoff from the 10-year-old roadside stand halfway between Charlottesville and D.C. “It’s my birthday, and we went straight to the ice cream.”
Unlike food courts, which are filled with national chains, local is central to the food hall concept. Alexis Strasser is co-owner of the Bee Conscious Bakery, providing pastries and fresh produce from her family’s fields and hives in Goochland County. “We bought our farm, started our bees and wanted to spread the word about farming practices and staying organic.”
In addition there’s an upscale restaurant, a classy bar and an elegant gift shop which co-owner Leah Donohue named for the architect’s wife – Bess -- and Brigid: “Brigid is actually the patron saint of dairy workers," Donohue says. "There are stories that she, back in Ireland, turned water into beer.”
Of course there’s a brewery in the hall and Springhouse Sundries -- a shop that sells gourmet food and wine. Matt Houck is its co-owner and manager. “We basically have set out to bring a bottle in from most major regions and most major varietals from around the world. Every Friday and Saturday we have a couple of bottles off the shelves open here for free – you’re welcome to stop by and try them out.”
In Richmond, developers are putting finishing touches on a smaller food hall. Its seven stalls will feature fried chicken and seafood, Mexican street fare, fresh pasta, sandwiches and Cambodian comfort food.
Hatch Local has been in the works for months. Founder Austin Green blaming a shortage of construction supplies for the delay in opening. “There was a national door knob shortage, and you can’t pass an inspection if there are no door knobs on the doors.”
Now set to open in January, Vice President Shannon Conway says the hall will give chefs a place to learn and experiment without the hefty investment required for a regular restaurant. “Everybody’s lease is a year. They have the right to stay or go. We hope to see some of them move on and do their own thing. We want to keep the line fresh, and the chef-in-residence stall will be changing annually.”
Of course Richmond and Charlottesville already have dozens of restaurants, and when the pandemic hit developer Chris Henry wasn’t sure how quickly business would build at the Dairy Market, but he was there on day one. “When we opened on December 15th at the height of COVID, it was like first day of school. I showed up at 7 o’clock in the morning. We opened the doors at eight o’clock, and I wanted to see the first customer walk through the door, but I wasn’t sure any customers were going to walk through the door.”
In the end, he was pleasantly surprised – especially on weekends when the place is packed. A four-story office building and 180 apartments adjacent to the hall are likely to boost business, and a management company is targeting tour buses bound for Monticello and other historic sites.
Hatch planners are also confident. Their hall is in Manchester – a blue collar neighborhood that’s gentrifying – drawing young, presumably hungry professionals in search of a cool neighborhood hangout.