Every Bay Area restaurant, big or small, has been impacted by the ongoing coronavirus crisis, but the region’s food halls — a staple of the local food scene for years — face their own particular set of challenges: By and large, they’re spaces whose entire setup is built on communal seating. They depend on foot traffic and people being willing to congregate in fairly large crowds for extended periods.
Of course, all of that looks to be questionable during this time of social distancing, so as new and existing Bay Area food halls look toward the eventual resumption of dine-in service, many of them are making significant changes — and, in the case of some yet-to-open food halls, to postpone their launch by several months.
In some cases, the proposed solution is as simple as moving the bulk of the seating outdoors. In Napa County, where restaurants have already reopened for dine-in service, diners can see this in practice as early as this weekend, when the Oxbow Public Market opens its outdoor deck offering “a significant number of open-air, socially distanced communal tables and seats,” according to a press release.
Other food halls are leaning into this model as well. Mark Stefan, president of the real estate company that owns Public Market Emeryville, says that while it’s true that food halls face unique challenges, they also have “unique opportunities” relative to other kinds of restaurant spaces — namely, in the amount of space they have at their disposal, both indoors and outdoors. So, Stefan says, when the Public Market eventually reopens for dine-in customers, the changes will mostly have to do with the seating layout, removing some of the tables inside and adding a significant number of seats outdoors — about 119 of them, and even more if the city of Emeryville approves a plan to add seating to one of the streets adjacent to the market. Indoors, he says they’re considering keeping some of the long communal tables but marking off where different groups of people are allowed to sit — potentially allowing a grandparent to sit at the same table as their grandkids, but from a safe distance, Stefan says.
In Oakland’s Jack London Square neighborhood, the highly anticipated, 40,000-square-foot Oakland Assembly food hall — with big-name chefs like Reem Assil, Preeti Mistry, and Matt Horn signed on — will likely see its opening date pushed back a few months to early 2021 — mostly because of coronavirus-related construction delays, says John McEnery, the developer behind the project.
McEnery also runs San Jose’s San Pedro Square Market food hall, which just reopened for takeout, and the Abbott Square Market in Santa Cruz, which is currently closed. According to McEnery, all three food halls have plenty of room for outdoor seating — so much so, he says, that “we might not have indoor seating for the foreseeable future.”
Beyond that, McEnery says the the pandemic is forcing all of his food halls to consider alternative styles of service beyond the fast food or fast-casual format you’d find in a typical food hall. One possibility, he says, is actually instituting some form a table service. Instead of having customers line up to order, he says he’s considering having runners take orders at each table, to consolidate the number of people who have to walk up to the individual food kiosks.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 could delay the opening of one San Francisco food hall by about a year. Conceived as the country’s first women-led food hall, with a lineup of kiosks helmed by chefs from the La Cocina food incubator, the La Cocina Municipal Marketplace was originally slated to open in the Tenderloin sometime in the late summer. Now, La Cocina executive director Caleb Zigas says, the food hall likely won’t open to the public until sometime in 2021.
“The original vision was a place for the Tenderloin to gather and to feel at home,” Zigas explains. “And unfortunately, the health and safety environment doesn’t make it possible to gather safely.”
According to Zigas, the problem is that once the food hall opens, it’ll start racking up expenses that it won’t be able to absorb if the business isn’t there. In the very best case scenario, Zigas says, the new space might be able to open at the end of this year — but only if La Cocina is able to secure a couple of large contracts to provide meals people in need, perhaps partnering with an organization like World Central Kitchen to feed vulnerable people in the Tenderloin, which has been especially hard hit by the coronavirus crisis. “If we’re able to partner in the Tenderloin and do something really cool for this really devastated population, I’d be really excited to do that,” Zigas says.
In that scenario, the Municipal Marketplace wouldn’t really be a food hall at that point, but more of a big production kitchen — Zigas doesn’t think they’ll even bother putting in seating for the time being.
For now, however, the women-, immigrant-, and POC-focused food incubator has its hands full trying to help its members just to survive and keep their heads above water. According to Zigas, the nonprofit has already distributed about $500,000 in direct cash assistance to La Cocina entrepreneurs. It isn’t charging them any fees to use the existing La Cocina kitchen in the Mission — and won’t for the foreseeable future. And it’s selling community food boxes, featuring dishes from La Cocina food businesses, and giving 100 percent of the proceeds to those businesses. All of that, and it still doesn’t feel like it adds up to nearly enough.
“Our entrepreneurial community is resilient,” Zigas says, “but this shit is riddled with psychological trauma for a lot of people, on top of real medical risks.”