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Gather around: Hangouts, food halls encourage more experiential dining

7 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

As soon as you walk into Nashville’s Pinewood Social, you’ll notice there are a variety of things to do and places to eat. Will it be a game of bowling today, or a quick dip in the pool, complete with an outdoor menu of mahi mahi tacos and churros? Still more options to choose from: a coffee and tea stand, bocce ball, private karaoke rooms, and a lounge living room.

Similarly, when you walk into the Chicago French Market, perhaps you’ll visit an artisan producer festival, take the kids to visit the Easter bunny, sample gourmet truffles, or enjoy a live accordion concert.

Both hangout concepts like Pinewood Social and food halls like the Chicago French Market are examples of growing restaurant concepts that are blending food with experience. At hangout concepts, it’s about offering food with the addition of entertainment options to attract a wide range of consumers- whether it’s young families, foodies, or experience-seeking millennials. While hangouts may entice customers with Pac-Man or laser tag, food halls are creating a complete food experience by curating a selection of the area’s best producers and operators under one roof. At The Source in Denver, it’s not just the oak-fired menu at Acorn that might bring foot traffic into the food hall; customers can take a leisurely stroll through the food hall to peruse local gourmet foods and even meet the people responsible for sourcing their next meal. At Boxcar Coffee Roasters, customers are able to watch coffee beans being roasted, and at Meat Head Butcher Shop, customers can see their meat butchered on the spot.

Restaurants are no longer solely about the food — now, more than ever, they are social, interactive, and focused on building an experience for customers. Operators across the country are stepping up to grab their share of the segment — whether it’s Chicago-area Emporium Arcade Bar that specializes in its collection of unique games and offers dining options in the form of hosting local food trucks, or a food hall like Eataly that offers a massive Italian marketplace alongside stations that feature freshly-made pasta, wood-fired pizza, or hands-on cooking demonstrations.

Multi-concept entertainment emporiums offer a wealth of experiences

In Datassential’s May issue of Creative Concepts: Hangouts, we covered the growing segment of restaurant concepts encouraging diners to eat, drink, play, and hang out. Some experiential concepts that combine restaurants and arcades, often referred to as beercades, bring nostalgic arcade games like Mortal Kombat and Pac-Man together with chef-driven menus and stately bar and beverage programs. At Texas-based Barcadia, guests are encouraged to feed their “inner child,” both with a variety of arcade games and entertainment options and with creative riffs on classic comfort foods (think fried Oreos and triple cheese grilled cheese sandwiches).

And while there are several variations on the bar-arcade hybrid, there are also entertainment centers that combine dining with bowling, bocce ball, laser tag, tennis, and much more. At the newly-opened FTW in Chicago, there’s a wide range of 130-plus arcade and table top games along with mini-golf and a pub grub-focused menu accompanied by a craft beer bar. The newly-remodeled Chicago Athletic Association Hotel is a both a boutique hotel and a dining destination, complete with The Game Room, which offers entertainment options like shuffleboard, billiards, and a menu heavy on updated classics, from the root beer floats with house-made root beer to the duck sausage corn dogs.

Even traditional restaurants without bowling alleys or arcade games can enhance the guest experience by adding special events like trivia nights or stocking a few board games. Some operators may tweak their offerings to draw a wider net of consumers – tables set up like workspaces can attract clientele during the work day while afternoon food and drink specials could transition customers into staying for an evening meal. Now more than ever, operators are looking for ways to maximize their presence – whether it’s by adding entertainment options, revamping offerings to encourage more social dining, or collaborating with others to create one-stop-shop food halls.

Food halls create a social experience with a little bit of everything

There’s been a renewed fascination with food halls, the all-in-one produce and gourmet food shopping destinations that have been around since the early 1900s. In our issue of Creative Concepts: Food Halls, we reported that 65% of consumers have visited or would visit a food hall. There are several high-profile food halls currently in the works – celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain will open an eponymous international street food hall in New York City and the James Beard Public Market, slated for construction in 2016, will be the first food hall in Portland, OR.

There are also plenty of well-established and growing food halls across the country. At Brooklyn’s combination food and beer hall, Berg’n, customers can choose from a dozen drafts at the vintage bar, seating at rustic communal tables, as well as fare from food stalls. Ramen Burger, known for its ramen bun-burger creation, offers a variety of other trendy ramen mash-ups at the hall, such as ramen fries and ramen churros. Like many food halls, Berg’n hosts regular social events, such as DJ nights, outdoor flea markets, and “Book Cooks,” an interview and tasting series with popular cookbook authors.

In addition to being a one-stop-shop for a sampling of a city’s very best food offerings, food halls are also cultivating a social community – both for consumers and operators. While consumers can both peruse gourmet ingredients for at-home cooking as well as sit down for a fast casual bite with friends, business operators can also utilize food halls as a starting point to a full brick-and-mortar, while also learning and collaborating with fellow food stall owners.

Restaurants look to evolve beyond food

The evolution of restaurants moving towards a more experiential focus can already be seen throughout the industry. At Ponderosa Steakhouse’s spinoff concept, Bo’s Steak & Grill, nearly everything on the menu is made from scratch, with ingredients locally sourced — but that’s only one aspect to the restaurant’s appeal. The fast casual restaurant includes mismatched chairs around a fireplace, red Solo cups, and rustic décor designed to replicate the experience of relaxing at a backyard BBQ. And at up-and-coming supermarkets, customers aren’t just shopping for weekly groceries — they’re perusing food hall-inspired food stations with made-to-order food, learning how to create nutritional meals, grinding their own fresh nut butters, or sipping wine and eating fresh oysters at the in-store restaurant.

So whether it’s a sprawling food hall or restaurant/entertainment concept, operators are constantly tweaking their offerings to appeal to a wider range of consumers. As the industry evolves and competition increases, it’s no longer just about serving great food — but also about having a great social atmosphere and creating a complete experience that sets one operator apart from another.

Maeve Webster is the senior director of Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. To purchase the Creative Concepts: Food Halls or Creative Concepts: Hangouts TrendSpotting Reports mentioned in this article, contact Webster at 312-655-0596 or [email protected]


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