How food halls are serving up a serious challenge to pubs

Open spaces packed with communal tables, eclectic menus and Instagram-friendly decor are drawing millennials away from pubs

‘Where did you watch the football?’ It was – for a few brief, halcyon days – the conversation starter of the summer. Until the semi-final, only a brave few said they were watching Wimbledon.

I can tell you I watched precisely three England matches: one at home, one in a pub, and one (England’s defeat to Croatia) in a Japanese food hall in London’s Shepherd’s Bush.

It was an incongruous place to witness the febrile high and then mighty doldrums of England’s World Cup defeat. More sake consumed than pints, more sushi than chips. When England’s goal was scored it wasn’t beer that I nearly spilled but a cardboard tub of ramen.

England fans in Flat Iron Square (Getty)

Friends had similar tales. One watched the semi-final at Pergola, a large roof-top eating/drinking set up in Paddington, another went to Flat Iron Square, an outdoor food market and screen near London Bridge.

It is food hall boom time. In the early 2000s a few well-known markets began to reinvent themselves, notably Barcelona’s La Boqueria. Then in 2014 10 food halls opened in Europe. Over 20 have opened since, four in London this year alone. A reinvention of Kirkgate Market in Leeds has brought 400,000 more foodies to its doors (thanks in part, according to the Guardian, to Yorkshire pudding wraps). Market Hall in Fulham, one of this year’s London arrivals, has had 150,000 guests since it opened in May. Simon Anderson, its co-founder, tells me that millennials are their core audience.

It’s not hard to see why bright signs and nicely-boxed food appeal to the Instagram generation. A dark pub is not photogenic. (Research by high street restaurant Zizzi found that 18-35 year olds spend the equivalent of five days a year scrolling through food pictures on Instagram).

To a tee, the new generation of food halls are large and light with long sharing tables. At Pergola in Paddington there are four different food outlets and two bars. At Flat Iron Square you can eat anything from Malay street food to a cheese toastie. Anderson says, ‘We’re thinking of dynamic new ways to dine’.

Business did pick up for during the World Cup. There was a 33 per cent surge in custom for the first England match alone. The British Beer and Pub Association predicted that an extra 10 million pints would be pulled during the semi-final (results not yet in). There was a near 10 per cent year-on-year increase in earnings spent at pubs in June.

But it’s relative to the bigger picture. A publican in north Islington told me that with tight margins (higher business rates, higher drinks duties) and a fickle new generation, he’s struggling to keep up. Pints are seen as dirty, ramen is clean. He also told me to look at statistics from the Cambridge. In March this year, the association estimated the 18 pubs were shutting every week.

When asked if they threaten local boozers, the food hall founders are quick allay any such fears. Charlie Gardiner, founder of Pergola Paddington and The Prince, says: ‘We could never replace the pub! A good local boozer will never go out of fashion.’ Simon Anderson agrees, ‘Food halls just add a different dimension’.

Market Hall in Fulham

Pubs are expanding their range – from artisan gin menus to pop-up food residencies – but it’s hard to vie for the attention of a generation that prefers food to drink, tends to larger groups, and who can now go to a place where eight people can eat eight different food types and still sit together.

Plus, food hall peak times are Friday and Saturday evenings – also prime time for pubs. You can’t deny that it splits the crowd.

Market Halls will open two more venues in London this year – one in the old British Home Stores on Oxford Street – and is looking elsewhere in the UK. York, Edinburgh and Birmingham are under consideration. Gardiner says that the Pergola team are looking at opportunities further afield.

Ichiba, where I watched the football, will not show sport as a matter of course but it will screen special events. You know where I will be for the Tokyo 2020. I’m afraid it won’t be the pub.


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