Food & Drink

As diners turn to food as entertainment, the Triangle’s food hall moment has arrived

An aerial view of the Morgan Street Food Hall & Market in downtown Raleigh on Feb. 22, 2018. The 20,000 square foot venue will offer a variety of retail and food offerings in a series of stalls.
An aerial view of the Morgan Street Food Hall & Market in downtown Raleigh on Feb. 22, 2018. The 20,000 square foot venue will offer a variety of retail and food offerings in a series of stalls. News & Observer file

Food halls exist on a spectrum. There’s no simple reason why the mall food court, with its shopping snacks of pretzels and pizza, is somehow different from the national food hall trend about to descend on the Triangle.

Driven by an insatiable taste for everything tasty, American cities are erecting monuments to the food revolution, to the casual, local, pairs-well-with-a-beer age of dining.

In the last two decades, as Americans have looked more to food for identity and entertainment as much as a meal, food halls have taken over the major cities: two dozen across New York, countless more in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Charlotte has one, with another on the way.

Now it’s the Triangle’s turn, the next step and largest investment in becoming a food region to be reckoned with.

“It’s experience-driven, it’s being in the same place, interacting with people,” said Jason Queen, a leading partner in Transfer Co., one of two Raleigh food hall projects.

“It’s a big part of the up-and-coming generation, of what they want to be,” he said. “They want the social interaction. That’s why so many people are moving here, wanting to be around that spark of innovation. You foster that in a food hall.”

Four food halls will open in the next year, spread out among Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham, each a collection of small local vendors in a shared space.

Even with the Triangle’s ever-hungry food culture, going from zero food halls to four, including the two largest only blocks apart, could present some challenges, at least in recruiting vendors.

But many of these food hall projects are years in the making — from concept to overhauling huge spaces in dire need of renovation.

And while this may have presented delays to anticipated opening dates, buzz is building among foodies, economic development cheerleaders and tourism officials.

They say the Triangle is ready to embrace the food hall moment.

The food hall roster

Transfer Co. and Morgan Street Food Hall are in downtown Raleigh. Durham Food Hall is moving into the city’s old Liberty Warehouse apartment complex. Blue Dogwood, in a former grocery store in Chapel Hill, joins the town’s long-standing economic center on Franklin Street and is the one likely to open first, slated for late spring or early summer.

The owners point to Europe for inspiration, to the centuries-old city markets where vendors hawked every imaginable culinary desire. And they’ve turned to many of the Triangle’s already established restaurants, food purveyors and artisans to bring their goods, and their brands, to the projects.

Morgan Street Food Hall is operated by Niall Hanley’s Hibernian Hospitality Group, which owns Hibernian Pub, Raleigh Beer Garden, Watts & Ward cocktail bar and other food and drink spots.

This is Hanley’s biggest venture yet, with a collection of single vendors and food stalls each operating as a restaurant. If you’ve been to a food hall in another city, it may have resembled what Morgan Street aspires to be — an expansive space, but crammed with enough local flavor to make 22,000 square feet seem intimate. The Dillon, an 18-story high-rise of apartments, shops and restaurants, will open this year across the street, feeding Morgan Street a steady stream of business (or another downtown venture competing for Raleigh’s attention).

Bobby Hollomon works on the outdoor bar at Morgan Street Food Hall & Market in downtown Raleigh on Feb. 22, 2018. The 20,000 square foot venue will offer a variety of retail and food offerings in a series of stalls as well as an indoor and outdoor bar. Juli Leonard

Among the vendors will be popular food truck Cousins Maine Lobster, opening its first sit-down restaurant; second locations of Carroll’s Kitchen and Raleigh Raw, both already established downtown; plus boba tea, ice cream, pizza, tacos, a butcher shop and a giant indoor/outdoor bar and beer garden operated by Hanley’s company.

Less than a mile away, Transfer Co. Food Hall will open on East Davie Street. This one is more production-centric, with Videri Chocolate Factory moving its chocolate making there. Jubala coffee shop will team up with Boulted Bread on a bakery and cafe. Angela Salamanca, who owns Centro Mexican restaurant, is adding a tortilleria and taqueria to the space. Person Street Bar and Locals Seafood will run a fish market and raw bar together, and next door Saxapahaw General Store will open a new grocery store.

Blue Dogwood, with its focus on small local vendors, is the coziest of the projects at 4,000 square feet. Its vendors include Soul Cocina, seen at area farmer’s markets steaming and serving tamales, Left Bank Butchery and a bar.

Durham Food Hall, originally planned for the Lakewood neighborhood, recently joined the ground floor of the old Liberty tobacco warehouse known as the Liberty Warehouse Apartments development. Its 14,000-square-foot space joins Central Park’s already food- heavy district, bringing even more prepared food options.

Stone's Warehouse
Stone’s Warehouse on the east side of downtown Raleigh is being developed by Jason Queen into production and retail space for food businesses. Chris Seward 2014 News & Observer file photo

Filling a void

A few years ago, a rare tornado in downtown Raleigh blew a hole in the roof of the Transfer Company building, the brick fortress on East Davie Street that at different times had been a garage for city buses, a Ford service station and for decades sat vacant.

Similarly, Morgan Street brings new life to the former Jillian’s spot in the Warehouse District, a too big Dave & Busters-esque bar in a part of town no one wanted to be in 10 years ago.

When Queen took over the Transfer Co. building, bushes and trees were growing inside the great expanse of concrete and steel. Now it will be a space to eat empanadas and sip on champagne while slurping oysters, all for a new generation with a taste for brick and glass.

“This was never meant to be a pretty building,” Queen said. “It was designed to be a functional industrial garage. We didn’t want to make it something it wasn’t; we didn’t want to make it prettier than it would have been back in the day.”

Jason Queen, 36, of Raleigh, poses at the Carolina Coach Garage and Shop (or Stone’s warehouse) on East Davie Street in downtown Raleigh,. He’s planning to restore 26,000 square feet across the two historic buildings. Corey Lowenstein

Queen, 38, is a developer with a background in historical preservation. He once was Preservation Carolina’s director of urban issues.

He made his home in East Raleigh and passed the Transfer building for 10 years, imagining how to breathe life back in the ruins. In a bid to the City of Raleigh, his food hall project beat out a half-dozen development suitors, with proposals ranging from a community center, to a charter school, to bulldozing the bricks and turning the land into condos.

“There’s only a couple of things that would work in an old building like this, and a food hall is one of them,” he said.

At the beginning, Queen wanted to open a grocery store, saying that’s what the neighborhood needed most. A Kroger, the closest one by miles, closed a few years ago, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared East Raleigh a food desert, meaning residents had scarce access to healthy food.

Saxapahaw General Store, with a location already in the Alamance County community, looks to fill that need. While known for being organic and upscale, owner Jeff Barney said the aisles of their second location will cater to all walks of life.

“You have to go into a neighborhood and provide something that’s needed,” Barney said, rejecting the idea that an upscale grocery store may be the odd remedy to food scarcity. “Cheapness isn’t necessarily the best value. It’s possible to make food more affordable without sacrificing quality. This is a workaday place. You can still get a quality barbecue sandwich for $4.”

Transfer Co., housed in the historic Carolina Coach Garage and Shop in downtown Raleigh, offers 43,000+ SF of renovated warehouse and newly built space for food producers, makers, vendors and restaurateurs. Juli Leonard

Too many too soon?

Hanley and Queen, while developing their own distinct projects, agree with one another that the two can co-exist in Raleigh.

“Food halls in general, no matter if we did another one in another city or five miles away, it would still be different and unique,” Queen said. “Each food hall is a unique experience, in and of itself. That’s the beauty of these. That’s the whole draw. It’s literally a unique experience set to our own city’s cultural identity.”

In an area the size of the Triangle, with dozens of new residents moving here every day, Hanley said more may be on the way.

Raleigh restauranteur Niall Hanley of Morgan Food Hall & Hibernian Hospitality Company at Morgan Street Food Hall & Market in downtown Raleigh on Feb. 22, 2018. Juli Leonard News & Observer file

“Are there too many restaurants?” Hanley said. “The growth in this city is ridiculous. And if you’re coming into business and you’re afraid of competition, don’t get into business….You’re going to see an awful lot more of these.”

Not just as a tourism or quality of life draw, food halls could be an effective business model for aspiring restaurateurs.

For the last decade or so, food trucks have been the incubator of the restaurant industry. If you didn’t have a wealthy patron or partner, they were a way for cooks to try out a concept and seek out hungry diners, whether at a brewery or office park.

The food halls look to be the next step in that model, offering a large space to a small idea, giving it somewhere to grow.

“We wanted to embrace the local food movement, but we really wanted to help out folks who can’t afford to upfit a space for $200,000,” said Sarah Boak of Blue Dogwood, the only food hall explicitly hoping high turnover is part of their project, wanting to be the nest from which the area’s next great food concepts are hatched.

Chapel Hill’s Blue Dogwood will feature THE BAR which will sell beer, wine, and cider that complements vendor food options, while also focusing on unique beers and ciders from smaller, community-oriented local and regional breweries and cideries. The market will eventually include an outdoor beer garden in the second phase of construction. Juli Leonard

At Morgan Street, the scale is larger, but Hanley sees it more as a platform.

“You get a footprint in downtown Raleigh for x amount of dollars and build a space that doesn’t cost $700,000,” Hanley said. “That’s the beauty of this, it gives people a chance to start, to test the market and see how it goes.”

None of the food halls will open at capacity, maybe the market’s wish to wait and see, though the owners say that’s because of their own selectivity. Leases are mostly multi-year, usually three to five years and as long as a decade.

Deb Keller, owner of the local Cousins Maine Lobster food trucks, met Hanley a few years ago at HQ Raleigh co-working space when he was making the Morgan Street pitch to food trucks owners. She said joining the project was a fairly easy sell.

“I love the fact that it’s stationary,” Keller said. “It’s equivalent to Truck 3 for us. The other two are called Rosalita and Roxanne. But with food trucks you have repairs, which can be costly. It gives us a chance to be in one place and our customers know we’re there. We’re usually booked six months out, which is a blessing. But I get bummed when I have to tell someone we can’t do an event because we’re booked.”

Videri owner Sam Ratto will move his wholesale chocolate making to Transfer Company and add a simple retail counter, turning the original Warehouse District spot into a cafe and sweet shop. He thinks competition is in our heads.

“Morgan Street versus Transfer, they’re not the same thing,” Ratto said. “I don’t see them in competition. I know we live in the Triangle and have to pick UNC or Duke or NC State. I’ll be a visitor to both places. I like taking the competition out of it and thinking of it a Raleigh adding more delicious, tasty, thoughtful food.”


Here is how you can keep up with the Triangle’s food halls. The opening dates and vendors are subject to change.

Morgan Street Food Hall & Market

411 W. Morgan St., Raleigh.

Opening: Summer 2018

Vendors: Cousins Maine Lobster, Carroll’s Kitchen, Makus Empanadas, Raleigh Rolls, Wicked Taco, Bella’s Wood Fired Pizza, Morgan Street Java and Creperie, Boba Brew, City Sushi, Cow Bar, Curry in a Hurry, Cocoa Forte, Ginger + Soy, Oak City Fish & Chips, Raleigh Raw,Sassool, Hook & Cleaver butcher shop, MKG Kitchen

Transfer Co.

500 E. Davie St., Raleigh.

Opening: Summer 2018

Vendors: Boulted Bread, Jubala Coffee, Angela Salamanca of Centro and Gallo Pelon, Videri Chocolate Factory, Locals Seafood with Person Street, Saxapahaw General Store and Che Empanadas, restaurant anchor to be secured

Blue Dogwood Public Market

306 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill.

Opening: Soft opening in May, regular hours in June

Vendors: Rumi Persian Cafe, Chocolatay Confections, Left Bank Butchery, Pizzelle Bakery, Soul Cocina, Vegan Flava Cafe, The Bar at Blue Dogwood

Durham Food Hall

530 Foster St., Durham.

Opening: Late 2018

Vendors: None announced so far

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.