Photo by Ruta Smith

Moving Forward

Workshop’s January announcement that it would permanently close shocked the restaurant community and patrons who still frequent the rotating food hall. But, should we have seen this coming? 

It’s clear the business model had its issues, as owner Michael Shemtov candidly told the City Paper. But with the additional news that food hall plans also stalled at Park Circle’s Garco Mill redevelopment, Charleston’s food hall future appears to be uncertain. Meanwhile, investors in Charlotte and Greenville have forged ahead with what some are calling “the independent F&B model for the future.”

From Pike’s Place Market in Seattle to Chelsea Market in New York City, the most-visited food halls in the country have several things in common — there’s a buzzing environment, diversity, state-of-the-art equipment for chefs and manageable wait times. Workshop has most, if not all, of these characteristics. 

“We spent a lot of money on the kitchen,”  Shemtov said “It was probably a $700,000 kitchen.” 

Inside the impressive kitchen are tenants signed to short-term leases, setting Workshop apart from classic food halls that strive to find concepts that stick around for years. 

That was the goal at Garco Mill, a Park Circle development that in 2018 announced its plans to build a 12,500-square-foot food hall featuring 16 stalls. But earlier this month, developers announced those plans were off and the area would be converted into office and restaurant space.

“Construction delays were problematic, and we ultimately decided to scale down the food hall space to offer more flexibility, including space for food concepts and also to meet more of the demand for office,” Garco Mill developer Jay Weaver said in an email to the City Paper.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, Weaver’s partner and Republican State Rep. William Cogswell said he was uncertain what will go in the Garco Mill space reserved for food service. 

Cogswell did not respond to the City Paper’s request for comment.

Success Upstate 
Gather GVL debuted in downtown Greenville on Feb. 18, 2020, and despite opening just before the onset of the pandemic, the food hall has filled 10 of its 13 stalls, signing tenants with 1-5 year leases, according to Gather co-owner Mack Cross.

“What we set out to do was create an opportunity for folks that were talented but didn’t otherwise have opportunities to go into downtown Greenville,” said Cross, adding that they targeted established restaurateurs and up-and-coming chefs as potential tenants. “We wanted to lower the barrier to entry for sure.”  

Cross said this has led to some tenant turnover in Gather’s first year, but he’s confident in the current group that will soon include West Ashley eatery Spanglish, which will open Myami Bites in one of the hall’s incubator spaces.

Charlotte’s 2-year-old Optimist Hall has a strong list of 23 tenants, including two Charleston transplants — Boxcar Betty’s and Xiao Bao Biscuit, which will join the hall later this year. Unlike Workshop and Gather, Optimist Hall prefers to sign its tenants to 5-10 year leases, Optimist developer Merritt Lancaster told the City Paper.

Charlotte’s Optimist Hall opened in 2019 | Photo provided

“From our view, a food hall is hopefully all things to all people,” Lancaster said.

While Shemtov took a hands-on approach to operating Workshop, given its inexperienced tenants, Lancaster, who was a part of the Garco Mill development before selling his stake for reasons unrelated to the project itself, said Optimist “generally stays out of (tenants’) immediate business.” 

“We are effectively running the front-of-house of a giant restaurant.”  

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In a post-COVID-19 world, food halls are positioned to succeed, according to a May 2020 report by real estate investment firm Cushman & Wakefield. Manipulatable seating, expansive outdoor space and a decline in stand-alone restaurants were some of the reasons cited by analysts, who called food halls “the independent F&B model for the future.” 

But, what does this mean for Charleston? 

“There’s a big trend with malls trying to redo their food courts in the style of a food hall,” Shemtov said.

Consulting firm Deloitte has even predicted “a renaissance” for mall food courts.

Citadel Mall director of sales and leasing Ginger Davis wasn’t ready to commit to sweeping changes at the West Ashley mall, but she hopes to welcome up-and-coming Charleston restaurateurs and “chef-driven concepts” in the future.