In the halcyon days of 2019, food halls were the area’s new culinary frontier. From Bow Market and Boston Public Market to Eataly and Time Out Market Boston, hungry masses could sample cuisines from across the world, interacting with chefs and dining cheek to jowl. Downtown’s High Street Place and Hub Hall near TD Garden were poised to open, spotlighting hometown talents such as Tiger Mama’s Tiffani Faison and MIDA’s Douglass Williams. They promised feasting and physicality; elbowing for a spot in line or snagging the corner of a communal bench was part of the dance.
Now operators are grappling with a paradox: how to lure enough customers to generate revenue when science tells people to stay home or stay distant.
Time Out Market Boston reopens in the Fenway on Wednesday, and the experience has changed to reflect pandemic-era realities. Distanced outdoor dining is a focus, with an expanded 6,000-square-foot patio. There are new air circulation and filtration systems; sanitation stations; and plexiglass partitions at counters, bars, and tables. Guests can also try contactless ordering and delivery, even if that’s a departure from the immersive lure of the market.
It will also reopen with notable absences. Several acclaimed chefs are on the roster, including Jody Adams (Greek Street), Alex Saenz (BISq), and Michael Schlow (Monti Roman Pizzeria and Italian Kitchen). But others, such as Tony Maws as well as Tim and Nancy Cushman, have folded their tents.
“Fenway is hard. It’s not a neighborhood; it’s a destination, a school area, with Fenway Park. That’s the scary part for me. Clearly baseball is coming back, but not like it [was],” Saenz said.
He’s banking on outdoor dining and a robust delivery business, as well as an upgraded kitchen that has enabled him to expand his menu. Schlow, a nationally known restaurateur with businesses beyond Boston, is also optimistic about Time Out’s remote option.
“It’s the ultimate pickup and delivery venue, with something for everyone. That’s the draw,” he says. “But is the business viable? That remains to be seen. None of us can survive long-term on takeout and delivery, but I do feel the landlord and the operators are all in this together.”
Time Out maintains a long-term lease with landlord Samuels & Associates.
“We’re hemorrhaging cash like everyone else, but we believe in the concept, and we believe it can succeed. We’ve been lucky: We can pay our rent and sustain a lower fee for our tenants,” says Time Out Market CEO Didier Souillat. “We have investors who believe in this concept.”
Somerville’s Bow Market reopened for dining earlier this summer. It typically hums with outdoor activity as throngs of people jam food stalls, grabbing tables whenever they’re available or wandering in and out of record and clothing shops.
Now there’s a remodeled courtyard with distanced tables, as well as a contactless ordering and reservation system designed to discourage crowding. Tamy Chung, who owns Maca macaron stand at Bow, says an outdoor grocery business also has boosted foot traffic, though she’s unsure what will happen when cold weather hits.
“It’s a dark cloud looming over our heads, even with Bow Market reopening with outdoor dining,” she says.
“We’re primarily an outdoor space, which has been great, but we have a different set of challenges: How do we get lots of people to come and share space together, which is the opposite of what we’re needing to do now?” says Bow Market developer Matt Boyes-Watson. “We’ve gone from 25,000 guests a month to many fewer by virtue of whom we can safely serve.”
He’s exploring outdoor heating options for the winter but hasn’t arrived at a solution. Meanwhile, he says that struggling vendors — mainly retailers — have received rent suspensions. Owner-operated food stalls have helped to fill the void, maintaining revenue through takeout and groceries while relying on loyal neighbors who continue to visit.
“We’re a [neighborhood] business, and our businesses are small enough that they can survive off of 100 regulars. They can get very lean,” Boyes-Watson says.
Across the river in the Back Bay, Eataly — the Italian marketplace filled with food counters and restaurants — now banks on grocery delivery in addition to in-person visits.
“We’d always been about the in-store experience. We’d resisted the temptation of off-site delivery. Needless to say, having an Instacart platform when the crisis hit has proved effective,” says Raffaele Piarulli, executive vice president of Eataly North America. “People see us as a cool Italian dining destination, and we will continue to be that forever. But now it’s as good a time as ever to reinforce what we are: a grocery business.”
Meanwhile, Boston Public Market, a showcase for local artisans and farmers that closed in March, is preparing for a late summer reopening. CEO Cheryl Cronin says that all 30 vendors plan to return to the indoor marketplace with new safety measures, from hand-washing stations to partitions separating sellers from customers to one-way aisles. Like other markets, they’ll offer delivery.
“One reason we’re so committed to sanitation is ultimately we want people to feel comfortable to visit the market again. We’d be crushed, in a way, if we felt like the takeaway from COVID has been that we cannot continue to enjoy places like the market. For the vendors, I hope it doesn’t change the trajectory of their lives,” Cronin says.
Al Rose doesn’t think it will. His Red Apple Farm in Phillipston will return to the market around Labor Day. The third-generation farmer believes that the pandemic has reinforced the public’s appreciation for independent, hometown vendors.
“Judging from my experience here at the farm, I think people want to connect with their local food. There is a value in it, short-term and long-term,” Rose says.
Those connections will look different, though.
“A food hall is a gathering place, and that’s the last place anyone wants to go in my mind. It’s mind-blowing,” says Saenz, the Time Out vendor. “But let’s keep a positive mind-set, and let’s hope somehow that we can redo this.”