Seventh Street Truck Park
photo by David J. Turner
A teen girl buys a bumble bee-monster piñata half her size at a Latin gift shop called Fiesta in America. Without leaving the building, she then takes seven steps around a corner to Pham’s Rice Bowl, a Vietnamese diner, for bubble tea. Millennials drift through aisles that smell, at turns, of Italian, Mexican, and East African cuisine, while parents feed toddlers wontons in the central sitting area of this sprawling south Minneapolis institution, Midtown Global Market.
Until now, and since opening in 2006, Midtown has provided Minnesota’s one prime example of a food hall—a type of dining destination developed in Europe decades back that took off in Asia before trending on the Coasts about 10 years ago. Designed for mall-like wandering, it’s where restaurants, small specialty shops, and grocery stores operate elbow-to-neck under one roof (a fortress-grade roof at Midtown, high above a 70,000-square-foot ground floor previously owned by Sears). The result is more than a food court: There are no fast-food chains, and the corridors of neon signage feel more interactive, like an indoor bazaar. Although vendors are small, it’s no farmers’ market, either: Shops take root here, using the shared space as a concept incubator.
Today, Midtown has company. Three food halls opened in the Twin Cities last year, and at least three more are set to open in the next several years. While new to the Upper Midwest, such collectives represent a nation-wide trend: In 2016, the U.S. saw 35 food halls open, according to a report by commercial real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, with 28 more planned for the near future. Minnesota is making room, too.
Last fall, Market House Collaborative took over a St. Paul warehouse. There, at a centrally located, white-table-cloth seafood restaurant, conceived by eminent local chef Tim McKee, customers tuck into family-style plates of squid-topped scrambled eggs and octopus bolognese before ogling the scaly sheen behind a deli case operated by the local Fish Guys mere yards away, across from a counter selling meats and cheeses. A few months before, Seventh Street Truck Park transformed a brewery-size space, also in St. Paul, into a loosely conceived huddle of indoor food trucks, including one that sells ice-cream sandwiches the size of your head. On a smaller scale, the Lynhall opened last summer in south Minneapolis, with picnic-style tables at which diners seat themselves, as in a lunch room—only with better food, from a counter-service restaurant, bar, and bakery.
A new food hall projected for Minneapolis this fall, called Malcolm Yards Market, wants to rewrite a state liquor law so patrons can nurse their beers and cocktails away from the center bar—roving, like Midtown shoppers, among an outer ring of dining options.
If these industrial-size grub hubs are swaying the dining scene today, broader shifts in the industry explain why.
Seventh Street Truck Park
Since about 2010, U.S. residents have dined out more and more. Thanks to the country’s emergent Food Network-pampered youth culture, more restaurants are answering a demand for “foodie” experiences. Within restaurant growth—greater, in recent years, than any other type of retail growth—eateries that serve sustainable, high-quality fast food tend to fare best. Described as “fast-casual dining,” these spots appeal to time-, cost-, and source-conscious millennials, enough that they’re crowding out run-of-the-mill fast food. And while many upscale, more traditional Twin Cities destinations have opened only to close in the last few years, some argue this reflects a saturated dining market rather than slackening demand. Restaurateurs are still figuring out what consumers want. And, as it turns out, they might have an answer in food halls.
A few things make these establishments viable right now. First, restaurants in food halls often fall into that popular category of “fast-casual dining.” Building managers risk less betting on small, trendy eateries than renting out an entire space to an Italian restaurant, for example. Subleasing makes rent easier to pay, too. Saving money more controversially, food halls also evade Minneapolis’ minimum-wage hike—the baseline increase to 15 percent that some blame for scuttling a few bars and restaurants last year—because most fast-casual restaurants don’t employ servers, instead taking orders at the counter and letting patrons seat themselves.
Midtown Global Market has had these boxes checked off for about a decade now. But the Twin Cities’ new food halls intend a different look.
They will more closely resemble food halls on the Coasts (helping the Twin Cities solidify their dining-scene cred after The Wall Street Journal ranked Minneapolis fourth on its “Where to Travel in 2018” list largely because of its 15 James Beard Award finalists). Consider Minneapolis’ biggest upcoming food hall: Dayton’s, taking its name from Minnesota’s legendary department store, will occupy 40,000 square feet on the ground floor of the old Macy’s building, spotlighting “well-known food vendors, local treasures, and fresh food purveyors”—all vetted by our state’s beloved celebrity chef, Andrew Zimmern.
Midtown Global unfurls loosely in comparison, which is the point: to foster ethnic diversity. Dayton’s, Malcolm Yards Market, and St. Paul’s new Keg & Case (to open early this year in the former Schmidt Brewery space) will show off auteur-style curation, more like McKee’s Market House Collaborative.
But Midtown’s spirit of non-committal grazing will remain—optimistically revealing a turn toward community. Following this trend, our food scene takes another step toward hipness, perhaps closer than ever to the A grade.
Food Truck Craze
Food trucks took off in the Twin Cities around 2010—and from barbecue to cookie dough, they’ve kept on trucking, bringing streetwise consumers authentic, high-quality, relatively cheap “fast-casual” bites similar to what food halls are now serving sedentarily. These are our standouts.
What happens when a chef leaves fine dining for street eats? A seasonal menu of locally sourced, grass-fed beef sliders, jerk pork with coconut-lime aioli, and beer-cheese nachos.
An aggressive take on our state’s favorite side: tater tots wrapped in bacon, topped with chili, and treated like nachos, poutine, and pizza.
The people who knew we would melt for gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches also knew about our cookie-dough guilty pleasure when they opened a new food truck last year serving (eggless) raw dough as if it were ice cream. Both endeavors now have brick-and-mortar establishments.
Love for the State Fair’s foot-longs inspired this upscale hot-dog experiment. They even have their own condiment: a sophisticate’s version of honey mustard.
Folding falafel in warm pita bread makes for a perfect street meal—part of why it has paid off for Foxy Falafel to take its delicious Greek and Middle Eastern dishes on the road.
With “moral” in the name, you know they don’t just serve organic, vegan meals but also the community, with produce and meat bought sustainably and locally.
We know it best for the Yum Yum Bowl—steamed rice, secret sauce, egg, peanuts—but the whole menu is an inspired mix of Korean, Mexican, Indian, and Middle Eastern flavors.