COVID-19 hammered local food halls and public markets, which had attracted tens of millions of dollars in new investment in recent years. As Baltimore repeals mask mandates and other pandemic-linked restrictions, however, there is growing optimism that these spaces will bounce back.
Michael Morris, principal at CANAdev, a Baltimore-based firm that develops, leases and operates food halls and market projects across the country, said that, nationally, the degree to which business slowed during the pandemic depended on location.
He said that while CANAdev’s market in cities north of Washington, D.C., had struggled, business stayed strong in Southern cities like Nashville and in states like Texas.
“For all intents and purposes, COVID never existed in Texas,” Morris said, speaking not of the virus itself but of its effect on business there.
However, now that restrictions are easing, business at food halls and markets is picking up even in the North, Morris said, adding that CANAdev has signed two leases a week over the last three to four months.
Morris said the time it takes to lease space previously occupied by a vendor has dropped from 45 to 60 days to 10 to 30 days since the start of the year.
“Our leasing velocity has (roughly) tripled in the last three months,” he said.
Locally, food halls and public markets are experiencing high demand for leases despite two years of COVID-19-related struggles.
Transform Lexington, the partnership that is steering vendor selection at the new Lexington Market in Baltimore, has announced five new leases since the start of the year. So far, 24 vendors have signed deals to operate from the $40 million market building’s roughly 45 stalls, which are slated to open later this year.
Measures enacted by Baltimore and other cities to control the spread of the COVID virus may have made operating food halls and markets complex. But Seawall Development’s food hall, R. House, in Baltimore’s Remington neighborhood, has remained fully leased throughout the pandemic.
Last month, R. House announced that Black Acres Roastery, a pop-up vendor, would stay on through August for a “residency” in one of the food hall’s permanent stalls. The coffee roasting company, based in Baltimore’s Station North district, filled the space left open when Ground & Griddled, one of R. House’s original vendors, closed last year.
“We are incredibly grateful for the R. House vendors, community and team members who have been integral to keeping R. House open and even thriving over the past two years,” said Katie Marshall, director of communications at Seawall Development in Baltimore. “We are encouraged by the continued uptick in foot traffic and sales over the past few months and are incredibly optimistic about the spring and summer.”
Caves Valley Partners’ Arsh Mirmiran, the Baltimore-based partner at the real estate development company who steered the $8.4 million overhaul of Federal Hill’s Cross Street Market, is also optimistic about the future of local food halls and public markets.
Two years ago, Mirmiran predicted it would take about three years for business at places like Cross Street Market to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels – roughly the same amount of time it took average air miles traveled to surpass the level that prevailed before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He’s sticking with that forecast.
“We’ve gotten back to 80% (of pre-pandemic business),” Mirmiran said of Cross Street Market. “I hope by this time next year we’ll be back to 100%.”