Milwaukee-area food hall developers, operators share successes

Keys include creating authentic environment

Crossroads Collective occupies the former Oriental Drugs building, located at 2238 N. Farwell Ave.

Last updated on September 28th, 2020 at 09:23 am

Food halls operating in the Milwaukee area vary based on their location, target customers and other factors. But their success depends on good execution and authenticity, according to a panel of local food hall operators and developers.

The panel, which was part of the Commercial Association of Realtors Wisconsin’s annual retail conference, covered the topic of Milwaukee’s food halls. Panelists included Tim Gokhman, managing director of Milwaukee-based New Land Enterprises and developer of the Crossroads Collective food hall on the city’s East Side, and Cindy Shaffer, founder and president of Mequon-based Shaffer Development and developer of the Mequon Public Market.

Gokhman pointed out the food halls varied by size, programming and other operational details. But those variations reflect what the food halls are trying to accomplish, he said.

“The details of how you’re going to operate it are going to come much later,” Gokhman said. “First you have to decide what kind of thing you want to set up.”

For example: The Mequon Public Market is 15,000 square feet, and has 10 vendors including a test kitchen, said Shaffer. It also has ample public space and puts on its own programming, such as a music series, mural artwork and pop-ups for the local high school.

Meanwhile, Crossroads Collective is denser. At just 7,000 square feet, it has eight food vendors and two bars, Gokhman said. It also relies on programming from nearby attractions, such as Black Cat Alley outdoor art gallery and Milwaukee Film Festival.

And while Crossroads operates with a central shared kitchen area, Mequon Public Market has individual vented kitchens.

“One of our goals we felt was very important with our public market really was an experience,” Shaffer said. “Experiential real estate is really something people wanted. Now with COVID-19, that has kind of slowed that down a bit.”

Panel moderator Phil Colicchio, executive managing director with Cushman & Wakefield and managing member of food hall consultant Colicchio Consulting, said one model of running a food hall is not better than the other, though Crossroads Collective’s shared kitchen is less common.

The important thing, and a common thread of all successful food halls nationwide, is they’re filled with independent and authentic vendors, he said.

“We find that no matter which model you use, as long as you’ve got a group of independent vendors, you are spreading out the labor costs through all of them and that’s very important, and you are not creating an environment that is inauthentic,” Colicchio said. “Meaning, it is not one group that is dropping 12-15 different concepts out on the public.”

He said when a single entity puts out all the food offerings, it takes away the “soul” of food halls and usually does not spell success.

Gokhman agreed with that observation.

“If it’s one corporate operator trying to do 12 things; it’s a glorified Cheesecake Factory,” he said. “You have 97 items on the menu but the same shop.”

The Milwaukee area has a number of food halls that are either planned or in operation. A large portion of the Sherman Phoenix on Milwaukee’s north side is made up of small food vendors, though it also offers services beyond food. Then there’s the food hall under construction at The Avenue development downtown. It will include food vendors, a large central bar and an area for games. Another food and retail hall is planned on the 5900 block of North Avenue in Milwaukee.

They also have proven to be a boon for their local communities.

“In Mequon it was a matter of supply and demand; we didn’t have a lot of restaurants in Mequon,” Shaffer said. “I’m hearing from realtors in the area that people are purchasing homes closer to the public market because they can walk to it.”

Gokhman predicted the Milwaukee area will see more food halls opening in the future. However, there isn’t room for too many more to be successful, he added.

“I think we’re going to over-saturate, which is inevitable for any industry because people look, and they say, ‘Oh, that works, I’m going to do it, too,'” Gokhman said. “And there will be attrition. And the big question I have is, will there ever come a point in Milwaukee, are we a big enough market that you’re going to start getting consolidation?”

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.

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