More than just eats: How Denver-area food halls are staying competitive

There once was a time when a food hall could open up in Denver, announce to the metro area that it was indeed a food hall and wait for customers to rush in. And then lots of fellow food halls came rushing in – a migration that hasn’t left businesses in the sector suffering but has caused several of them to look at how they can evolve, even as the oldest such facility in Denver won’t turn five years old until September.

For that old-timer, The Source, the answer involves changing up the businesses operating inside it in order to get more of an all-day flow of customers – and bringing in a female-only coworking space for 76 people that has the potential to boost daytime occupants significantly. For Stanley Marketplace, it means trying out bigger and wider-interest events, such as an installation of a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel that will open on July 4 and run through Aug. 13 and that, organizers hope, will draw 40,000 paying customers.

In no sense is either pioneering facility moving away from its original food-centric concept. The Source is growing some of its original tenants, such as Acorn restaurant, and extending hours on areas like its central bar. Stanley Marketplace continues to be home to 21 food and beverage companies, and operators have the specific goal of pumping up their business with new crowds brought in by Michelangelo’s masterpieces.

But both expansions of purpose are an acknowledgment that just shining a light on restaurants, no matter how much of a foodie town the Denver metro area has become, is not enough anymore to sustain such a gathering spot.

“In food and beverage and retail, you’ve either got to evolve or die,” said Source founder Kyle Zeppelin. “The idea is that even the areas that work at first, they have to change.”

The Source was a hit from its September debut five years ago, but even early on Zeppelin was tweaking it. He found, for example, that a grocery store that was expected to supplement customers’ nights out with some food for their homes went largely unused, as people didn’t actually want to marry, say, a night of dining and then drinking at Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project with grocery shopping.

The success of this concept built into a 19th-century iron foundry was enough that he was able to open an adjacent hotel last year complete with its own restaurants and shops, adding 100 rooms of people who could be passing through at all hours of the day. But traffic remained uneven, prompting Zeppelin and partner Justin Craft to think more deeply about all day activation and to replace the former central bar in March with Isabel, a watering hole that servers juice and coffee in the mornings and transitions to alcoholic drinks as the day progresses.

Zeppelin originally was reluctant to incorporate coworking space to the facility, as he’s skeptical that the concept largely is “just marked-up office space.” But he’d worked with Bryn Carter as she threw women’s networking groups at some of his other River North facilities, and he was impressed by the idea of an all-female space where independent workers could collaborate and work together – and also bring themselves and their clients to the juice bar and restaurants and shops throughout the day to pace business more in the mornings and early afternoons.

Carter, meanwhile, said that she liked the idea of lauching Charley Co. in an already activated space that gives tenants the option to get out for a bite or a drink without having to leave the building. She’s found that some of the businesswomen signing on to be a part of the new location – the space opened on July 1 and is about 20% full so far – became more interested because of the walkable options available at The Source and The Source Hotel.

“There’s a physical energy at The Source,” Carter said. “Charley’s is sort of unusual here. But at the same time, it’s part of the whole theme.”

Stanley Marketplace already has a coworking area, as well as 10 boutique shops and a variety of businesses that include a dental office and an early-childhood learning center in order to generate more traffic. And it has an event space, The Hangar, that’s been used for everything from school graduations to Denver Center for the Performing Arts productions. But 2-1/2 years into the facility’s life, operators worked to think of ways that they could introduce whole new crowds to the former aviation building north of downtown Aurora.

The Sistine Chapel exhibit, consisting of 33 reproduction frescoes, has traveled to a number of other cities in the United States and Europe, and it holds the promise of generating more visitors to the 140,000-square-foot marketplace than have ever come for a specific purpose before, said Bryant Palmer, director of marketing and events for the Stanley. And he believes many of those ticketed customers could be first-time comers who may not have thought to venture east of Denver before and who can be brought back as returning visitors in the future.

Food halls need other incentives to bring people in than just their non-rotating collection of eateries, particularly as Denver starts to create a per-capita volume of those businesses that is on the high side for major cities, said Palmer, a former New Yorker who holds the same title for Broadway Market, which opened in Denver in February. And, like Zeppelin, he said that what they do needs to be fresh as they are competing for the attention and resources of metro-area residents who have a lot of options.

“I do think it’s useful to always be innovating and always do something new and exciting and interesting,” Palmer said. “We’re still pretty new, and there are about 3 million people here.”

Ed Sealover

Reporter

Denver Business Journal

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