Check the Halls: When it comes to food halls, Minnesota just can’t win. Or can it?

Illustration by Alexis Bianchi

Does Minnesota have what it takes to establish world-class food halls? Meal Magazine editor Pete Sieve and Growler food editor James Norton make their arguments as to why, or why not, our state has the goods to create a thriving food hall culture reminiscent of other major U.S. cities.

PETE: Okay, Jim. I’ll just come right out and say it: Minnesota is bad at food halls.

I’m a lifelong Minneapolitan. I love my state and our Twin Cities. I also love our food scene, but like a lover who has a weird facial tic, I’ve come to accept its flaws, and one of them is this: along with a dismal late-night food selection (a debate for another time), Minnesota—and the Twin Cities in particular—is bad at supporting the infrastructure that helps food halls thrive. Specifically, we suck super hard when it comes to two crucial things: density and diversity. We need more of both of these key ingredients for food halls to truly take root and flourish here in a meaningful way. Fight me!

JAMES: Gladly. I’d like to begin by saying that you are wrong. Minnesota not only has ample capacity to be great at food halls, we have enjoyed some real (qualified) success with them already.

In spaces like Mercado Central, Hmongtown Marketplace, Hmong Village, and Plaza Mexico, we have real density and diversity and (just as you said) consequently incredibly rich/fun/lively food experiences.

And you might say: Well, sure, but those are niche, focused as they are on relatively discrete parts of the world. Let me offer this massive honkin’ piece of evidence that we have all the capacity in the world to do incredibly varied food halls well, and to a rapturous reception: the Minnesota State Fair. 

What is the State Fair but one of the country’s best food halls, even if just on a temporary basis? Throngs of people, a tremendous variety of food, some spectacular bites, and an immersive experience that visitors clamor for.

PETE: Ah, I see you’ve learned that your State Fair coverage garners the most views and click-through traffic, Jim! A cheap but effective strategy to get the masses on your side of this debate. Your point is taken, and I don’t disagree that Minnesotans love food and could support food halls—but I say that the Great Minnesota Get-Together is a pop-up, and a brief one, at that. 

So let’s back up a bit and sort out a baseline of semantic definition on which we can construct a sturdy octagon for this verbal bloodsport: a fair is one thing. A food hall is another, and I define it as such: a public (no ticket fee) space in a metropolitan area in which there are multiple stalls selling food for people to consume on-site, sometimes containing other retail businesses, and open year-round. Fair? (Pun intended.) Mall food courts do not count.

I harbor deep love for some of the examples you mentioned—Hmong Village and Mercado Central especially—but they seem to occupy a different niche than the Food Halls (caps intended) that are being branded as such and designed from the ground up with serious cash at their backs, like Keg and Case, The Galley, and the Dayton’s Project. The former are diverse in that their primary products and clientele are non-white—they don’t overlap much with folks who visit Keg and Case or The Galley. 

They’re a product of the wider issues of geographical income disparity and racial segregation in our cities. My point is that all of our food halls are either isolated islands that require planning and driving for a visit, or they exist only for the well-heeled office drones of downtown Minneapolis or the North Loop. I’d say the best attempt at combining these two approaches has been the Midtown Global Market—but even though it’s in a densely populated part of town on the Greenway and near transit, it still feels like it’s never busy enough, and like it’s an inch away from doom. 

JAMES: I wasn’t really making the case that the State Fair is a food hall—I’d agree with you that it sits in another category altogether—but rather that it suggests that Minnesota has the potential to put together a firing-on-all-thrusters, bring-the-out-of-town-guests, everyone-is-welcome-and-feels-welcome barn-burner of a food hall situation, which is at least part of this discussion. 

Parking, density, a vague, lingering Scandinavian dislike of crowds and unpredictability—all of these factors, I think, can be overcome with the right location and the right planning, and, presto-change-o, Minnesota will go from a state with a bunch of food-hall-adjacent spaces into a place with a great food hall (or several, for that matter.)

Here’s the thing: I don’t think that either Midtown Global Market or Keg and Case prove we can’t have food halls here. I think they prove that we’ve had backers with big money figure out one half of the equation at one time, and if we could bring both halves together, we’d have the hit that we deserve. 

Keg and Case has style (that mushroom tower!), curation (artisanal cotton candy, anyone?), and sophistication that would play well with out-of-state visitors (Forage to Fork, for example, or In Bloom.) What it lacks, Midtown Global Market has—vibrant diversity, many lunch options, enough density of vendors that the possibility of discovering something new and exciting is always around the corner.

Making a food hall succeed in Minnesota might be as simple as adding the two concepts together: bring another 10–12 vendors into Keg and Case with an emphasis on more affordable, diverse, lunchable and craft-y offerings. Or up Midtown Global Market’s game with a buzzy, successful finer dining spot and 3–4 premiere local independents that would make it a can’t-miss destination.

PETE: Jim! I think we’re evolving from a violent clash to a warm embrace of understanding. I totally agree with you on these points. Even though I have nits to pick, I am glad we have the food halls we’ve got, and I’m glad people keep trying! But I can’t shake the feeling that until we address the roots of some really structural urban planning issues, Minneapolis or St. Paul will never achieve a truly great and sustainable food hall scene like the ones in Denver, Cleveland, or Milwaukee—not to mention Los Angeles (Grand Central Market, quite possibly the food hall Shangri-La) or any of the big coastal cities. 

We need to demand robust legislation that encourages more mixed-income and affordable housing, design our neighborhoods and urban centers for improved walkability, create more public transit options (and make improvements to the options we have), and take an uncomfortably direct look at why our neighborhoods are so segregated by race and class, and nip that issue in the bud to encourage more cross-pollination of different businesses.

When I visit spots like Keg and Case, Midtown Global Market, and Hmongtown Marketplace, I am always bummed out that they’re not packed to the gills with people every single day. But I also get why they aren’t as well-attended as they could be.

A truly successful food hall will cater to folks of all income levels, contain a good balance of haute and humble stalls, provide lower barriers of entry to encourage innovation and development for new, lower-income entrepreneurs—and have compelling reasons for local folks to visit daily. It’s a lot of interconnected stuff, but with some clear-eyed attention paid to our urban shortcomings and a bit of signature Dayton-branded Bold North ‘tude, I think Minnesota could, indeed, one day be better at food halls.

Illustration by Alexis Bianchi

JAMES: Increased density, diversity, and a rich mix of high-end and blue-collar options—I think we’re on the same page here in terms of what will hopefully eventually cure our food hall blues. Here’s hoping that we get there sooner rather than later.

PETE: Absolutely. And if we want great food halls, we gotta show up, just as we do for restaurants we love but take for granted over time, and eventually fade from lack of business. Sure, we can keep blaming parking and never-ending winters, but in the end, the onus is on us—the dining public—to show up and support what we want to stick around! Here’s to creating a culture that supports more and better food halls in Minnesota and beyond. 

Pete Sieve is the editor-in-chief of Meal Magazine, and a local musician. He enjoys sandwiches a great deal.  James Norton is the Growler’s food editor, co-founder of Chef Camp, and the author of Lake Superior Flavors.