Politan Row management has told vendors that it doesn’t expect to welcome customers into its dining room until March and is going into “a hibernation of sorts” until 2021 ending patio dining. It’s a swift change, as vendors were gearing up to resume indoor dining on Wednesday, October 15. Instead, management gave vendors an option to leave or to use the food hall’s facilities as a ghost kitchen for delivery through the winter months.
In an email sent to vendors, Politan Group CEO Will Donaldson writes that McDonald’s is one of the culprits behind the decision. The Golden Arches’ headquarters — including Hamburger University — shares a building with Politan Row. That gave the food hall a customer base. That base is gone as employees are working at home through the pandemic. Donaldson writes that McDonald’s tells Politan it won’t welcome back workers to its headquarters “through the end of January.”
Politan Row opened in May 2019, with nine restaurants from local chefs and bars inside and outside. The food hall’s parent company, based in New Orleans (St. Roch Market, where there was controversy surrounding the name), was preparing to expand and to follow a formula to give locals curated culinary experiences under one roof. The company has made changes during the pandemic including exiting the Miami market. That food hall remains but under new ownership.
The Chicago announcement caught vendors off guard. Jeremy Leven debuted his new restaurant, Gold Goose in September, for to-go and patio dining. Leven was looking forward this week to the start of indoor dining. He says he understands leadership’s reasons to hibernate — food halls with communal seating aren’t best equipped to handle the pandemic. He’s now left to search for a new home. Gold Goose, with coffee and carefully plated dishes, isn’t a good fit for a delivery-only ghost kitchen.
“The plans is to get inside something semi-permanently just to do pop-up shops, delivery — to keep things alive and to keep things moving,” Leven says. “I have a quite a few leads in getting a permanent cafe space.”
Leven’s four-month residency was set to end at the end of November, so he’s better equipped to pivot compared to other tenants. Wazwan, a vendor that sold South Asian-spiced fried chicken sandwiches and burgers, had been at Politan Row since November 2019. They organized a few outdoor pop-ups during the pandemic to bring customers to the food hall. Zubair Mohajir has also opted to leave Politan. He’s planned an exit strategy for a while and wonders about the future of food halls in general even after the pandemic.
Politan Row’s strategy is similar to Chicago’s French Market, which also announced hibernation plans in September. The experience has reiterated the need to be careful in making business decisions in this time of unpredictability, Leven says.
“Be very careful into getting in any situations because of the volatility of the market,” he says. “I’m positive I’m not the only person who feels the weight of that.”