Chicago saw a food hall boom in 2019, but the novel coronavirus has thrown the entire industry into chaos, leaving murky futures for modern day food courts. But in August, a new contender plans to debut on the Near West Side in the Illinois Medical District. Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall is a new 10,000 square-foot space that’s slated to open inside the historic Cook County Hospital in early August as a part of its $1 billion multiphase restoration plan.
During the pandemic, restaurants have donated food to health care workers across the country with limited food options. Many hospitals have suspended food service during the crisis. More times than not, hospital food isn’t a delight for patients or workers. Overworked residents enduring long hours don’t have many choices.
Dr. Murphy’s will fill a void for those groups and the general public. The hall will feature 10 vendors, ranging from a spot for Indian cuisine to a stall for all-day breakfast, as well as a bar and lounge, according to chef and restaurateur Akhtar Nawab. A protege of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio and a mentor to David Chang, Nawab runs modern Mexican restaurants Alta Calidad in New York City and Otra Vez in New Orleans, as well as management and consulting group Hospitality HQ. The company runs stalls other food halls including Brooklyn’s Time Out Market New York and Inner Rail Food Hall in Omaha, Nebraska.
“It’s been a really exciting restoration project because [the hospital] is such an interesting building and the redevelopment process has been really remarkable,” Nawab says. The 102-year-old building at 1835 W. Harrison Street was gutted for the most part, but workers were able to preserve some of it original black-and-white flooring and structural details.
Nawab isn’t ready to announce the hall’s vendors quite yet, as there are still two slots left. The hall created a vendor grant program for business owners who have been significant impacted by fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. The hall will absorb startup costs for selected applications, Nawab says, and give businesses free use of stalls for 18 months. The company will also ease the burden even more by providing all the heavy restaurant equipment. Would-be vendors can request grant consideration through the food hall’s website.
“They just need to show up with their food and labor, and they’re pretty much ready to go,” he says. “The grant is for those people trying to get back on their feet... We know a lot of people have lost their livelihoods through this and we want to do all we can to help the community.”
New safety procedures and protocols designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have forced food halls across the country to reevaluate how they do business. Nawab says that the company has created a “post-COVID manual” for vendors that details social distancing measures, hygiene procedures, and more. There will be some plexiglass partitions, along with floor decals to show customers where to stand. Inside, Dr. Murphy’s will seat 175 in its entirety, but Nawab plans to open at 50-percent capacity. There’ll also be a 1,000-1,200 square-foot outdoor area where customers sit and eat.
Dr. Murphy’s will offer table service, which is unusual for food halls, though servers can be found around town at spots like Eataly’s sit-down restaurants. Customers will be able to order from a server or choose items through an app or the hall’s website. The company is also working closely with Apple on contactless payments — not unlike newish Loop spot Hayden Hall’s partnership with third-party delivery company Grubhub — and plans to implement a new point-of-service system that can aggregate orders from different vendors into a single ticket. Rather than juggling different transactions, customers will be able to pay for dishes from multiple vendors simultaneously. Nawab likened the process to the approach of uber-popular salad chain Sweetgreen.
At this stage, Chicago is laden with food halls. From Revival Food Hall in the Loop to Pullman’s One Eleven Food Hall, the multi-vendor extravaganzas have drawn both locals and tourists for years. Not all have survived, however: in November, Fulton Galley closed after five months in Fulton Market, just as the mammoth Time Out Market Chicago prepared to open just blocks way. Some locals have expressed food hall burnout, even predicting that the coronavirus pandemic meant the once-booming trend would fizzle for good. Time Out Market was the first to temporarily close because of the pandemic. Food halls typically try to foster a bustling scene inside their spaces, but social distancing guidelines and capacity limitations don’t exactly cultivate a festive vibe. Only time will tell if Nawab and his team’s decision to forge ahead with Dr. Murphy’s, despite industry-wide uncertainty, will pay off. The unpredictability of restoration projects meant that Nawab had to keep an open mind about a launch date, but he’s happy with early August, “if everything goes according to plan.”
When the Cook County Hospital renovations are completed, it’ll house the food hall, a daycare center, and a 210-room Hyatt Place/Hyatt House hotel. The hotel is slated to open this summer as well. Hyatt Place opened a new Wicker Park hotel this month on the corner of North and Ashland avenues, complete with a rooftop bar. Stay tuned for details on when Dr. Murphy’s will open.
Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall, 1835 W. Harrison Street, Scheduled to open in early August.