Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall, the massive new modern food court — the first food hall to debut in Chicago since the pandemic shutdown in March — opened Monday on the Near West Side inside the 106-year-old Cook County Hospital. The hall is part of the hospital’s $1 billion multiphase restoration plan, and a larger push for development in the Illinois Medical District. It’s been vacant for decades.
Operated by chef and restaurateur Akhtar Nawab’s (Alta Calidad, Otra Vez) management and consulting group Hospitality HQ, Dr. Murphy’s is designed to fill a void for hospital workers and the general public with 11 food stalls, most of which are women- and minority-owned. There’s also a bar. Some participants come with food hall and restaurant experience — Lil’ Delta is an outpost from tamale and burger slinger the Delta in Wicker Park; Lexington Betty Smokehouse’s pit master Dominique Leach (Spiaggia) has an Oak Park restaurant and a stall at One Eleven Food Hall in Pullman. Others, like 23-year-old Taylor Bischof of all-day breakfast spot Brekkie and Bake Shop, are venturing into business ownership for the first time.
“I was shocked to hear that someone was going to be opening a food hall given the current climate, but after learning it was in the medical district, it seemed like a good idea,” says Bischof, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She moved to Chicago from Florida to pursue the opportunity at Dr. Murphy’s.
Bran’Arla Johnson has helmed family-owned specialty pie and cobbler company Classic Cobbler for a decade. The business operated out of of a physical location for about five years, she says, before switching to online sales and some distribution out of Whole Foods.
Just before novel coronavirus forced closures across the city and country, Johnson says she was looking for a new space. Once the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality industry became increasingly apparent, she decided that sharing a location with other vendors was a good idea. Her stall features pies including lemon cream, brownie walnut, and pecan, as well as bread pudding, peach cobbler, and a rotating fruit cobbler special. She’s selling by the slice or serving, but whole pies are available within a three-day window.
“A lot of people do know us, but I think this is a good way for us to reintroduce ourselves for those who are not familiar,” she says. “We did lose some of that traction once we moved to online, so it’s difficult to get back to where we were. We’re hoping this will help us to move forward — it’s a very exciting time for us.”
For Alan Moy, owner of health-focused casual Vietnamese spot Viet Nom Nom in suburban Evanston, the food hall could be a saving grace after his operations at Northwestern University and in the Loop were paused because of the pandemic. Viet Nom Nom was originally slated to be a pop-up in Dr. Murphy’s, but when a stall vendor backed out in early July and Nawab offered him the slot, Moy seized the opportunity.
“It’s certainly been tearjerking at multiple moments, but here we are to celebrate something I have always envisioned doing,” he says. “It’s fast but it’s powerful.”
Viet Nom Nom’s stall offers customizable bahn mi and rice bowl options with chicken, pork, and tofu, along with sides and drinks such as green papaya salad, almond cookies, and a vegan “Viet cold brew” with coffee from fellow vendor Passion House. Moy feels strongly about building relationships within the Chicago culinary community and utilizes local purveyors like Edgewater tofu producer Phoenix Bean and suburban bakery Hewn Artisan Breads. His staff are mostly youth participants in collaborative entrepreneurship and community organizations such as the Hatchery in East Garfield Park and Evanston-based Curt’s Cafe and Youth Job Center, which he says helped build his team overnight.
Racial diversity among food hall vendors has been a stumbling block for many operators — for example, while Fulton Market’s Time Out Market Chicago included chef Erick Williams (Virtue) for pop-up events, the Black chef didn’t have a permanent stall. Time Out’s opening lineup had zero Black chefs. Meanwhile, Dr. Murphy’s demonstrates the range that a single hall can achieve. There’s also two South Asian choices: Kathmandu Momo Station and Maharani Indian Cuisine.
Patrons can order for dine-in or contactless pickup via a server, a smartphone app, or Dr. Murphy’s website, and simultaneously pay for orders from various vendors through a new, contactless point-of-service system. It’s a process Nawab has previously compared to that of national salad chain Sweetgreen. He’s also implemented safety procedures and protocols to help stem the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, plexiglass partitions, and floor markings to show diners where to stand. Delivery will eventually be added.
Here’s a full list of participating vendors:
Brekkie & Bake Shop
Kathmandu Momo Station
Maharani Indian Cuisine
Viet Nom Nom
Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall, 1811 W. Harrison Street, Open 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 6:30 am. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.