Golden Age of Groceries

Golden Age of Groceries

Waiting on a block-long line for fresh produce and ingredients is not standard fare, but customers for the new Chelsea food hall and market, Eataly, have been doing so willingly ever since it opened last summer.

Imported to New York by Mario Batali, Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, and Joe Bastianich, Eataly was founded in 2007 in Turin by Oscar Farinetti, and it is nothing less than a food revolution—at least in terms of the retail experience.


While the food—a staggering array of pasta, coffee, chocolate, cheese, fish, pastries, bread, fresh meats and produce—is the ostensible draw, it is the environment that elevates Eataly far above quotidian grocery shopping.

Located in the bottom floors of the resplendent Toy Building on 23rd Street between 5th and 6th avenues, Eataly is downright theatrical, exceeding the expectations of a shopping audience long primed in the stagecraft of food presentation. It’s preceded by such destination foodie experiences as Macy’s Food Cellar, Balducci’s, and even the relatively new national chain Whole Foods that is upscale enough in appearance to be a welcome tenant in luxury business towers such as the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle.

“We are in a market renaissance in this country,” said David K. O’Neill, a market consultant who helps bring what he calls “haute food courts” to parks, waterfronts, and campuses.

But even for food-savvy New Yorkers, Eataly represents a new level of immersive shopping. Shoppers enter under a grand Baroque arch. But the interior is in fact a mash up of 19th century New York, Roman food market, and mass transit food court: high ceilings, egg-and-dart molding, marble niches, terrazzo flooring, and high-tech pendant lamps over white-tiled stations. The bread area includes a gold mosaic wood-fired oven, turning out daily fare and crusty specials but also providing a postcard backdrop for tourist photo shoots. In a marble alcove, mozzarella making is raised to high performance as two men knead and stretch the taffy-like material into little mouthfuls or “bocconcini,” while elsewhere rustic signage explains esoteric meat cuts, shelves of regional products appear to be arranged according to the color of the labels, and dining tables are surrounded by the latest in Kartell plastic chairs. Such details, each calibrated to achieve an effect of classic tradition, artisanal dedication, or contemporary Italian chic, are easy to miss but still contribute to a collective ambiance emphasizing visual stimulus. Clearly convenience and easy access—not to mention price—are no longer the purpose or goal in this new kind of food emporium emporium as spectacle.


At Eataly, visitors quickly get caught up in the pageantry of the place, a stage set for sumptuous offerings available at every turn—and the visitor does turn frequently in this interior, which cunningly recreates the bustling crowds of Italy. Most seem quite happy to be jostled and distracted. What they are shopping for hardly seems to matter: they are consuming the excitement that the market’s designers set out to create.

The precedent for the hall isn’t any actual space, said Alec Zaballero, principal at TPG Architecture, executive architect for the 42,000-square-foot Eataly, but what he calls “an embedded idea,” a common image of the market place of an Italian hill town. “It’s a great image—stalls, coffee bars, ice cream.” Eataly, he said, “is almost like walking into a public square. You’re dining in public.” To make the point, the design—a collaboration among TPG, Eataly, and the Batali-Bastianich group in New York—dispenses with walls between the informal dining areas and retail.


But Italy has no lock on inspiration for market architecture. In the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Wyckoff Exchange, designed by Andre Kikoski, plays to a more hipster urban-age sensibility with a look that says “close to the source.” Covered in Cor-ten steel, the soon-to-open market’s façade transforms an ordinary warehouse into a rough-hewn insta-market. A motorized steel wall acts as a gate when closed and retracts upward, folding into an awning that protects customers entering the glass-fronted market. The building pays homage to Bushwick’s industrial history while creating a venue for locally-made foods and even vegetables grown in the neighborhood’s urban farms. A new organic market is set to open inside Wyckoff Exchange this spring. Kikoski’s firm, AKA, designed the Guggenheim’s new restaurant, The Wright, which was awarded the 2010 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant Design. He thinks his work for Wyckoff Exchange, owned by Cayuga Capital Management, could be a model for how neighborhoods can be transformed through innovative but fairly unobtrusive interventions, a kind of pop-up architecture that suits marketplace informality.

Once the stage is set, market consultant O’Neil often steps in to make commercial sense of the interior layout. “In a market, frontage is where you make all the money; you don’t need deep spaces. If you stood on a market aisle and looked at the different traffic patterns, you’d see that people hesitate to go into side aisles, especially cul de sacs.” He likes to say that the market tells a narrative, and getting the right story across depends a great deal on lighting. “It tells the eye where to go, yet can be incredibly cheap. You don’t want people to look at the architecture, you want them to look at something they can buy.” To that end, displays should be plentiful but neither too neat nor too high. They should offer a multitude of colors and prices.

O’Neil says that what a designer places at the end of an aisle is critical to keeping customers moving through the market. “The beacon at the end of that sightline is very important. And it’s amazing how many times people don’t get that right.” That’s just as true for humble, temporary farmer’s markets as for places like Harrods, the quintessential London department store food hall whose motto is omnia omnibus ubique  (“everything for everybody, everywhere”) and arguably one of the first grocery venues to realize that there is a food customer for whom price is no object.

The Plaza Food Hall by master chef Todd English tries to give diners and shoppers the excitement and upscale merchandise of Harrod’s in the context of the Plaza Hotel. “This is theatrical. Todd wants to showcase the preparation [of the food]. It’s theater. Pure food theater,” said Jeffrey Beers about the 5,000-square-foot hall that he designed in collaboration with English and that opened last June. Considering its tony location on Central Park South, and that the food is chosen by English from some of the best known purveyors in the city—such as Balthazar and Murray’s Cheese Shop—the hall offers surprisingly reasonable prices at its eight stations serving sushi, dumplings, cheeses, charcuterie, oysters, and baked goods, along with other specialties. Diners eat at high, closely arranged tables where a conversation with a stranger is bound to ensue. Kitchens are open so preparation becomes the central show. After a meal, customers may buy the same high-end ingredients used by English or even cookware, which is sold in niches around the room. The density, Beers points out, “brings people together. There’s not an awkward moment. It’s the new nightclub, a daytime nightclub.”


English and Beers, who have worked together on a host of restaurants since 2000, were dealt a tough hand: the hall sits in the basement of the Plaza in the center of an upscale but undistinguished shopping concourse. As a response both to the site and the reputation of the Plaza, they chose to create a room with fairly muted colors except for an occasional orange wall or the bright red of their brick pizza oven. The hall’s counters are made of dark-stained oak topped with marble, and floors are black-and-white mosaic tiles.

“What I like is there’s a patina already. It doesn’t feel new; it could have been here for eight months or 80 years,” said English. As far as trends go, it’s hard to say if food hall spectacles are hear to stay, but as Epicurus might have said, “Eat, drink, and enjoy the shopping while it’s still fresh.”