Artisanal Food Hall Trends Challenge Authenticity

By Zoe Weiner

Photo credit: Zoe Weiner

The crowd at Taco Mix, Industry City Food Hall’s newest addition, is young, attractive, and overwhelmingly well dressed. As they wait for their $12 burritos and hibiscus infused iced teas, one reads an Ayn Rand novel while another taps her white lace-up loafers to the beat of whatever’s playing in her shiny gold headphones.

One block north, at local Mexican restaurant called La Fe, the lunch crowd is decidedly different. In place of fedoras there are construction hats; instead of loosely tied Converses, there are dirty work boots. The menu is written entirely in Spanish, and offers nothing with the words “organic” or “gluten free” in its title.

“It’s honestly insulting that they would open that Taco place in there,” said longtime Sunset Park resident Julie Gilgore who’s a lifelong fan of the neighborhood’s local, authentic Mexican restaurants. “This is Sunset Park.”

Artisanal food halls, like the one in Industry City, are the newest dining trend to hit New York City. In the last five years, seven new food halls have opened across Harlem, Manhattan and Brooklyn, many of them in low-income neighborhoods on the verge of economic shift. Berg’n in Crown Heights, Gotham West in Hell’s Kitchen and City Kitchen in Times Square, to name a few, offer upscale dining options, and are touted as a one-stop destinations for local food options. What qualifies as “local,” though, seems to be a bit of a stretch.

These halls, though meant to function as vibrant destinations for community members, serve to draw a higher income clientele than their neighborhoods’ residents. They include restaurants from all over the city, many of which are high priced, while excluding the truly local restaurants that make up the fabric of the community. According to community activist Ryan Chavez, even the name of the spaces — calling them “food halls” instead of a “food courts” — breeds an air of classism. As a means of catering to a more privileged clientele, they import more expensive restaurants from elsewhere in New York. “They’re not entirely taking advantage of the culture and the local wealth of culture that’s already available in the community,” said Chavez. Perhaps most telling is the fact that there is no Chinese restaurant in the food hall, despite the fact that 43.2% of Sunset Park’s largely immigrant population is from China.

For residents who have been in the neighborhood for a long time, there’s a sense of cultural and social displacement as a new population moves in, and food halls like Industry City’s feed into this phenomenon. According to Jackelyn Hwang, a sociologist with Princeton University, a lot of these restaurants might not be something the old population wants in the neighborhood, so the project has the potential to alienate these people both culturally and socially. “There’s this idea that the things that are coming in are meant to cater to the new population with more money and more influence than the older population,” says Hwang, “So there may tensions between the groups.”

Industry City has nine restaurant options, none of which are truly local to Sunset Park. Taco Mix has another location in East Harlem, and ReCaFo’s primary Caribbean food operation is in Queens. Ends Meat, Ninja Bubble Tea and The Fashion Chef are all native to Industry City, but their price points are nearly double those of similar restaurants surrounding the complex and their owners are not residents of the neighborhood.

In addition to the permanent food hall, the weekly Brooklyn food festival “Smorgasburg” will move into its winter home on Industry City’s 2nd floor on October 16. This will bring over a hundred new vendors to the space. “I can’t really tell how it’s gonna be when that opens,” says Teddy A, owner of a sandwich shop called Hero Champ across the street from Industry City, “but if business starts to suffer, I’ll find a place that fits with the neighborhood and rent this place out. I’ll rent it to a Starbucks.”

Though Teddy hasn’t seen the direct effects to his business just yet, as more and more restaurants open in the food hall, the people who work in Industry City are admittedly less inclined to leave the complex for lunch. They no longer go to the bodegas or restaurants, like Hero Champ and La Fe, that they used to frequent.

“There’s really good tacos up the street,” said Noah Sylvan, a Makerbot employee as he finished off his Chicken Tinga tacos from Taco Mix in Industry City’s sunny courtyard, “But we never go there anymore. This is too convenient.” His companion, Kevin Rand, in a matching plaid shirt and curated five o’clock shadow, nodded in agreement and admitted, “these tacos aren’t even that good.”