Vancouver’s First ‘Food Hall’ a Lost Opportunity?

Rendering via QuadReal Property Group

This morning I read that QuadReal Property Group, currently refitting the iconic Canada Post building on West Georgia, had tasked the Joseph Richard Group (JRG) to create and manage a food hall on the building’s main floor.

The rude question must be asked:

What the actual fuck could they possibly be thinking?

I’d heard rumours of a 26,000 sqft food hall possibly going into the ground floor of The Post. I’d been hoping they were true for good reason, not least for the gullets of the 6,000 Amazon workers who will toil above it. Modern food halls have so much potential, as we’ve seen in major North American cities like New York, Portland, Los Angeles and Toronto, where they’ve been springing up to critical acclaim in recent years. Think of them as grown-up, hyper-concentrated and discerning food courts that celebrate quality and a sense of place. They can squeeze a lot of talent, culture and deliciousness into one spot, making them an obvious draw to both locals and tourists alike. Vancouver, despite being one of the most exciting food cities in the country, had somehow yet to get on board, making confirmation of these whispers super exciting. This could have been a big deal.

Rendering via QuadReal Property Group

But the more I read of the confirmation the more my brow furrowed. Why would a seemingly astute real estate company whose declared mission is to “create living and working environments that enhance the lives of the people and communities they serve”, pick a restaurant group like JRG to create and operate Vancouver’s first and only food hall?

I have nothing against the company that operates the burbs-only Townhall and S+L chain restaurants (plus a scattered collection of ghost kitchens and so-called “public houses”) but let’s be real: these are not original, inventive, or regionally representative establishments by any stretch of the most elastic imagination. As is the case with similarly uninspired operations like Browns Social House and Earls, I understand they serve a purpose and forgive them their flaws, but that doesn’t get me closer to understanding why a real estate behemoth that manages global assets totalling more than $18 billion would select JRG, a company that doesn’t even operate in Vancouver proper and – to date – has only ever demonstrated vision enough for what even the most forgiving food-lover would describe as cookie cutter bullshit.

Is it because the don’t want the complication that comes with multiple leases and multiple operators, even if they play in a tasty league that exceeds the capabilities of a single player like JRG? I understand the elegance and appeal of the economic simplicity, but they miss the point and forfeit the right to market it honestly as a “food hall” when they hire just one company to twirl all the tongs.

It makes me wonder if QuadReal gave the slightest shit when making this decision, which is especially a shame given how they’re headquartered in downtown Vancouver. I suppose sometimes the people in charge of decisions like this just don’t know what the hell they are doing and don’t concern themselves with the impact their ignorance might have. And I ask myself if that wasn’t the case here — some corporate flack in a skyscraper who still eats like a stoned teenager making a choice that no one cared or thought to second guess. A shame indeed, for if they didn’t know any better they should have tried much, much harder.

But who knows? JRG might surprise the hell out of everyone and knock this project out of the park. Given the hand Vancouver’s food scene has been dealt here I certainly hope so and suppose there’s a first time for everything. Still, I can’t help but suspect that this was a lost opportunity on a scale that has the potential to be genuinely embarrassing for all involved.

I want to be crystal clear that I’m not shitting on JRG here. They’re a wildly successful company that knows how to make money in a highly competitive industry. The truth is – and I hope regular readers of mine would recognize this – I would react with the exact same doubt and derision if QuadReal made the deal with Joey, Cactus Club, Milestones, or any of the other middling “casual fine dining” restaurant chains that Vancouver and its surrounding satellite cities currently suffer. They’re one and the same. And that’s the problem. The object of my frustration is the indifference of a powerful real estate company once again getting in the way of what’s best for Vancouver.

There are 19 comments

  1. Vancouver is already so late on this trend that I imagine by the time this seriously ill-advised move actually comes to fruition that we will have moved passed this trend.

    Also I bet they chose one vendor to manage because then the entire location can be considered one “venue” so that they can sell liquor, because knowing how backwards we are in terms of a province when it comes to the enjoyment of adult beverages, the city would likely balk at the revolutionary concept of different outlets selling alcohol and sharing a common eating space.

  2. Get over it, it is just an office food court not Michelin starred dining. Lucky it is not the usual Subway, A&W etc.

  3. I agree that Vancouver is late on this trend for sure. I hope the people in charge can figure out what exactly thier aim is (is it only for those working at Amazon? Will it be open for all? Are they going the proper food hall route?).

    Also, while we are at it, can people stop calling places like Cactus, Joey’s, Milestone’s and all these other chains “casual fine dining”? It’s casual dining at best – a few steps up from fast food for sure. We have yet to have a proper “casual fine dining” restaurant.

  4. Prob a licensing nightmare too. Imagine an actual cool Market like in cities like Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Florence. There are separate vendors there, and one can walk around with a beer in ones hand. Don’t think that will ever happen here. With one vendor maybe easier?

  5. Though I have not been there ,I believe JRG manages the food component at the Stanley Park Brewing brew pub

  6. I’ve thought about why Vancouver can’t have quality large scale entertainment for a long time and continue to be stumped. Our small restaurants are great. The large ones suck. Small music venues are great. The large ones suck. This is not true in cities like LA or even Toronto. For some reason, past a certain investment level, there is a lack of understanding that creativity and quality is a multiplier for profit.

  7. Hi Bob. It looks like they’re aiming well above that, according to the CEO of JRG: “As with any of our venues, guests can expect unique experiences which include top-quality offerings, notable talent and uncompromising commitment to every guest.”

  8. I threw up in my throat too when I read that news and feel the same way Andrew!! When Vancouver finally could step up and join the extensive list of food cities with stellar, exciting food halls / markets, slow as we are to get there, we of course trip, with yet another “uninspired decision” by another developer choosing a safe choice. Too bad Amazon hasn’t put up a fuss, yet, or we can’t get a city government with real taste and vision setting aspirational goals, instead of the “pablum eating” decision makers we’re stuck with.

  9. I’m sure somebody at JRG went to Toronto Eaton Centre’s Urban Eatery once and thinks they’ll just copy-and-paste that 10 years later.

  10. Lets be frank; the is perfect for Vancouver and the Amazon work space. It’s meant to be.

  11. Watch every food truck in Vancouver park en mass outside the Amazon office. But seriously, what would it take to rent out a floor in a parkade and make a permanent food truck “food court”? So many empty lots in the city… i believe Impark is already heading in this direction with auxiliary kitchens for food delivery.

  12. I find this article and subsequent comments has certainly caused quite a stir!
    My takeaway from this is yes, this is profoundly disappointing that QuadReal is creating a “Food Hall” concept with one operator and that one operator fits into the typical causal dining designation. Maybe the issue is really about typical BS marketing semantics used to promote this project. The model here is not really a Food Hall concept, but more akin to an Eataly ( minus the grocery store aspect) where you have one operator providing stations or little restaurants within a whole that provide everything from pizza, wine bar, seafood, coffee, ice cream etc…. The unfortunate thing is the operator is not at the same level as an Eataly.

    Also, as mentioned above, the liquor licensing will be a nightmare. Will you be allowed to carry your own liquor to your seat from where you place your order or will servers have to do this as under a food primary license? I have already talked with consultants about a true Food Hall idea in Vancouver but there are so many logistical issues that will need to be addressed ( even beyond liquor licensing). No way will this ever have a liquor primary license.

  13. Total bummer. I am sure that some executive at Quad Real is buddies with some executive at JRG and fleshing out the concept never went further than that.

    I am probably in the minority here but I wouldn’t go to a food hall for dinner no matter how good it was. Okay maybe I’d visit once if there was some insane dish I had to try but food is only one component of why I go out for dinner.

  14. The food will likely be so so to at best mediocre. On the postive side, I’m sure they’ll have half decent bathrooms and this town needs another good shitter ever since the Four Seasons closed.

  15. My first reaction to this news was negative but stepping back and thinking about it, the decision makes a lot of sense.

    This is going to be a large operation logistically, handing stalls off to individual independent operators would be a nightmare. Imagine having to manage 10 or more separate small restaurant groups who all suffer from their own organizational issues? It makes sense to hand the project off to one group that will be accountable for all operations and give a better chance of consistency. The objective is consistency, pleasing the main users and operating with the least amount of obvious operational problems.

    Secondly, the mega chains wouldn’t step into this deal as it doesn’t suit their business model/strategy. The big 3 chains seek showcase real estate, JRG seems to be finding it’s market in taking on projects that fill the space between chains and catering contracts. It’s a pretty smart move considering the saturation of casual fine dining.

    On that note, look at the dominance of the chain restaurants in Vancouver. Vancouver is pretty much ground zero their creation. Everyone that has been born here in the last 40 years has the chain restaurant flavor palette in their DNA.
    This is how people eat here like it or not.
    My biggest wish would be that it be cheaper for the young ambitious chef’s to get a start in this city. Maybe we’d have a stronger indie restaurant scene rather than have many leave to other cities.

  16. Let’s look at the bright side of this. If the food is garbage all the GOOD local restaurants within walking distance will soon have 6000 potential new customers.

    ps. That one of the coffee shops was awarded to a Calgary co. (no diss against them!) was an early warning signal for me.