When the opening bell next rings on Philadelphia's original trading floor, it can only mean one thing: It's lunchtime!
The 122-year-old Bourse building near Independence Hall, once home to the country's first formal commodities exchange, is being renovated by its owners to house what will be the city's second-biggest eating hall, after Reading Terminal Market, when it opens next summer.
Like other commercial landlords nationwide, MRP Realty is betting that the quickest way to tenants' signatures is through their stomachs, as it upgrades the Bourse's dated food court into a feast of food vendors, from Prescription Chicken (matzo-ball and noodle soup) to Chaat & Chai (Indian street food).
Plans call for 27 eateries to fill the 25,000 square feet of food-hall stalls and sit-down restaurant space in what's being called the Bourse Marketplace, said MRP managing director Charley McGrath in an interview ahead of Monday's scheduled announcement about the project.
Also among the hall's initial batch of eight signed tenants are a branch of the Washington, D.C.-based dim sum vendor Pinch Dumplings; an outpost of the South Philadelphia diner Grub House; a cocktail bar run by Phoenixville's Bluebird Distilling; Vera Pasta Co. of West Chester; and Chocodiem, an Easton-based Belgian-style chocolatier.
"When you have trophy office space, you need to make sure you have killer amenities," McGrath said. "As part of the killer amenities, you need a place to work out, you need a place to hang out, and you need a great place to have food offerings."
In recent years, food halls have been emerging in U.S. cities as a sort of hipster nephew to the traditional shopping plaza-food court, with indie riffs on ethnic favorites enjoyed under exposed ductwork standing in for chain grub in the glow of a Sbarro sign.
The commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield counted 105 major food halls nationwide in November 2016, when it released a report on the eating venues, up from just 28 in 2010. The firm projected that the number would rise to 210 in 2019.
Classics of the genre include Chelsea Market in New York (established in 1997) and the Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco (established in 2003), themselves modern versions of market-hall mainstays such as Philadelphia's Reading Terminal (established in 1893), which over some 75,000 feet embraces such items as Pennsylvania Dutch comfort food, Mexican dishes, fresh produce, and sweets.
Also striving for food-hall status locally are Chinatown Square on Race Street — a mini-emporium of sushi, curry, and kebab vendors — and the small clutch of Philadelphia foodie favorites, including Dizengoff and Cheu Noodle Bar, in stalls at the Art Museum area's Whole Foods store.
But the next big wave of food halls will likely be developed as a component of larger commercial projects, as office landlords seek new ways of drawing tenants spoiled by en suite yoga classes, manicurist visits, and ping-pong-and-beer lounges, said Pam Flora, Cushman & Wakefield's San Diego-based director of retail research.
Landlords, Flora said, can use their food halls as branding opportunities, curating unique mixtures of cuisine to differentiate their properties from the competition.
"One of the elements of food halls is they want to be unique and they want to be authentic," she said. "That sets each project apart."
Food halls have already popped up at Seattle's 400 Fairview offices and at the National office tower in Chicago, with more on the way, Cushman & Wakefield reported.
In Philadelphia, Brandywine Realty Trust, the city's biggest office landlord, has said it plans to install a food hall on the ground floor of the parking garage beside its FMC Tower near 30th Street Station, while Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust has said it's negotiating with a European food-hall operator to lease lower-level space in the former Strawbridge's store building at 801 Market St. (It no longer owns any of the office space above).
MRP's plans for the Bourse Marketplace aren't solely focused on that building's tenants. The Washington-based company acquired two more office properties — 325 Chestnut St. and 400 Market St. — in a package with the Bourse, leaving it with more than 600,000 square feet of space to keep filled flanking Fourth Street between Market and Chestnut Streets.
Also in mind are the roughly 5 million yearly visitors to nearby historic sites, many of whom have dined on the chafing-dish Chinese food and lamp-heated pizza once served at the Bourse's orange-tiled food court, said Michael Morris, a principal with Baltimore-based Cana Development, which is handling retail and restaurant leasing at the Bourse for MRP.
"We want to be and need to be a place where the visitor and tourist still comes and finds what they need, but ultimately we'll become an amenity for the local residential and daytime population," he said. "We have to have a $5 burger, and we're probably going to have a $14 burger."