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The chefs in the hall

The PATH's voluminous foot traffic inspires The Assembly,
a new venture far more adventurous than the food courts
you know

People walk through Campo in Toronto.

When chef Paul Marshall and his business partner, Jim Shelton, stood in Toronto's underground PATH last March, they felt like they'd stumbled on a gold mine. The two watched in awe at the constant stream of office workers – tens of thousands of hungry people buying their lunches, before, in Mr. Shelton's words, lining up again for "a $9 juice." The important business decision they were mulling was made.

"We have an opportunity to shove our foods down the throats of 500,000 people!" says Mr. Marshall, owner of the Dupont St. restaurant Love Chix, of his realization in that moment. Not long after, the duo signed a three-year lease at The Assembly.

That's the name of the ambitious new venture being led by restaurateur Andreas Antoniou, who had approached Mr. Marshall about joining. These were the terms: Love Chix would sell its fried chicken out of a 300-square-foot stall in a 15,000-square-foot restaurant "food hall" on the bottom floor of Google's Toronto headquarters, with direct access to the PATH network of shops and restaurants. The space would be shared with 16 other chefs, with Mr. Antoniou – who spent 2 1/2 years developing this concept and who runs four other successful downtown restaurants, including Estiatorio Volos and Los Colibris – picking up the cost of shared amenities, such as janitorial services and events programming.

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Oh, and rent for the mini-kitchen in the downtown business district would cost as much as a full restaurant in other neighbourhoods.

Chef Rob Bragagnolo, left, and Chef de cuisine Jesse Mutch in the kitchen at Campo.

It sounded challenging but exciting, and the timing was perfect, as Mr. Shelton was visiting from Vancouver to discuss a potential joint venture. Intrigued by Mr. Antoniou's proposition, they went to see the empty concrete shell he was so excited about on Richmond Street West, then headed to that fateful PATH visit. "It didn't take us long," says Mr. Shelton.

Scheduled for a soft opening this month, The Assembly will be Toronto's first multichef food hall, a concept taking off all over North America. In Toronto, other halls planned include a branch of the wildly popular Eataly opening on Bloor Street West in 2019, followed by homegrown concepts Waterworks and The Well. Los Angeles, New York and Chicago have dozens of them, patronized by millennial workers, who prefer snacking and choice to big meals and set menus.

At a food hall, customers can peruse the offerings of a number of chefs then take a bowl of ramen back to their desk or share a table with a colleague eating a vegan salad. Their compostable, disposable dishware gets tossed into a green bin when they're done.

If that sounds like a food court, fair enough, but there are some key differences.

People sit at the Bodega Bar at Campo.

Some food halls incorporate a retail or grocery aspect. High-end grocer Pusateri's year-old food hall in Saks at the Eaton Centre has everything from regular eggs to $15 single-origin chocolate bars, plus a few spots to sit down with a glass of wine.

Serving alcohol is also unlike the food-court model, and is meant to make food halls appealing on weekends and at night. To encourage lingering, the Assembly will feature leather banquettes, chandeliers and two patios, and Mr. Antoniou is planning DJs, theme nights and free, "Instagrammable" birthday cakes.

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At Labora, on King Street West, dinnertime meals of regional Spanish food are accompanied by full table service. But that's near the back open kitchen, in the evenings – through the day, chef-owner Rob Bragagnolo will be selling pastries, salads and snacks and has dubbed the entire space Campo.

"I didn't know what term to use – places like Longo's are calling themselves a 'market' when they're just grocery stores," says Mr. Bragagnolo of running with the "food hall" idea. Three years ago, he returned to Toronto after 14 years in Spain, and opened Carver sandwich shop while imagining a real restaurant.

Desserts are seen on display at Campo.

At first, Bragagnolo turned down the 3,500-square-foot room west of Spadina. "I loved the space, I loved the location, I was not crazy about the rent," he says. "I said no, and then it started to bother me." He designed an all-day concept in the tradition of Spanish mercados, community hubs in which to eat, drink and buy groceries.

"The advantage from a business perspective is that I now have an opportunity to sell over more hours of the day," says Mr. Bragagnolo of Campo, which opened in late November. He's renting out small areas to Elxr Juice Lab and the Drake General Store, plus selling retail goods like fancy tinned seafood and packaged ham.

For experienced restaurateurs, food halls are a way to increase revenue while keeping costs steady. Newcomers see a chance to get a foot in the door in a very expensive location. Opening her first business in the Assembly is Amira Becarevic, a former executive chef at The Chase.

"It's not as though all of us have deep pockets and half a million dollars to open something," says Ms. Becarevic, who Mr. Antoniou says he's been trying to work with for a decade. She considers the rent for her spot, called Mira Mira, "a manageable margin" considering the traffic potential.

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Chef Rob Bragagnolo serves customers at Campo.

"Instead of buying a condo, I'm opening a restaurant," says Ms. Becarevic. She's slowing down her catering business to be on-site every day, cooking "health-focused" meals. "It's my baby. I'm making sure I get a return on my investment."

Nick Liu of DaiLo is so confident in the venture he's paying "about the same" for his 300-square-foot stall at the Assembly as he does for his entire Little Italy restaurant. "But it's in a much higher traffic area," one that most independent restaurateurs couldn't afford otherwise, he says.

Yet as American food halls enter their next phase, some have seen the shine dull on the business model. In a recent story in The New Yorker, vendors complained about losing out on the profits of alcohol to a centralized beverage program, like the one Mr. Antoniou has planned.

Others couldn't handle the complexity of prepping at one location and serving at another, as Love Chix and Nicki Labourie of Yorkville's Bar Reyna are set to do. The all-day atmosphere of food halls also usually requires the cost of staffing a stall all day even if a vendor's offerings aren't suited to every meal (Mr. Antoniou says he'd be open to subleasing).

Items are seen for sale at Campo.

At Regent Street Commercial Corp., principal Vanessa Oliver helps landlords and chefs find each other. "A lot of our clients are looking for more food hall or boutique food court concepts," she says, but even so, one of them turned down the offer of joining The Assembly.

"We just found that the rent they were asking to be too aggressive," she says. "We found the business terms to be too aggressive."

The labour costs are cheaper, however, which is important for business owners nervous about the rising minimum wage. As at "fast-casual" restaurants such as Flock, where customers order at the till instead of at their table, food halls eliminate the labour cost of individual servers.

The dorada ‘case-crudo’ dish, marinated with coffee, grapefruit, and citrus, is displayed at Campo.

Plus, readying a food stall might set a restaurateur back $150,000 – a fraction of the half a million (or more) a full restaurant reno could cost. Then there's the strength in numbers. "Assembling a curated group of great food vendors, the hope is that critical mass is going to result in higher sales," says Ms. Oliver.

Which is why Assembly vendors are calculating rent per potential customer instead of per foot, and trusting that Mr. Antoniou will be flexible as the venture develops. "We have to support each of our chefs," he says. "If in five years we only have three good chefs left and everyone else is gone, I'll be beside myself."

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