A year ago, Urbanspace was on an expansion tear: The company had just opened the doors of Urban Hawker, its long-awaited market in Midtown in part conceived by Anthony Bourdain, and it was preparing to open a massive food hall in Union Square — its sixth market in New York City. Now, all of its food halls are restructuring.
Like other food halls, Urbanspace is struggling after the pandemic. In April, consultant Hospitality Firm took over the company in an effort to turn things around: “After COVID, food halls are seeing a lot less traffic,” says Alex Gaudelet, founder of Hospitality Firm and the acting CEO of Urbanspace. “We believe they can viable.”
Gaudelet is joined by Steve Hanson, the founder of hospitality group BR Guest — which included Fiamma and Ruby Foo’s — as a partner. Eldon Scott, the former head of Urbanspace, is still involved in the food halls, says Gaudelet.
A longtime operator in NYC restaurants, Hanson started new projects including opening Life Hotel after selling BR Guest to Starwood Capital for $150 million in 2007. Hospitality Firm is a backer in businesses like Rosemary’s East in Stuyvesant Town; the upscale grocery store chain Union Market; and Geoffrey Zacharian’s upcoming restaurant in Doha, Qatar. Firm Hospitality took over the food halls in April, according to Gaudelet.
The group is giving the food halls a facelift. In Union Square, three new vendors recently arrived, including Mysttik Masaala, which opened its third location there, following its residence in the Urbanspace Vanderbilt and at West 52nd Street. Lou Yao Kee is a collaboration among three Urban Hawker stalls, Prawnaholic Collection, Smokin’ Joe, and Daisy’s Dream. Sushi Suki is also new to the food hall.
It’s not the first time a New York food hall has been in the red recently. In March, Williamsburg Market, home to a location of DiFara Pizza, shuttered with zero notice four months after opening. And early in the pandemic, Smorgasburg’s Berg’n food hall in Crown Heights closed.
A vendor at Vanderbilt confirmed that some current tenants have been on month-to-month leases since the beginning of the year, which puts both vendors and Firm Hospitality in wait-and-see mode as things move forward. The vendor asked to be anonymous until they sign a lease in a new location.
“Some vendors are asked to leave. Some vendors leave on their own. Some that are doing well decide to stay,” says Gaudelet. “It’s less dramatic than it sounds.”
Earlier this month, the company’s Pearl Street food hall was a ghost town. Several stalls were closed at 5 p.m., and though its opening announced 16 vendors in 2021, its website now only lists six: Extra Sauce and Twenty-One Grains, which were both open at the time; Que Chevere; Senshi Ramen; Bao by Kaya; and Pita Yeero. (Gabriela’s Taqueria, Plant Junkie, and Top Hops have storefronts in the building but are no longer listed on the website.)
The company’s markets in Union Square and the Financial District are most recently opened Urbanspace locations. Last September, Urbanspace opened Urban Hawker, a long-awaited market in Midtown Manhattan that it operates under a separate umbrella. Its vendors were curated by K.F. Seetoh, a guidebook writer and friend of Anthony Bourdain, who had a hand in the idea.