The Denver Central Market and the Rise of the Food Hall

The food hall craze shows no sign of letting up in Denver and other major U.S. cities. The Denver Central Market is helping make RiNo the center of industrial-chic marketplaces in Colorado.
When Ken Wolf conceived of The Denver Central Market, he set out to craft a neighborhood nucleus. Not a cafeteria, but an eatery and market with a heartbeat for RiNo residents to stroll and pick up gourmet groceries, take-out food or dine at a nice eatery.

But let's be clear, when Wolf originally settled in the Five Points area, buying a warehouse at 26th and Blake streets in 1991 to house his business, a chocolate factory, and moving to Curtis Park in 2003, there were no neighbors to invite -- no retail, no restaurants.

Five Points -- the region spanning RiNo, Curtis Park to Arapahoe Square and Ballpark -- appeared on the map around the mid-19th century, maintaining prominence as the home to Denver's aristocracy through the mid-20th century. It later gained the reputation as the "Harlem of the West," with a predominantly African-American population, and from the late 1950s through the '90s, the northwest corridor of downtown struggled as properties were left abandoned and the economy plummeted due to drugs, crime and urban blight.

But Wolf, a Detroit native, "didn't mind."

Over time, he accrued 11 different properties throughout the area and a multitude of factors -- from Denver's general growth to the proximity to the urban core to the appeal of the art and design-inspired landscape -- drew people to RiNo, now chock full of yoga studios, hair salons, medical offices, breweries, galleries and apartment buildings.

The H.H. Tammen Curio Co. was the building's original occupant.Wolf had owned the 1920s H.H. Tammen Curio Co. property at 2669 Larimer St. since 1995, during which it changed from a light industrial processing plant to a cabinet manufacturing facility, an architectural antique shop and finally an exotic used-car dealership, where one could buy a worn-out pickup truck or a $150,000 Aston Martin, perhaps a healthy proxy for the spectrum on which the corners and characters of RiNo fall today.

Even as recently as 2010, "You didn't come down here," says chef Jeff Osaka, who has worked with Wolf since renting space for his restaurant, twelve, in 2008. He calls Wolf a "risk-taker," noting, "Ken's not the type of person who does something because it's cool or in fashion. I think it's his foresight."

Marketplace mania

But the developer-slash-candyman is not alone.

Food halls have experienced a revival in recent years as shoppers seek more intimate, experience-based relationships with their local purveyors and indie vendors.

"Market halls have existed for centuries," says Kyle Zeppelin of Zeppelin Development. When his food hall, The Source, opened in 2013, it was an original concept by modern Denver standards. "Cities were built around cars," he says. "It's very impersonal and the mall is a failing model with the Internet. . . . If the goal is to get consumer products that are common, then there are more efficient ways to have that delivered."

One of the inspirations for Denver's food halls was Los Angeles' Grand Central Market. A brochure of that space dating back to the 1920s listed a bakery, deli, coffee stall, butcher, cheesemonger, oyster vendor and more. Sound familiar?

"Like in many other urban areas across America, the marketplace concept has grown in popularity in Denver," says Michael Kendall, vice president of CBRE Retail Services. "We have gone from zero to nearly 200,000 square feet of marketplace real estate in about four years."

Reflecting the history of the traditional food hall and the neighborhood itself, Wolf wanted Central Market to resemble a relic, rather than a contemporary new build, keeping the tiled floors and antique light fixtures.

Wolf also refused to invite chain brands into the market. He says the concept gives emerging talent a shot at a brick-and-mortar location, allowing those businesses to incur less risk. He and Osaka assembled a roster of 11 vendors, including Osaka's Silva's Fish Market, a butcher, a baker and -- while there's no candlestick maker -- Italian fare and dry goods.

"I reached out to friends," Osaka says of his strategy to fill the lineup. "We wanted to build a community within the market." That includes Crema Bodega, High Point Creamery and SK Provisions.

When the space opened in Sept. 2016, swarms of people buzzed through almost immediately, eating, drinking, socializing and strolling casually. And it's not just RiNo residents. The crowds come from the nooks and crannies of Denver and beyond.

Kate Kaufman, Central Market operations director, says her initial priority was to "keep it from being a food court and more like a comfortable restaurant, including high-end seating and service."

Andrea Frizzi, chef-owner of Vero Italian, Central Market's pizza, pasta and dry goods purveyor, says the individual business owners within the space work well together. "Ego is not a factor. There's a great, collaborative attitude. It's like a little village."

Frizzi, whose newly reopened Il Posto is on the same stretch of Larimer as the Central Market and inside another Wolf-owned building, calls the developer a "real estate mogul” and says, ”He really believes in RiNo."

Frizzi calls Denver youthful, motivated and highly educated, and Wolf echoes those observations, citing them as reasons why The Denver Central Market is succeeding.

Fast, fashionable food

Food halls have not only become an economical solution for restaurateurs and chefs, but in an era of demand for more variety, heightened transparency and quality standards, they tap into consumers' increased interest in gourmet, locally sourced fare, emerging as a fashionable alternative to fast food.

According to Kendall: "Last year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that restaurant industry sales surpassed grocer sales for the first time in history. People are eating out more frequently, and they crave dining options that meet their social needs in hand with their nutritional needs. Marketplaces are a great option because they can cater to a range of different tastes all under one roof and deliver shopping and entertainment as well."

The public space is a differentiating feature.Osaka says the Central Market space is "very diverse during the day and more family-oriented on the weekends." With a collection of screens on the wall, sports games and movie nights are on the list of available activities, while free Wi-Fi and electrical outlets invite guests to use the space as a second living room.

So what's to come for The Denver Central Market and its many moving people, parts and pieces?

"We intend to continue evolving organically," Osaka says.

This June, the alleyway between 26th and 27th streets directly behind the market will be closed to traffic and turn into an activated public space with gardens and benches and pop-up shops.

"It's still new enough, we're trying to listen to our customers, be flexible and find our footing," Kaufman says.

With the hype and popularity, is the concept foolproof?

"While marketplaces are certainly a hot trend, the verdict is still out in terms of their longevity, especially in smaller markets," Kendall says. "We don't really see them as a threat to traditional formats, but rather an alternative. There is enough demand for food and beverage to support both food halls and traditional restaurants. Retail is not going away but it is evolving to meet consumer demands."

Zeppelin says: "The format universally makes sense," though he admits there's no guarantee of success. "There are subtle features, besides just slotting 10 random businesses under one roof. You have to account for different sensibilities."

It follows that Zeppelin Development has another two market projects underway: a 20,000-square-foot expansion of The Source and a 25,000-square-foot cafeteria concept and retail hall that will anchor Zeppelin Station, a transit-oriented development at 35th and Wazee streets.
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Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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