For enthusiasts of the food hall phenomenon, comparing these facilities to food courts is like equating a Mercedes to a Hyundai because they both have wheels. Inspired by a European tradition, food halls can more accurately be described as a cross between an upscale food court and a farmers market.

Now, the trend that’s captivating much of Canada has come to Calgary.

“Food courts are designed to get you fed and back to the stores as fast as possible,” said Travis Callaway, president of Avenida Food Hall in southeast Calgary and managing director of private equity at Strategic Group. “Food halls, on the other hand, are meant to be destinations on their own.”

“We offer cuisine from all over the world that you can’t find anywhere else in the city.” – Travis Callaway, Strategic Group

Though food halls are hugely popular in much of Europe, bringing the concept to Calgary was not without challenges. Since the Avenida location had been built for other purposes, it first had to be converted from its original design. There were also the unavoidable issues that simply come with the territory.

“Opening one restaurant is complicated enough, as you must ensure you’re not violating any zoning restrictions, satisfy Occupational Health and Safety, and deal with a hundred other details,” said Callaway. “Now imagine taking dozens of miniaturized restaurants and putting them all under one roof.”

From the outset, even before taking their first bite, visitors can grasp the distinctive flavour of food halls.

“Aesthetically, we have been inspired by food halls in Spain, Portugal and Italy that serve as massive tourist destinations,” said Callaway. “When you walk in, it doesn’t feel like a farmers market – it has a look and atmosphere that Calgarians won’t have experienced before.”

Adding to that uniqueness, the Avenida Food Hall was very selective when it came to vendors.

Courtesy Strategic Group

“If you go to the food court at Market Mall or Chinook, you’ll see the same food outlets,” said Callaway. “We offer cuisine from all over the world that you can’t find anywhere else in the city. Calgary is an international centre, and we wanted this facility to reflect that.”

Apart from world-class food, patrons share a social experience, making food halls an important gathering place for community residents, other Calgarians and visitors to the city.

“We’ve been open just over a month, and the feedback is amazing,” said Callaway.

“People love the space, and it’s designed so that they want to come back. I’ve talked to a couple of customers who have been here every day so far. It’s gratifying to take real estate, get creative and make it something it was never meant to be.”

Call it creative, unique or community-minded – just don’t call it a food court.