UPDATE (2/24): As of Feb. 28, HartFood will go on hiatus as it transitions to a new location.
Food halls have historically been bustling centers of cuisine filled with crowds of eager diners noshing on diverse delicacies and the sounds of people joining together in meals overflowing with camaraderie, laughter and conversation. Then came 2020.
Like many restaurant concepts, the idea of the food hall had to be reinvented this past year in order to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s where HartFood, Hartford’s new online food hall, comes in. Through the service, which started in October, diners can choose meals from a variety of restaurants offering several types of fare and have their order delivered right to their door all in one package through a one-hub ordering system.
HartFood is run through a collaboration with The Hospitality Collective, a group of seven professionals with diverse experience in the restaurant and hospitality industries. “We wanted to come up with a group of restaurants that people or families can order from and have different varieties of food delivered to your house” at once from a single order, HartFood executive chef David Gilmore says. “What we’re trying to do is create multicultural restaurants and stay true to different ethnicities for the community through one ordering restaurant concept.”
HartFood operates out of the kitchen at Fiddleheads Cafe where meals are prepped, prepared and then picked up by delivery drivers. It’s part of a growing movement, accelerated by the pandemic, of so-called “ghost kitchens” where food is prepared for takeout only.
Not only has the HartFood program given Hartford-area folks more dinner options, it has also been a blessing for participating restaurants during the pandemic. “We’re able to provide different resources for these restaurants to teach them about cost savings, cost control and different systems to help their business get through this time when they may have not been open,” Gilmore says.
HartFood has also made a commitment to helping fight food insecurity in the greater Hartford community, giving a percentage of its sales and over-ordered food items to shelters and food drives. “Nourishing communities is my No. 1 goal, however we possibly can,” Gilmore says.
In the little-bit-of-everything spirit of traditional food halls, I order from all five restaurants. From Packabowl, the Acapulco Gold Bowl is filled with chicken, rice, street corn, black beans, pickled onion, pico de gallo and cheese. The flavors complement each other nicely, providing for a well-balanced meal I feel good about eating.
My pick from Mamma’s Hot Kitchen is the individual-size beef brisket with barbecue sauce and a choice of three sides; I opt for green beans, corn and mashed potatoes. The meat is tender and the sauce tangy, leaving me with a mouthful of Southern flavor on an otherwise chilly Connecticut winter evening.
From Squirt & Sprout, it’s one of the classic kids’ meals, the “Craft” mac & cheese. The portion is impressive and could even be enough for two younger children. Parents will probably find themselves stealing a forkful of this dish.
For something on the adventurous side, the shaved Brussels sprout Caesar arrives from The Big West E menu. The roasted Brussels sprouts and fresh garlic croutons are tossed in a light Caesar dressing, resulting in a creative twist on the classic Caesar salad.
Finally, for dessert from Holy Sweets! & Co., it’s one of my all-time favorites, tiramisu. The coffee brandy-soaked lady fingers are the star of the sugary treat, which, topped with the mascarpone and cocoa, certainly shines.
The best part of the experience: all the food from the different restaurants shows up at the same time, and it’s still warm (except the tiramisu, of course). Gilmore says communicating this idea to diners who are not familiar with this new food hall-delivery notion has been a challenge. “It just needs to be understood,” he says. “It’s a larger menu that’s broken up into concepts that you’re able to order from. It’s not like you have to order from three different restaurants and hope that they’re all going to show up at once for you to eat.”
HartFood works with popular national delivery services including DoorDash, UberEats and GrubHub, as well as local options like Waiter Wheels and Dine-In Connecticut, to deliver within a 15-mile radius of its Hartford headquarters, a range it hopes eventually to increase to 30 miles.
As for the future of HartFood, Gilmore says they aspire for expansion. “We’re hoping to grow the brand and operate at other kitchens and be able to offer the same services through a restaurant by becoming partners with them to help them get through this time period. It’s basically the beginning venture to something much greater. Helping the community and the restaurants survive this pandemic, that’s our mission,” he says.
“Food brings people together, no matter what hardship people are going through.”
Delivery hours: Wed.–Sat. 4–8:45 p.m.; Closed Sun.–Tue.