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Top Chef Star Creates ‘Food Hall of Future’

When Irvine Co. opted to add a food hall to one of its largest office parks in Orange County, the Newport Beach-based landlord went looking for some Hollywood pizzaz to bring attention to the venue.

It certainly found some—in San Diego.

Chef Brian Malarkey, a fixture in the celebrity chef community, is a regular judge on the Food Network’s “Guy’s Grocery Games” and “Tournament of Champions” and hosts “Beachside Brawl.” He was a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef All-Stars” Season 17, a “Top Chef” Season 3 finalist, and the winning mentor on ABC’s “The Taste.”

Malarkey has also judged a variety of television cooking programs, including “Chopped All-Stars” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”

Outside television work, Malarkey counts a thriving restaurant business. He has opened numerous restaurants, including the acclaimed Herb & Wood in San Diego. In fact, most of his restaurants have been in San Diego. Until Irvine Co. recruited him to come to Orange County.

The result is Herb & Ranch at the landlord’s UCI Research Park, the 185-acre office park next to the University of California, Irvine.

The food hall is arguably the most notable amenity that Irvine Co. has added to the campus since it underwent a major makeover following chipmaker Broadcom’s departure nearly seven years ago.

The multi-tenant campus—now home to companies like fintech Acorns, the UCI Beall Applied Innovation lab and the innovation hub and test kitchen for Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG)—is expected to become a residential hub in the near future, as Irvine Co. plans a sizeable new apartment complex for the campus.

Variety & Brain Food

“When the Irvine Co. first contacted me about doing an eatery here, we thought you have to have something that has diversity,” Malarkey said during a meeting with the Business Journal at Herb & Ranch last month.

“When you are taking care of a campus, people who are repeat customers will get menu exhaustion if you have one standalone restaurant that looks and feels a certain way. You can’t do a lot with the menu.

“I had this idea for a long time of how to offer a variety of food very quickly,” he said, “because this is during work hours and you want it fast, and you want brain food.”

Malarkey took the food hall model and twisted it around to fit his concept, which he says eschews “heavier stuff like pizza and hamburgers, those things can slow you down.”

“We wanted stuff that activates the brain and makes sure the second part of the day is better than the first part.”

With Herb & Ranch, Malarkey has created a food hall with several different concepts, but with a shared kitchen and a walkway through each concept so his workers can float from one concept to the next as needed.

Herb & Ranch has coffee and breakfast items, as well as lunch dishes including caprese sandwiches, wraps and farm fresh salads.

Food Hall Student

Malarkey studied other food halls to see what worked and what needed improving—including dirty kitchens.

“There is nothing I hate more than seeing a filthy kitchen. I want my food fast and clean.

“There’s another thing that drove me crazy about food halls—you order on an iPad,” he said. “I need human interaction in my life.”

Something else that Malarkey improved on is speed.

“Everything in here takes less than a minute and a half. You get fed faster than they can ring them up. This is built to do a ton of volume. This year it has gone through the roof.

This place is designed to be a battleship. The kitchen is big, we are gaining more and more traction. It’s almost limitless what the kitchen can do.”

Pandemic Reset

Malarkey noted that Irvine Co. took a leap of faith with his concept, and it’s worked well for everyone, although there were hiccups at its unveiling—early 2020.

“Right before COVID, there was a day we did 400 covers in one hour, and it worked. Three weeks later we were shut down.”

Area restaurants, including food halls, went through a period of being open, closed, take out, patio dining, and finally fully open again. Herb & Ranch is still standing, unlike many others.

Cross Utilization

One advantage to the food hall concept at UCI Research Park, Malarkey said, is that his employees know how to work every food station, so if the station is not busy they assist one that is busy.

“Labor is huge, so we cross-utilize,” Malarkey said.

He thinks this concept is one to last.

“You are going to see this pop up everywhere,” Malarkey said. “People are studying this system. I am surprised we have not seen more of these pop up yet, but this is the food hall of the future.”

Herb & Ranch: 5301 California Ave., Ste 140, Irvine, (949) 316-4491, herbandranch.com.

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