Reopened Windmill Food Hall working to lure back crowds

A small crowd has lunch on June 25 at the Windmill Food Hall in Carlsbad.
A small crowd has lunch on June 25 at the recently reopened Windmill Food Hall in Carlsbad.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Carlsbad attraction has a new landlord that is easing back into hosting public events


Last week should have been peak season for the Windmill Food Hall, which opened to massive crowds last August in Carlsbad.

But a 10-week pandemic-related shutdown and a lack of public awareness about its June 1 reopening have led to a slow restart for the culinary tourist attraction at Interstate 5 and Palomar Airport Road.

On a recent lunchtime visit, just a couple dozen diners could be seen browsing the hall’s 13 food booths and having lunch at its indoor and outdoor tables. It’s a disappointing summer start for Carlsbad Properties, Inc., the landlord for all of the businesses in the windmill building.

Caitlin Forrest, the hall’s new general manager and events coordinator, said nobody could have anticipated the pandemic or its impact. But her goal now is to get customers back in the doors with the gradual relaunch of public events program, starting with with trivia contests at 6 p.m. Mondays and live music at 5 p.m. Thursdays. All-day happy hour specials are also offered Mondays through Thursdays.

“When we first took over, we were really happy. It was going well. Customers liked the location and the vendors were doing well,” Forrest said. “Now we just need to drive traffic and announce we’ve reopened and get our customers back.”

Vendors await customers last week at the Windmill Food Hall in Carlsbad, which reopened on June 1.
Vendors await customers last week at the Windmill Food Hall in Carlsbad, which reopened on June 1.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Windmill Food Hall occupies most of the 12,000-square-foot bottom floor of the two-story windmill building at 890 Palomar Airport Road. The wood-frame structure was built in 1982 for the Danish-inspired Pea Soup Andersen’s hotel and restaurant. The hotel changed hands, and the Pea Soup restaurant closed in 1988. For most of the past two decades, the restaurant was occupied by a TGI Friday’s, but that, too, closed in early 2016.

Carlsbad entrepreneur and restaurateur James Markham leased the vacant property two years ago, with a goal of gutting, remodeling and opening the space in six to eight months. But the project was stymied by problems related to the aging building, including wood rot, water damage, creaking timbers and a leaky roof. The building’s owner agreed to make all the repairs, but the top-to-bottom renovation took nearly a year.

But when the hall finally opened on Aug. 30, it was a smash with locals and tourists who came to visit Legoland California, the nearby outlets mall and local beaches. Vendors told the Union-Tribune last September that their booth sales exceeded their most optimistic goals. But last week, one vendor who asked not to be named said food sales slowed over the winter months.

The tenant said he was disappointed that the hall’s landlord didn’t offer booth operators free rent during the shutdown, as many of them are small business owners who can’t afford the loss of income. He said the lack of marketing since June 1 has also resulted in slow business.

Forrest said Carlsbad Properties forgiven vendors some of their monthly fees and is working with individual tenants on rent payback plans. She said many of the vendors also received federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, which can be used to cover their labor costs through mid-October and are forgivable.

But one obstacle that has impacted all restaurants in that area of Carlsbad has been the dramatic decline in regional tourism. Legoland California theme park and water park, located just a half-mile east of the hall, remains closed to the public, though its Sea Life Aquarium recently reopened. And hotels in San Diego County were only given the green light to reopen two weeks ago. Tourism officials in San Diego have said hotel bookings have been strong for July, particularly from drive-in travelers living in the Southwest states, so hospitality businesses are hoping for a good summer season.

The exterior of the Windmill Food Hall on June 25, 2020.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Forrest said the Windmill Food Hall space to accommodate the state and county’s new social distancing measures.

Some of the seating has been removed inside the hall and on the patio, all garage door-style windows and doors are kept open and arcade games have been shut down. Face masks are required of all staff and customers, except when the customers are seated at tables. Menus and pens are wiped down after each use and tabletops, countertops, door handles and high-touch surfaces are wiped down constantly and hand-sanitizing stations are now located throughout the hall.

When it opened last year, the hall’s capacity was 553 people. Forrest said she is awaiting the results of a recent county Health Department inspection to determine the hall’s new capacity with social distancing rules, but she said it will probably be about half the original number. To accommodate diners who still feel uncomfortable with dining inside buildings, vendors at the hall are offering takeout and delivery, including cocktails to go, Forrest said.

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