Food courts over the years looked pretty much the same 10 to 15 fast food tenants huddled in a corner at one end of the mall. The basic idea? Get shoppers fed and back into the stores as quickly as possible.

As shopping malls evolved, however, so did food courts. The latest designs are geared toward entertainment, relaxation and leisurely dining. As a result, people of all ages and sexes now go to malls specifically for what food courts offer. Although mall architects harbor different opinions about what creates the strongest draw, most recognize the need to incorporate more than just fast food and restrooms.

Moving up

The concept of moving food courts to the highest floor in malls began in the late 1980s. Skylights greatly enhance the ambiance of food courts, explains Jim Ryan, president of Farmington Hills, Mich.-based JPRA Architects Inc. Sometimes this means the food court has to forego an exterior entrance, but the feeling of outdoors created by the skylight is important, Ryan says. The trend today also is to create short traffic areas between the food court and retail stores. This serves as a draw for impulse snacks when shoppers are walking from store to store.

Steven McKay, senior associate with Seattle's DLR Group, agrees that skylights are important, but says the firm also looks for outside access. We realize that many people go to a mall today for the food court alone, and an entrance to the outside offers this customer convenient access, McKay notes.

We feel a critical element to today's food court is natural light, says Tipton Housewright, principal of Dallas-based Omniplan Inc. Regardless of the level, we always try to incorporate daylight into the plan. Those that open to outdoor seating areas also are attractive as draws.

Variety is the spice

Malls today are destinations rather than just places to shop, according to McKay. The most successful food courts incorporate a medley of attractions, he says. Malls now attract people of all ages and sexes. A senior citizen who comes to the mall to practice putting might not want a merry-go-round nearby. Another patron might like to enjoy a cup of coffee in a comfortable banquette before he heads home, so planning takes careful consideration and placement. Clients aren't buying into one universal idea today. Most are taking more of a classic approach that works well for many.

At one mall recently designed by Omniplan, the firm chose a fireplace surrounded by comfortable seating in the middle of the food court to invite patrons to stay a little longer. The overall idea is to create a place where people can do any of several things, Housewright says. Larger and better-equipped rest rooms also are a part of this concept.

We realize that many people go to a mall today for the food court alone, and an entrance to the outside offers this customer convenient access.

Ideas on seating capacity also have changed considerably over the years, and are related to the extended periods of time patrons spend in the food court area. Our firm traditionally suggested more than the common number of seats per tenant, Housewright continues. We felt that 40 to 50 seats per tenant was adequate ten years ago. Today, however, we suggest as many as 70 to 75 seats per tenant in malls with heavy traffic.

In the early 1980s, BKBC Architects, based in San Francisco, Calif., recommended the standard 30 to 35 seats per tenant. Sanjiv Bhandari, president of the firm, says he saw that figure increase steadily to nearly 50 seats for several years.

Today we're recommending up to 65 seats per tenant, but this includes banquette, sofa and lounge seating. These work well for people who don't need a table in front of them, and it promotes lounging and socializing. The entertainment or theme aspect of today's food court has much to do with this.

Uniting conflicting brand images

Having numerous tenant banners may have created a draw in past years, but tenants soon suffered from the critical competition that resulted. Food courts today have fewer tenants, but each has better exposure.

Bhandari says BKBC attempts to provide continuity for tenants in the framework of the design. With the trend toward fewer, but higher-end food court tenants, it's important to pay attention to the need for brand imaging, he says.

In most suburban malls we want to maintain the architectural theme of the mall throughout the food court, but we don't want to subdue tenant signage, including logos and colors, in the process, Bhandari continues. Consequently, food court tenants are generally allowed more signage freedom than retail tenants today.

Recently, Omniplan proposed creating outside food court signage for several of its clients' malls, Housewright notes. Today's thinking is that popular food court tenants create a draw of their own so everyone benefits.

Christina DiMartino is a New York-based writer.

Food court trends

Today's food courts incorporate more amenities into the traditional design scheme. Some nationwide trends in new projects and renovations includes:

  • Fireplaces
  • Putting greens
  • Miniature golf
  • Live entertainment
  • Art exhibitions
  • Kiosks
  • Vending machines
  • Health clubs
  • Cinemas
  • Interactive games
  • Larger rest room areas that include nursing centers, lounge areas, baby changing areas in both men's and women's areas
  • Playgrounds
  • Fountains and waterfalls, including interactive water features
  • Less tenants
  • Increased seating
  • Skylights
  • Outdoor dining areas
  • Entrance to parking areas
  • Increased tenant exposure through design
  • Increased brand recognition
  • Improved service areas for maintenance purposes
  • Improved traffic flow
  • Improved food court layouts for increased mall exposure and convenience

Online equipment & amenities resource