Designers of today’s food courts and other common areas at regional malls draw inspiration from other spheres such as spas, hotels and lively cityscapes—and notably not the food courts of yesteryear. That’s because owners, developers and architects see former food-court norms as textbook examples of design turnoffs for modern consumers. What passed muster in old-school food courts—uniform lighting, sterile surfaces, standardized tables and chairs—provokes disdain from designers today.

“The food court is dead, in my mind,” says Marios Savopoulos, a principal at Perkowitz + Ruth Architects in Long Beach, Calif. “There’s no such thing as a food court—it’s a ‘people space’ that just so happens to serve food and other things.”

Until recent years, most food courts looked like they might have taken style pointers from their counterparts at schools, prisons or military barracks. As one architect puts it, they were designed for the “janitocracy”—easy to clean and maintain, but arranged without regard for the customer’s experience. And that was just fine, as owners wanted customers only to eat and then be on their way.

As a result, food courts now have “a stigma of cheap furniture and tile and the same old tenants,” Savopolous says. “And that’s not what people want.”

What’s changing now is not the tenant base. You’ll find the same standbys in many retail properties today as before. What is different is that owners aiming to emphasize dining are adding higher-end, destination restaurants to complement traditional fast food and food court offerings. It’s a market worth pursuing despite the weak economy—Americans continue to patronize restaurants an average of 5.8 times per week, according to the National Restaurant Association, and spend 48 percent of their food budget away from home. The frequency today, even amid the economic carnage, is actually higher than it was in 2006, when it was 5.0 times per week.

Few shoppers go to a mall just to eat. Overall, just 7 percent of shoppers in an ICSC study said they went to the mall specifically for food. It is more often just one component of their visit.

Consumers today tend to visit restaurants with lower price points and pay more attention to deals and specials than they did before the recession. But they still like the occasional meal at a nice cafe. In all, it makes sense to have a diversified strategy.

Overall, food service tenants generate a healthy bang for the buck—$512 per square foot according to ICSC’s December U.S. Mall Report. That’s down from $541 per square foot in 2007 and $535 per square foot in 2008, but greater than the average for all mall tenants of $373 per square foot. In fact, food service is the second most lucrative segment of non-anchor tenants, according to ICSC’s numbers. By category type it works out to $777 per square foot for food court tenants, $497 per square foot for other fast-food vendors and $446 per square foot for restaurants.

So shoppers shouldn’t be surprised to find both speedier food-court meals and fine-dining experiences with permanent china and white tablecloths under the same roof. And it makes sense to make those areas as comfortable and pleasant as possible for consumers.

Whatever is being sold, a food court or common area “should feel like a public space,” says Richard Foy, a founding partner of architectural firm Communications Arts Inc. in Boulder, Colo. “It shouldn’t feel like it’s owned by the mall owners.”

Designers cite several factors behind these trends. Mall owners want shoppers to stay at the mall longer and spend more. According to data from ICSC, shoppers that visit a mall for less than 30 minutes spent an average of $54.20, or 44 percent less than the overall average mall spend of $98.40. Shoppers whose mall visits lasted 180 minutes or longer spent $205.20 per visit or 52 percent more than the average.

In addition, owners also want to broaden their centers’ appeal beyond the usual demographics. Some malls boast several different food zones, each designed to appeal to a different demographic. Gaming areas, “entertainment zones” connected to movie theaters and the like are all part of their efforts to make the mall environment more hip and vibrant.

Getting intimate

“As in most of retail, the movement has been to create a much more personalized experience,” says Kevin Zak, a partner at Dorsky Hodgson Parrish Yue in Cleveland. This is reflected not just in the more intimate spaces designers have carved out in newer food courts but also in how the food is served. Alex Espinosa, also of Dorsky Hodgson, cites the example of sushi bars that allow diners to customize their orders and watch as chefs prepare them.

What shoppers want—or at least what owners are betting they want—are food courts and common areas that feel cozier and more welcoming, where they wouldn’t mind lingering with a cup of coffee. Walls, furniture and strategically chosen lighting work together to divide larger spaces into smaller zones.

Hard and shiny synthetic surfaces are out; designers instead favor softer or more natural textures such as stone and wood. These materials feel homier and also enable conversation. It’s easier to hear another person’s voice when the surrounding space isn’t echoing with the din of dozens of other conversations.

Designers cite lighting as a significant factor in creating an intimate feeling in a large space. Undifferentiated lighting from skylights or fluorescent fixtures was once the norm, but no longer. When revamping the food courts at Fashion Place Mall in Salt Lake City and Montclair Plaza in Montclair, Calif., Mulvanny G2 used pendant fixtures to give the space a “bistro feel,” says Justin Hill, senior principal.

For maximum contrast, the firm wanted light levels even lower than what owners eventually approved. But “I don’t know that that’s achievable in a shopping center,” Hill says.

In today’s economy, one challenge with lighting is to make spaces more hospitable on a smaller budget, says Helen Diemer, president of Philadelphia’s The Lighting Practice. The lighting design firm consults architects, owners and developers. Over the past year, Diemer says, owners have ... (Continued on next page)

halved lighting budgets from where they were in better times. “You have to get pretty creative to make that work,” she says.

Owners can get the most for their dollars by designing spaces efficiently, Diemer says. Retrofitting a space with lower-wattage lamps often makes the area look worse, though the use of metal-halide lights rather than fluorescents can help. The metal halides deliver a “sparkle” that comes closer to the quality of incandescent bulbs, she says.

While designers and owners are showing interest in LEDs, they’re “not ready for prime time yet,” Diemer says, because they are costly and put out relatively little light for the wattage input.

In some cases, food-court overhauls have expanded to include restroom revamps. Research conducted by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc. found that shoppers perceived mall restrooms to be unclean and unsafe, according to Hill of Mulvanny G2. As a result, the REIT instituted a corporate goal to upgrade restroom facilities throughout its portfolio.

For example, General Growth gave the restrooms at Fashion Place and Montclair Plaza new looks at the same time as it conducted food court retrofits. The resulting spa-like accommodations struck Hill as “almost over the top—there are aspects of it where you just kind of go, ‘Really?’” he says. But he points out that he doesn’t fall into the demographic the firm is aiming to please with the redesigns—its sights are on women and children.

Food beyond the food court

Food courts aren’t just getting new looks. At some properties, the entire model of the single food court has been reconsidered. Reaching a wider range of demographic groups can involve adding multiple common areas to malls, each one catering to a different clientele.

The Grove in Los Angeles and the Americana in Glendale, Calif., feature “entertainment plazas” situated around movie theaters, says Savopoulos of Perkowitz + Ruth. Other tenants are also exploring such possibilities. These areas might include higher-end bars and restaurants that cater to younger patrons. Because they feed on theater traffic, these venues may stay open as late as midnight, and provide the properties with a nightlife.

Enclosed centers are also taking cues from the growing popularity of lifestyle centers and mixed-use developments, says Savopoulos. Some developers are blending indoor and outdoor areas, and Savopoulos believes that over time, more enclosed malls will move toward the feel of urban streetscapes. That could entail spacing eateries throughout malls to mimic the serendipitous experience of shopping and dining in a city.

“The line between food courts and regular restaurants is blurring,” says Andy Frankl, president of New York-based Ibex Construction Co.

It’s true that spacing restaurants throughout malls can encourage foot traffic by spurring shoppers to roam throughout the property, says Zak of Dorsky Hodgson. Yet some pressures remain to uphold the traditional food-court arrangement, he says. Because food vendors need fresh foods, they more often receive deliveries, which creates logistical difficulties if they are located alongside other types of retailers.

Proprietors of eateries may also want to stay next to each other for competitive reasons, Zak says. “You don’t want to be missed—you’re going to get some pushback from restaurateurs” if they’re spaced apart, he says.

Several architects have considered establishing food courts inside vacant anchors. One example is Bridgeport Village, a lifestyle center in Portland, Ore. After Wild Oats left a storefront there, the owners transformed the space into a food court featuring local, higher-end vendors selling coffee, ice cream, other desserts and specialty foods, says Savopoulos, who worked on the project. Depending on the tenants, Savopoulos sees this as an option at other centers.

Dorsky Hodgson has considered such an approach for vacant anchors at Simon Property Group centers, some of which are in smaller markets and lack food courts. Center-positioned anchors may be more suitable, Zak says: “You can draw people from one end of the mall to another.”

Redefining common space

Common spaces beyond food courts are becoming similarly diversified, with owners looking for innovative ways to make best use of the spaces. They often seek to keep these spaces adaptable to a variety of uses. “In virtually everything we’re doing, we’re trying to make every project as timeless as we can,” says Kevin Nice, a principal at Arrowstreet in Somerville, Mass. Flexible spaces keep malls fresh and give shoppers reasons to return, he says.

Newer uses of common spaces include placement of television screens for advertising of products, as at Millennium Mall in Orlando, Fla. Arrowstreet has pitched the concept of a video-gaming area, with the games played on large screens to allow for spectators. Such an area was considered for Patriot Place at Gillette Stadium near Boston, but the logistics proved too complicated for an outdoor center, Nice says.

Designing common spaces has become more challenging in recent years, says Mulvanny’s Hill, because of the influx of kiosks and Retail Merchandise Units into shopping malls. “You can’t design around them, because in and of themselves, they have somewhat of a cluttered feel,” he says, and RMUs don’t also follow spacing rules as requested. Their proliferation often crowds out seating areas that Mulvanny specifies for floor plans.

To accommodate RMUs, “you have to really simplify the rest of your design,” Hill says, “because you know there’s going to be all this other visual stimulus.”

Ideally, designers would reach a point at which the RMUs are planned for and could be circumvented. In one instance, Mulvanny considered moving RMUs into a vacant anchor space to serve as a kind of bazaar. However, RMUs succeed by virtue of their place amid foot traffic and if isolated may generate less revenue.

Will these overhauls to food courts and common spaces prove to be sound investments for owners? The makeovers do carry a price tag but aren’t necessarily more expensive than installing the food courts of previous years, says Kevin Zak of Dorsky Hodgson. The large skylights of old courts were costly, but that money is now being used instead on materials and amenities that are physically closer to the customer, such as tables, flooring and landscaping. Owners may also shift costs to tenants if the retailers have specific designs in mind for their spaces.

“We don’t know yet whether this trend is paying off,” Zak says, but he believes that the changes will indeed sway shoppers to make more frequent trips to malls—and to stay longer each time.