The dine-and-dash philosophy of mall-goers has ended, at least for most of us. Today's shoppers relish the sights and sounds of food courts just as much as they enjoy browsing through bookstores and sifting through sweaters on a shelf.
Revamped toward entertainment and renovated for ease and comfort, food courts are experiencing a resurgence. Whether it's providing rest for weary feet, satisfying a sweet tooth or ensuring that shoppers maximize their spending, food courts are becoming more than just eating places.
"Five or six years ago, (food court) options were hot dogs on a stick, a local taco outlet and some sort of an Asian concept," recalls Stan Synkoski, vice president of development and operations for Host Marriott Services USA Inc. in Bethesda, Md.
Not anymore. With the help of either leasing companies or food service professionals like Marriott, shopping centers are using their food courts to create recreational diversions that also meet shoppers' dining needs.
"We want to make dining in a food court an event," explains Bea Odom, director of tenant services for Dallas-based Trammell Crow Co. The company manages and owns some 13 malls across the Southeast while housing an internal construction department. "We don't want somebody saying, 'I need a dress,' then visiting one store, getting the item and leaving. We want to hang onto shoppers as long as possible, which means they'll probably get hungry at some point during their visit. They need a place to relax, to be entertained and have their dining needs met."
Relying on management services More than 100 of the nation's malls rely on Host Marriott Services' Master Lease Program to cater to their shoppers' culinary needs. Staffed and managed by Host Marriott employees, these food courts are not the product of a hit-and-miss design approach, but rather a strategic and successful combination of concepts, market research and comparative analysis.
"We look at other projects to find out what's successful and what's not," Synkoski explains. "We create new and exciting designs to attract people into venues, and then we pull together a portfolio of local and national brands to develop a mixture of what works best demographically."
Drawing on more than 100 national, regional and local restaurant concepts, Marriott puts together winning combinations that complement one another while bringing excitement and theatrics to food court dining areas.
Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Forest City Ratner Cos., a unit of Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises Inc., recently signed a 10-year lease agreement for Marriott to operate 35,000 sq. ft. of food and beverage concessions at its 42nd Street hotel, entertainment and retail development in New York City.
Located at the core of the Big Apple between 7th and 8th avenues on the south side of West 42nd Street, the $290 million, 355,000 sq. ft. entertainment and retail complex joins some prolific neighbors like Disney and the Apollo Theater. The retail complex will house stores and restaurants built on 13 different levels, and will feature spectacular, large-scale illuminated signs utilizing the latest animation technology and icons to indicate the location of each retail outlet within the development.
Given the project's high-profile tenants - Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and a 25-screen megaplex for AMC Entertainment Inc. - it only seemed fitting that the dining facilities also assume a multi-faceted entertainment approach.
"This will be much more than a food court," Synkoski says. "Visitors will enter through big, open foyers on the first level with escalators leading to multiple levels of dining. Shoppers will have an unlimited amount of choices, covering everything from quick-service eateries to kiosks and cafe-style restaurants."
Because of the limited amount of available real estate in New York, development often occurs vertically instead of horizontally, lending itself to Marriott's multi-level dining concept. Themed as a New York street with taxi cabs and parking meters, dining areas inside the 42nd Street complex will house such franchises as The Cheesecake Factory, Chili's, Ruby's Dinette, Jody Maroni's/Sausage Kingdom, A Cool Planet, Ranch #1 and Yeung's Lotus Express, in addition to a 5,000 sq. ft. restaurant.
"What's important is the combination of brands, including a regional favorite like California Pizza Kitchen and a local draw like Rubio's Fish Tacos," Synkoski says. "You create a unique mix of different fashions and levels of service, couple it with a good design, and you have a fun place to eat. People are looking for an entire experience, a place where they can shop, dine and be entertained."
Entertainment for the entire family Entertainment in food courts is revolutionizing the manner in which entire communities regard their local malls. For example, Salt Lake City-based JP Realty is offering shoppers in its centers everything from mini amusement parks for children to pre-game tailgate parties for sports enthusiasts.
"Food courts have become a vital part of the mall's overall development," says Rex Frazier, president of JP Realty, a 41-year-old company. "In giving the shoppers an opportunity to sit down, relax, eat and regain their energy to shop some more, you have to have entertainment as an element."
At Provo Towne Center, which opened last October in Salt Lake City, large-screen televisions show Brigham Young University's activities on game day. Broadcasting the head coach's weekly talk show at the food court is an additional draw for shoppers.
"The food court has become a gathering place within the community," Frazier explains. With three anchors, approximately 90 small tenants and a 16-screen, stadium-seating movie theater, the 750,000 sq. ft. facility was designed with the intention of becoming the community's sole retail focal point.
"In many cases, the mall is the only large retail facility in the marketplace, so it really becomes the town center or hub of retailing," Frazier says.
During BYU's college football season, Provo Towne Center offers tailgate parties for home games. "Shoppers come to the mall's parking lot with their own food or they pick it up in the food court," Frazier says. "Then, when the game starts, shoppers can come inside and watch the game on TV if they don't have tickets or prefer not to fight the crowds."
For the more adventurous, the company provides a transit bus for ticket holders and safely delivers fans to the game two miles away.
JP Realty's recent renovation and expansion of the 10-year-old Boise Towne Center in Boise, Idaho, not only resulted in the addition of a new anchor and 60,000 sq. ft. of new shop tenants, but also provided a much-needed facelift to the food court. "We provided additional seating to accommodate increased traffic (from the expansion) and installed large-screen TVs to give shoppers an opportunity to watch the athletic events of hometown favorite, Boise State University," Frazier explains.
Inviting area high school students to the mall for dances and other types of activities is part of Frazier's philosophy of creating a community mindset to utilize the mall and its food court for functions other than just shopping.
Appealing to the entertainment needs of children also has proven successful for JP Realty. "We're not building game rooms, per se, but rather activities you might see at an amusement park directed at 2-to 7-year-olds," Frazier says. "Kids tell parents, 'I want to ride the duck or elephant.' So we're providing entertainment for the child, which brings the parent into the mall for a longer period of time."
Make new food courts and revive the old Trammell Crow has made it a priority to revisit some of its existing malls and evaluate the effectiveness and user-friendliness of its food court areas. Another priority is building new food courts in older malls that once ignored the dining needs of shoppers.
Eighteen months ago, the lease of a large restaurant expired in the 500,000 sq. ft. River Ridge mall in Lynchburg, Va. Instead of securing another tenant to operate the eatery, Trammell Crow officials opted to construct a food court.
"It gives shoppers a place to sit while providing other functions too," Odom says. "It is a place to grab a bite to eat without having someone wait on you. It also gives shoppers more of the mall experience."
At Valley View Mall in Roanoke, Va., the lack of a food court and a full-service restaurant provided Trammell Crow with an opportunity to reinvigorate the five-anchor center with a new and popular food cluster.
"Through leasing direction, we saw the food tenants beginning to gravitate toward one area that really wasn't leasable to any other tenants," Odom recalls. "We took the area, which had a carousel, brought in some new tables, chairs and greenery, and turned it into a mini food court."
Another improvement undertaken at dining areas in older malls is expansion and enhancement of vendors' space. Typically, ceilings and signage are low, and walls separating tenants extend to the lease line, making visibility and access difficult at best.
"We've learned that lease space for food court vendors needs to be open," Odom says. "We've elevated ceilings by 4 to 5 feet. We've made the menu boards very visible and we've opened up walls so there's a clear vision from one tenant to the next."
Having conveniences in close proximity to food courts is also helpful. "There's nothing worse than having a shopper with a couple of children stop at the food court for a bite to eat, and then discover that the restrooms, automatic teller machine or phones are located on the other end of the mall," Odom explains. "Even though restrooms are big-ticket items, it's important to have them in the food court area for moms and kids."
Seating is another important factor in the overall success of food courts. Trammell Crow uses a set formula to determine the seating needs of shoppers. "We always plan for the heavy season and we try to make sure there's always a flow (of traffic) going around the food court area," she says. "Most often, you want your food court in the center of the mall but you don't want to bury it, and you need a clear path to get into it and around it."
Marriott's goal is to create a seating atmosphere that's fun to be in, Synkoski adds. "We try to create multiple levels of seating whereby shoppers can walk up to various food vendors and feel like they're entering into different facilities."
Perhaps the biggest change in food courts today is not seating arrangements, vendor combinations or new dining themes, but rather the philosophy that food courts are an essential ingredient to a mall's longevity and a tenant's maximum profitability.
"Unlike some of the eatertainments (theme restaurants) where food becomes secondary, our No. 1 focus is the food and designing around it to make the mall a fun place to be," Synkoski says. "It results in a mall's greater long-term success because shoppers come back again and again. When you go to a mall for its food service and entertainment is secondary, you go once a month as opposed to once or twice a year."
Frazier agrees. "When the idea of providing food to shoppers was first conceived, the food court area was usually put in some out-of-the-way spot. There really wasn't a lot of thought or planning that went into a mall's food service needs. Now, food court areas have become, in many cases, the crowning point of the mall."
He points to the strategic location awarded Provo Towne Center's food court, which overlooks the mall's center court. Dominated by a sky-lit massive star, the eating area is illuminated in iridescent blue at night, capturing the attention of passing motorists. "It's fresh and bright in the day and aesthetically beautiful at night," he says. "It's just a fun place to be."
Once considered an additional source of income for landlords, food courts are becoming gathering places where people spend time watching others, resting and revitalizing themselves for the next round of shopping.
"A food court has become an amenity, entertainment and enhancement to the mall," Synkoski adds. "Without a doubt, they're the reason shoppers stay longer."