From Food Courts To Food Halls

March 9, 2016
By Anthony Deen

The retail mall environment needs to learn from the city. Food halls can help.

The traditional mall has lost its appeal. There are numerous reasons why, but one of the most poignant is the resurgence of the urban center and specifically the appeal of Main Street.

Main Street is attractive again, and with it are all the things that the density of the city provides to pull shoppers away from retail-focused venues like malls. Cities offer a density of chaos and accident and a commensurate density of ideas and creativity. This is a phenomenon that even a well-planned mall, limited by its necessary focus on retail and a preset menu of activities, cannot compete with. Or can it? What can malls learn from cities, and specific to driving traffic, what can they learn from the communal spaces of the city to enhance their attractiveness to consumers?

Within the traditional retail mall, one arena ripe for reinvention is the food court. Food courts were initially envisioned as a quick recharge while shopping rather than as destinations in and of themselves. For this reason, most mall food courts are populated by bland and undifferentiated quick service restaurants (QSRs), and seating that is more cattle car than fine dining.

With the simultaneous arrival of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s theory on “third space,” and more authentic-feeling offers such as Chipotle, Shake Shack and Dig Inn, the traditional QSR has been served notice. Add to this The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English in Manhattan’s landmark Plaza Hotel, which turned the entire food court model on its head by offering a wide variety of well-prepared, interesting and enticing foods in one location. Let’s face facts, consumers have learned that fast food can be good, healthy and interesting—and this is how more and more people want to eat.

Fortunately, some major landlords are already exploring elevated approaches to food: Announced earlier this month, Taubman Centers’ $500-million renovation of Beverly Center in Los Angeles reportedly will include a food hall with as many as 18 different concepts. Taubman even tapped celebrity chef Michael Mina to head the project.

Learning from farmers’ markets, food trucks, craft breweries and farm-to-table restaurants can be an effective way to create an engaging experience for a retail or mixed-use project. But simply dropping in a cart that looks like a food truck isn’t going to be enough. It is equally important—and often overlooked—to understand how these innovative trends develop, and then to create the kinds of spaces that engage and attract consumers.

This is precisely why the new crop of spacious food halls is worth a serious look. Packed with local vendors, bars and cafes, the likes of Berg’n in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood; UrbanSpace in Manhattan’s Midtown District, and Ponce City Market in Atlanta are destination locations driving unprecedented foot traffic. This kind of diverse food hall model may be a perfect fit for developers seeking to adapt and reuse older retail big box spaces, warehouses and even factories. The current food hall has much in common with the city’s traditional open-air market. It’s a modern take on an ancient urban model, one that offers the pride of local cuisine and the excitement of variety.

Successful mixed-use developments build on this model by leveraging the daytime community that works in their commercial space, while also offering something to the local community to also leverage nighttime, weekend and other off-hours pedestrian traffic. On the high-end, the Related Companies has perfected this model at Time Warner Center and soon in the upcoming Hudson Yards. On the adaptive reuse end of the spectrum, Jamestown Properties, after buying a majority stake in the Chelsea Market in Manhattan’s Gansevoort Meatpacking District, is applying these lessons to its new projects at Industry City in Brooklyn and Ponce City in Atlanta.

While retail malls don’t have a built-in commercial tenant population or a local community per se, they can still learn from the engaging, creative spaces in urban environments. The programming of a mall food court is, like that of any successful public space, dependent upon offering a mix and variety of relevant experiences. That could mean locally sourced and artisanal foods, as in Philadelphia’s Reading Market or Cleveland’s Westside Market, or incubating new food offers and being able to rotate food offers in and out on a regular basis, as Brooklyn’s Threes Brewery does each month.

Beyond moves to reimagine the food court, in scenarios where large anchors move out, the empty space represents a unique opportunity to experiment with new kinds of offers, including food halls, fresh markets and other food-centric activities that will draw consumers.

Competing for consumers’ increasingly scarce time and attention is a huge challenge, one that makes the physical shopping experience less and less of compelling. Faced with the pressure to retain these shoppers, it is incumbent upon mall operators and other retail landlords to explore new ways to make their properties more desirable and enticing. Cities represent a resilient model that continues to succeed. Studying urban spaces and using this knowledge to enliven retail environments is an effective way to improve foot traffic and customer retention.

Originally published on
Photo courtesy of Laura Peruchi