Special Report | June 2012 | By Carolyn Surh

The Next Wave of Food Courts?

Chinese food-court innovation could signal coming change in the U.S.

Food courts in China offer more variety in food and experience than in the U.S.
A Chinese location of Singapore-based Food Republic.
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Food courts in China today offer a range of experiences, from the simple stands one might see in the U.S. to high-end, luxurious food spots. Experts say China is not simply one contiguous market where food-court restaurants can be plugged in uniformly across the board, but a collection of different markets with varying levels of commercial development and, therefore, tastes.

The variety and move toward more upscale food courts, many believe, could give U.S. restaurants a glimpse of things to come state-side. After all, these restaurants, which come in both quick- and full-service formats, are often the primary draw for Chinese shopping malls. Meanwhile, in the U.S., just 7 percent of U.S. shoppers specifically seek out the food court at a mall, says David Foster, a food consultant with Foster and Associates, citing a study by the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC).

Retailers desperate to regain their footing after the recession, therefore, would be wise to take note of Chinese food courts. But these watering (and feeding) holes are a far different beast than typical U.S. food courts.

Chinese food courts range in size, but are typically 15–20 percent larger than those in other major Asian markets, including Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. Shanghai’s newly opened food court Réel Kitchen houses 11 full-service restaurants, along with 24 quick-service eateries and 11 snack stalls, and boasts more than 66,700 square feet of dining space that seats 1,000. One location of Food Republic, a Singapore-based company and largest food-court operator in China, can attract 3,000–4,000 diners per day.

In the U.S., just 7 percent of U.S. shoppers specifically seek out the food court at a mall.

American shopping-mall food courts are generally around 15,000 square feet and have about 15 eateries, Foster says.

“It has been my experience that a strong [Chinese] mall food court can serve as many as 20,000 guests per week or more,” Foster says. “This, too, can vary widely, dependent upon the quality of the mall and the location of the food court within the mall.”

How do Chinese food courts pull it off? The answer may be in the huge culinary variety offered at the many shops within each court.

Korean, Japanese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Vietnamese, and, of course, Chinese restaurants dot food courts across China. Along with the ubiquitous spicy, stir-fried dishes that many Americans associate with China, passersby might also find a restaurant that serves hot pot, a popular soup-based meal similar to fondue in which eaters cook meats, vegetables, and noodles in a large pot of boiling soup, then dip into sauces that can be customized from a variety of ingredients, including soy sauce, sesame paste, chilies, garlic, and scallion.

Another popular food-court offering in China is dumplings, which come in several varieties: pan-fried like potstickers, for example, or boiled like wontons. They can be shaped into small rounds or larger half-moons, and filled with meat, a combination of meat and hot soup, chopped green vegetables, or seafood.

There are also plenty of curry houses in Chinese food courts, as well as quirky concepts like Toast Box, a chain restaurant dedicated to thickly sliced toast spread with butter or peanut butter.

Not all Chinese food-court restaurants are in the business of serving full meals. Snacks, sweet drinks, baked goods like breads and pastries, chocolates, and dessert items are also popular offerings. Specialty drinks are particularly in demand, with long lines of customers waiting for sweet tea, juice, or milk-based drinks that can be customized by adding fruits, chewy tapioca “pearls,” chocolate, coffee, or even small beans commonly found in Asian desserts.

In China, Asia-based food-court operators have especially seen success. Food Republic, for example, has been operating in China for 15 years, says divisional CEO Jenson Ong, and other successful food-court operators hail from nearby Hong Kong and Japan. Offering a wider variety of foods, Ong says, and larger portions than those in other Asian markets gives Chinese food-court locations a unique attraction.

But serving small, hand-held snacks that allow eaters to nibble from one stall to another has been a recent trend, echoing the street-food experience commonly found across Asia in open-air marketplaces. Typically, street food refers to snack-like items such as chicken wings, fish, or meatballs on skewers; fried tofu; or smaller portions of one-dish meals, such as noodle soups served from small kiosks.

Food Republic strove to capture and elevate this trend by “providing street food in comfortable and hygienic environments,” Ong says. “We gear toward better dining experiences while bringing local delicacies under one roof.”

Réel Kitchen, meanwhile, features snack food and drink kiosks organized into rows and separated from the main dining area, giving it a marketplace feel.

China’s tier-one cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, offer the widest range of cuisines. One in four foreigners in China lives in Shanghai, according to the Shanghai Statistics Bureau, meaning Western-style eateries are more prevalent in food courts.

However, even within a city, locations across the municipality must be customized to the hyper-local customer climate. Within the central business districts, as the downtown, business-oriented areas are known, Western restaurants can enjoy relative success because of the high percentage of international customers. However, in the upcoming ICC complex, a ritzy mixed-use development still under construction, the food offerings will likely cater primarily to local tastes, despite its location in a foreigner-heavy area of central Shanghai.

High-end, luxurious food courts are also showing up in those tier-one cities, where salaries tend to be higher. Increasingly, these food-court openings are in locations linked to office high-rises, which provide a stable of potential customers at lunch and dinner.

In such locations, however, food courts have to compete with office canteens, which offer lower-priced meals often subsidized or paid for entirely by employers. While the canteen meals tend to be lower quality, the savings they offer are significant. This is especially important in China, where the average household savings rate is 31 percent, according to Credit Suisse.

Réel Kitchen houses 11 full-service restaurants, along with 24 quick-service eateries and 11 snack stalls, and boasts more than 66,700 square feet of dining space.

In fact, younger, white-collar workers are one of the primary demographics at Chinese food courts. These workers earn a higher-than-average salary, which can accommodate higher prices. Average spend per food court customer in China is RMB 20–25 (around $3–$4), which can be expensive considering annual per capita income is approximately $4,428 per year, according to the World Bank. Average spend in U.S. food courts, comparatively, is around $5–$6, but American per capita income is more than 10 times that of China at $47,153.

In China, payment is commonly tendered through a card system, in which customers load value onto a card via cash or bankcard that can be used at the various restaurants within the food court. This system limits “transgressions,” Ong says, as payment-card kiosk locations are limited and therefore narrow the number of people exposed to cash exchanges. Leftover funds on a payment card can easily be turned in at the same kiosks for cash.

While young office workers are a mainstay at food courts, young families are also increasingly making visits, Ong says. The one-child policy in China means more disposable income for China’s growing middle class, whose spending potential has attracted the attention of international companies across the globe.

Those families visiting food courts don’t just have culinary variety to choose from, they also have a variety of experiences and formats. Within multi-use developments, food courts are increasingly part of a wider mix of food offerings housed in a single complex, such as full-service restaurants and grocery stores generally found in shopping-mall basements. Shanghai IFC, a high-end mixed-use development, boasts upscale full-service restaurants, such as Morton’s The Steakhouse and a Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant on its upper floors; casual-dining restaurants on mid-level floors; and a food court and grocery store in the basement.

Size and scale make food courts in China distinctive. After all, a medium-sized city in China such as Qingdao is still home to more than 8.5 million people, and larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing have populations of more than 19 million.

And, after proving themselves in cities that big, food-court concepts become confident they can survive in other markets, including the U.S. Successful chain operators with locations in China are starting to approach the U.S. market. Ajisen Ramen, a popular Japanese ramen noodle chain with 600 worldwide locations and a mainstay in China shopping malls, has already opened six locations in the U.S.

Asian dessert-like drinks such as tapioca pearl milk tea, or “bubble” milk tea, as it’s commonly called, arrived in the U.S. well over a decade ago, although its penetration has been limited to areas with significant Asian populations.