Competition | May 2016 | By Bruce Horovitz

The Retail Revolution

Food courts are being changed into more upscale food halls across the country.
Chef Mike Isabella takes the food court to new heights.
The new food court in McLean, Virginia’s Tysons Galleria will feature upscale concepts from chef Mike Isabella. Isabella eatery

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A funny thing happened to the nation’s food courts: They became cultural yawners. The food choices got stale. The furniture remained plastic. And the atmosphere stayed static.

But in a nation increasingly driven by foodies, that’s starting to change. Some ho-hum food courts, many of them decades old, are being replaced by state-of-the-art food halls. Retail gurus who run the nation’s shopping malls, airport commissaries, and university eating facilities where food courts have thrived for years have little choice but to make the change as younger generations demand more upscale dining experiences.

“The real impetus for food halls has been the death of shopping malls in America,” says Donna Quadri-Felitti, professor and director of the school of hospitality management at Penn State University. “The revolutionary change in retail is what’s changing food courts into food halls.”

The so-called “experience economy” is here to stay, particularly at the mall food hall. With anchor department stores no longer major draws at the nation’s shopping centers, it’s up to food innovators to lure in shoppers. These changes are in motion from the East Coast to the West. In the Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Virginia, the mall food court at Tysons Galleria is about to be turned into an upscale food hall run by a major restaurateur. And in Santa Monica, California, where a once-vibrant food court devolved into a shell of itself at the famed Third Street Promenade, a new food hall will attempt to bring back the crowds.

“Shopping malls used to host concerts or auto shows to get shoppers to come in,” Quadri-Felitti says. “Now they’re opening food halls.”

Few are more ambitious than the Isabella Eatery food hall that D.C. chef and restaurateur Mike Isabella plans to open in summer 2017 at Tysons Galleria. The 41,000-square-foot dining complex will feature 10 high-end food concepts that share a 10,000-square-foot kitchen.

“When you speak with mall developers now, the first thing they want are good restaurants,” says the 41-year-old Isabella, who already owns and operates 11 other restaurants in the D.C. metropolitan area. When his food emporium at Tysons Galleria opens, it will seat up to 600 consumers, including a number of lounge-style seats.

Among the 10 restaurants, Pepita will serve Mexican dishes with a full-service bar; Requin Raw Bar will serve everything from oysters to caviar, along with a selection of champagnes and white wines; and Arroz, a Spanish concept, will showcase tapas, paella, and cured meats. That’s all a far cry from the likes of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Chick-fil-A, which are more commonly found in mall food courts.

The lowest check average at Isabella Eatery will be about $10—higher than at most food courts—while the upper end could stretch to $120 for folks dining at the more upscale of the restaurants, Isabella estimates.

Just as unusual as the food hall’s eclectic restaurant mixture will be the design. For one, each of the 10 concepts will have its own look. The coffee bar, for example, will feature a “green” plant-scaped wall with trees adjacent to the bar. The cocktail bar, meanwhile, will be suspended over the mall and be seen from all levels. And most of the dining space will be adorned with artwork from local artists.

“This hasn’t been done before at the level we’re doing it,” Isabella says. “Everything will be served restaurant quality, but at a faster pace and higher quantity. ... We’re trying to make it so you can come with your family and each one of you can order a totally different, quality meal—and get it quickly.”

Across the country, at Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, developer Scott Schonfeld, principal at Linwood Ventures, has a very different vision of what he wants in the new planned food hall, The Gallery: good food, but at a good price.

“What we’re not trying to do is to create a super upscale food hall with only chef-driven concepts at a very high price point,” Schonfeld says. “With so many tourists here, that wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Instead, he says, the food hall will “give people a reason to stay and shop,” with check averages at a more wallet-friendly $7–$15.

The Third Street Promenade is well known for its street entertainment. But in recent years, some key tenants have moved out, and the area’s young movie-going crowd had been lured to newer, hipper offerings. The Promenade’s original food court was built in 1992 “to be more like a bus station food court,” Schonfeld says. His company has renovated all 13,000 square feet, adding plenty of natural lighting and an irrigated “green wall” thick with plants.

The Gallery is now looking for new tenants. The only tenant that will stay is Subway, but the rest of the tenants, Schonfeld says, will be a mix of everything from some less familiar food truck operators to better-for-you national brands. The idea, Schonfeld says, is to help the area once again become a gathering spot “where you can run in and grab a sushi or stay and shop for hours. These are people who ... want to eat at unique, healthier concepts.”

 

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