Like many big box retailers competing in an increasingly online world, Macy’s has faced store closures in recent months. But now the retail giant is turning to a different angle to lure customers back into the racks. Working with its longtime design team at Shea, the company has been revamping their Taste Bar Cafés into food destinations for regular foot traffic as well online shoppers coming in to pick up purchases.

Currently, 20 Macy’s locations have Taste Bars, and 80 others offer restaurants and coffee through partnerships, including The Cheesecake Factory, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, and in New York City, the Patina Restaurant Group for high-end restaurants Stella 34, Rowland’s Bar and Grill, and Chef Street. Their Signature Kitchen brand is more of a deli model.

Warren Wolfe, GVP Macys Food Services, says the Taste Bars are less than 2,000 square feet “because it gives that rest and refresh option to our customer,” and it is serving as a growth vehicle for the chain. He says that Macy’s is hoping to double its overall number of foodservice locations from 100 to 200 over the next three to four years.

Tanya Spaulding, principal at Shea Design, has worked with Macy’s for 17 years. “Macy’s is always trying to generate new and innovative ideas of how to add amenities into the shopping experience and even become a destination,” Spaulding says. Seven years ago, she and her team brainstormed with Wolfe, “to come up with creative solutions to present something in the store that would really add to the experience. We worked very closely with Warren to brainstorm strategy that wasn’t just grab and go food. It was a combination of things.”

They wanted to integrate signature recipes like Mrs. Hering’s Famous Chicken Potpie and Marshall Field’s Popovers into a fast casual setting and also include both strong coffee and grab-and-go components. Ultimately, “the program was hot prepared food, freshly prepared grab and go, and then a full snack and drink component that goes along with both of those,” Spaulding says. “We also made it a showplace to sell gourmet food products, both Macy’s and other brands—anything from Stonewall Kitchen to gourmet mustard, jellies, and crackers. They’ve got a big gourmet selection in their store. We concentrated that into the Taste Bar location, and then we also featured Macy’s own brand line, which we did the packaging for. They wanted to showcase those as well.”

The final component in the plan was Macy’s Candy Kitchen. “We created a new brand and new packaging for Macy’s candy,” Spaulding says. “Historically they’ve made all of this in a lot of their stores in Chicago and in Minneapolis, so they’ve got a great candy program. We did a rebranding and repackage program for Macy’s Candy Kitchen a couple of years ago, and the last component of Taste Bar was really showcasing that candy. All of a sudden you’ve got candy store meets gourmet food store meets fast casual restaurant meets grab and go. Now you’ve got a compelling destination. You’ve got a heart and a center for Taste Bar.”

As Wolfe explains, Macy’s has offered quick serve since the 1980s under various names, including Marketplace and Signature Kitchen. “When Target Corporation sold Marshall Field’s to May Co. we retained our traditional names, but when we were bought several years later by Macy’s they gave us the opportunity to rebrand and upgrade our operations under fewer nameplates. Taste Bar Café came out of that transition,” Wolfe says. “We still have restaurants under the Lakeshore Grill name. We’ve got a lot of Starbucks. We’ve got a pretty diverse portfolio of leased and owned operations. Because it’s our brand, Taste Bar is our own idea and staffed by our own people.”

Wolfe has been working with Shea for over a decade on a variety of projects, and he says that Taste Bar goes back about seven years. “We tried to rebrand and refocus the actual footprint to what the customer was looking for, so we added a hot food case and added the gourmet component right into the shop,” he says. “We went to digital menu boards. All of the things you see now have been evolving in each iteration.”

Shea excels in designing modern twists on classic Americana, and they modernized the classic Macy’s look for the Taste Bar section. Spaulding says that while her company does not normally use brand colors in the spaces they design, they made an exception for Macy’s considering that red is such an iconic American and Macy’s color.

“[For] branding this Taste Bar that was a strong foundation point, the high contrast white and red,” Spaulding says. “First of all, you can see the signage from across the store. With all the clutter in a department store, you’d better make sure that you can be seen but not in an obnoxious way. The contrast of the white and red when you put it in an environment with a lot of merchandise cuts through the clutter and you can spot it. That’s also the reason for a simple font logo that’s very high legibility, so no matter where you are in store it becomes a beacon.”

Spaulding reports great feedback from guests, explaining that they love the product mix. She notes that what guests love most is the different seating in every Taste Bar, for which Shea avoided emulating a fast food establishment. “It’s not all tables and chairs,” she says. “There is some high top and a little bit of lounge seating in some of them. We designed it more like a restaurant/coffee shop seating that you’d find in your neighborhood rather than just the typical fast casual where all the tables and chairs are the same. Even the seating has a lot of character, so it’s a great place for people to stop and sit. Old-school department stores always have these great cafés in their space, and this becomes the next generation of that because people today are less inclined to have the full sit-down dining experience in-store. They want something that they control the timing of and this gives them that.”

Wolfe believes that “Taste Bar Cafés are meeting the suburban customer in the right space at the right time,” and their goals is to give them a classy “grab-and-go experience that keeps them shopping in the store. We worked with Shea on ways to present our assortment to the customer so that they have choices and can do it quickly.”

Key factors were time and menu flexibility. Macy’s business model is specialized and different than a regular restaurant due to changing customer traffic flow, particularly during certain hours of the day as well as sales days and events that greatly increase foot traffic. As Wolfe notes, having food items available throughout the day is key for the Taste Bar.

“My No. 1 end game is to enhance the shopping experience,” Wolfe says. “For example, as the business move more toward buying online and picking up in stores, we want to be in as many stores as possible so when you come in and pick it up we’re there with that complimentary cup of coffee and with that coupon offer that bounces you back over into another department.”

On the way to the Taste Bar, customers will walk through different sections, and the goal of the food delivery side is to keep people in the store. “We know from the data that we’ve gathered that if people stop and rest and refresh with their kids, or just on their own, that they’ll spend another half hour in the store,” Wolfe says. “That’s good for brick-and-mortar.”

Consumer Trends, Customer Experience, Emerging Concepts, Fast Food, Restaurant Operations, Web Exclusives