Dull, dreary, and uninspired shopping-center food courts are a thing of the past, as design-infused spaces are starting to replace them—and whetting the appetites of quick-service tenants in the process.

One of the latest food-court creations is at Westfield San Francisco Centre, a mall where shoppers can dine in the recently opened Food Emporium, a well-lit, contemporary, clean space decorated with warm finishes.

“This is unlike the food courts that you went to before, where you would just go and grab a bite,” says Ahmad Mohazab, principal of TECTA Associates, a San Francisco architecture and design firm that helped create the Food Emporium. “There is a great deal of magic in putting together the seating arrangements, the look, and the lighting to make it feel comfortable and welcoming.”

Flat-screen televisions, fireplaces, and fountains are finding their way into food courts in response to a shift in how diners and shoppers spend their money and what they expect in quality and atmosphere.

“I think there has been a bit of brand fatigue out there,” says Kevin Horn, vice president of the Environments Studio at RTKL, an international architectural, design, and consulting firm. “There is a shift back to more authentic experiences. People are craving that, especially with the recent market crashes.”

Some brands have found that the new trends in food courts provide them an opportunity to recast their concepts a bit.

“You look at a tenant like Sorabol … the Sorabol at the San Francisco Centre is a greatly upgraded experience,” Mohazab says. “It looks much nicer and the food is displayed much nicer. This is really true across the board for every one of the tenants.”

From refrigerated displays that show off salads and sandwiches to the use of woks and celebrity chef appearances, quick serves and design teams are working together to revolutionize the food-court unit and kitchen.

“Instead of having the traditional layout with a wall of tenants, we will try to deconstruct that a little bit and pull some of those tenants out to create floating islands where there is more focus in the center to the actual product of the food and the activity in preparing the food,” Horn says.

These upgraded food courts are luring quick-serve tenants, creating an atmosphere where diners are likely to spend more time and, as a result, more money.

Even the quick serve Shrimp Market decided to bring its pricier crustacean into a food-court environment. The concept opened its first food-court location in the Aventura Mall in Aventura, Florida, in 2008.

“We saw higher-end brands going into food courts, and we felt shrimp was a protein that has always been loved,” says Vanessa Abramowitz, president of Shrimp Market. “People have always loved shrimp, but it’s been an expensive item, where now it is not necessarily.”

By Brendan O’Brien

Design, Menu Innovations, News