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    The New Food Court

  • With mall vacancies at a high, the food court is becoming more important.

    “The more uses people can get from coming to our malls, the more touches they have with the property, the better it is,” Morris says. “Our trade group said the average visit to a shopping center was 82 minutes. If we can extend that somehow, that’s great.”

    Another planned development is in Indianapolis’s Fashion Mall at Keystone. It’ll have a newly renovated food hall by the 2012 holidays, complete with an impressive mix of tenants.

    Morris says that while it’s too early in the game to say exactly who’s coming on board, the new food hall will be worth waiting for.

    “We’re looking to bring in unique local and national concepts to the food hall, some of which will be new to Indianapolis,” Morris says. “We’re looking to create a destination.”

    Some concepts aren’t waiting for the mall to do the legwork, choosing instead to become a destination on their own.

    Several high-end chefs have played off of their celebrity appeal to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

    Frontera Fresco, which is owned by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, provides a fast-casual spin on Mexican favorites. With hot Mexican sandwiches and tacos, homemade salsa, and Mexican craft beer, the restaurant has become a popular stop at the Macy’s in Chicago.

    Wolfgang Puck Express is even more widespread, with locations in airports and malls around the country. With smoked salmon pizza, Chinois chicken salad, and other modern California dishes, the restaurant appeals to people looking to get a fine-dining experience when they’re pressed for time.

    These concepts are gaining fans beyond the mall crowd—in fact, Travel and Leisure Magazine named both of them among the World’s Top Fast Food Restaurants.

    While more upscale brands draw their fair share of guests, Sonia says she hasn’t noticed a trend.

    “I haven’t noticed a big difference except for a little bit of a local feel,” Sonia says. “I think the same national brands are in those food courts.”

    There are several approaches the national brands take to stay relevant.

    Sarku Japan, an Asian chain focusing on teriyaki and sushi, has 200 locations predominately located in food courts. Its able to stand out in a crowd by offering food that is both healthy and exotic.

    But Cinnabon, another mall court favorite, is nearly the opposite, positioning itself as both indulgent and familiar. The trick lies in understanding what makes mall shoppers tick. Cinnabon has had great success by leveraging the sense of smell. In an enclosed environment, the smell of warm cinnamon can draw diners who might not have thought twice about stopping if they had simply seen a sign.

    Another popular mall technique? Free samples, a la Baskin-Robbins. David Kincheloe, the President of National Restaurant Consultants, says this is a time-tested mall strategy.

    “You walk through a food court and the Japanese place always has chicken teriyaki on a toothpick,” Kincheloe says. “You can do the same thing. Someone’s trying to make a decision, you stick a piece of food in their mouth they like, you help them make their decision.”

    Doc Popcorn is one chain that’s been able to tap into mall shopper psychology. The company uses enticing smells to draw diners in, a clear view of the popping process to get them interested, and free samples to get them hooked. By letting kids have samples and offering mom the option of sharing a bag, operators practically guarantee a sale.
    “We make sure mom gets exactly what she wants,” founder Rob Israel says. “We get the kids cups if she only wants to buy one bag. We didn’t just give away a little bit of popcorn—we saved mom’s day.”

    “The average visit to a shopping center is 82 minutes. If we can extend that somehow, that’s great.”

    Another strategic concern is presentation. Kincheloe says he’s been able to get clients a 3-5% check boost simply by subtly emphasizing freshness. The trick is to use props, like prominently displayed produce, strung-up sausages, or wheels of cheese. This display gives a “deli” feel to a food court location and has a way of catching the eye.

    “If you have some kind of a bread product, you could make yourself look fresh by having bread for props,” Kincheloe says. “If you’re offering chips, make sure you overstuff it. We did a test out and popped the check average just by giving them that fresh look.”

    Of course, as any realtor could tell you, location is key. Since Doc Popcorn is a snack instead of a meal, franchises try to find places away from the main food court. Israel has given significant thought to other elements of placement as well.

    “People want to be in natural light,” Israel says. “I think it lends nicely to the way the product is presented. But if you’re in direct sunlight all day, your staff will blow up. We like open ceilings as opposed to overhangs, because you can be viewed from above. Ideally you’re near some draws for families. A decision point is nice, when folks have to pause that’s good for an impulse purchase as well.”

    At some malls, location can mean the difference between success and failure. At others, there are so many customers flowing through that a slightly less popular corridor isn’t a make-or-break situation. Israel says the best option is to scout the mall ahead of time and be willing to negotiate.

    “It’s not a disadvantage to be in a mall at all,” Israel says. “The challenge is finding good locations and paying the right rent. Those are negotiations that just take place. We’ve built quite a reputation now in the mall, and we’re able to get reasonable rents and good locations.”

    While recent years have seen a shift in spending patterns, the mall isn’t going away any time soon. And as long as there are malls, there will be food courts. Dining helps make a mall what it is—a community gathering place, rather than simply a collection of stores.

    “The regional mall is still the best option for the delivery of goods and services,” Morris says. “[And] it’s really important to have good food.”