10 RULES FOR FOOD COURTS
Over time, I've reviewed and evaluated both good and bad food courts and food operations for the shopping center industry and independent and chain food operators. In addition, I have been an expert advisor and witness in legal actions regarding food courts. Lastly, I have written a book entitled Restaurant and Fast Food Site Selection which includes a chapter on malls and food courts. Here are a few of my current opinions on the subject.
1. Food courts need pedestrian traffic; they often cannot create sufficient action by themselves. Food courts should be placed where people will logically congregate or certainly pass.
2. Food courts are generative, but in an unusual way. They usually generate the majority of their traffic during normal dining periods, when the body's computer signals its time for chow. Thus, food courts should not be looked at as a generator for a wing of a shopping center or mall. While they will generate traffic at their peak periods, they usually will not generate much traffic during their non-peak periods. Remember, a considerable amount of food court sales come from "impulse" decision making.
3. Seating continues to be a major issue, and yet, many food courts are less than five years old. Moreover, if it is a problem now, what will it be in the future? Without adequate seating for peaks, food tenants have a lid on the amount of sales that they can achieve. Unlike other mall tenants, people's stomachs are programmed to three primary periods. In the food business, seating must be provided for peak periods, both now and in the future.
4. Very few independents, especially Ma and Pa's, have successfully succeeded. Their expectations were great but their experiences were poor. Many mall managers are finding themselves nursing the food court or spending considerable time trying to fill food court vacancies. Moreover, more and more food courts are not living up to expectations. The problem usually is in the original design, placement and tenant selection. The entire objectives need to be rethought.
5. Food courts often should not be included in the first phase of a new mall, simply because there is inadequate food potential for all the space usually allocated. This is especially true for the small Ma and Pa operations. They simply do not have the staying power to survive two or three years of low sales, in relation to occupancy costs.
6. In my opinion, in the future food courts will be smaller in terms of tenants (six to eight). That means more chains (or franchises) will occupy the food court space, usually resulting in higher individual and overall sales performance. This configuration recognizes the importance of name recognition to the customers and the importance of competition by unit and product mix.
7. More than one of a specific type of food tenant (beef, pizza, chicken, Oriental, Mexican or others) can rarely survive in a food court, unless in a downtown location. When this occurs, the independent is almost always affected, and usually eliminated.
8. The shopping center industry has begun to recognize the contribution of food tenants and food courts to the overall mall presentation. In the true sense of the marketplace, shopping and eating go hand and hand. The food court shouldn't be penalized, but rather, perhaps, should be subsidized.
9. Food court maintenance should somehow be controlled by the food people. Cleanliness to a good food operator is truly next to godliness. What is your reaction when you enter a food operation and see paper on the floor or cluttered tables? Most people, you included, turn and leave. Food courts should be looked at as a single restaurant under the critical eyes of the customer. When its dirty or messy, it turns people off. When they're turned off, they stay away. Please remember that.
10. Visibility is extremely important to the food tenant, again because of impulse decision making. The concept of trees and shrubs in and around food courts may be aesthetically pleasing; however, the customers often cannot see the signs, or the tenants.
Food is different. Think of your own selection process and abide by it in placing a food court and selecting tenants.