A History of the Food Court
Fast Times At Ridgemont High did more than just guarantee the word awesome entered our permanent collective lexicon. The mall food court in the movie, shot in the Sherman Oaks Galleria in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, represented the '80s teen ideal of community, freedom, and independence. In the days before Wi-Fi or Snapchat, social networking was done in person, at the mall, with an Orange Julius or a Hot Dog On A Stick in hand.
Sharing a meal in a communal space is nothing new—the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which is well over 500 years old, is one of the world’s oldest indoor markets. Fast-forward to the early 1900s, and the great department stores that presided over downtown shopping streets in the United States had a variety of full-service restaurants aimed squarely toward the ladies-who-lunch. Marshall Field's on Chicago's State Street was home to the famous Walnut Room (which now resides in a Macy's). Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had a spacious dining room, believed to be the largest in the city, that provided diners a place not just to eat but also to enjoy the store’s enormous pipe organ. Macy’s Herald Square in New York City offered white tablecloth meals. But at some point, meals for the masses became a selling point.
“FLIGHT TO THE SUBURBS”
When shoppers moved from the urban centers to the suburbs in the post-World War II boom, the retailers followed. By 1954, when Time published an article called "Flight To The Suburbs," 93 suburban shopping malls had been built around the country’s 20 largest cities and another 25 were on the way. The enclosed suburban mall had to build the retail experience from the ground up since it didn't have the benefit of the existing businesses or infrastructure of the downtown shops. These malls included restaurants—some in the department stores were similar to their urban counterparts, while others offered choices like a Morrison’s cafeteria, or the food counter at the Woolworth’s Five and Dime. The restaurants were more of a convenience to suddenly hungry shoppers rather than their own destination. Woolworth’s counter in particular was an early quick-service concept, in today’s restaurant industry parlance, but it does point toward the food courts that were yet to come.
BIRTH OF THE FOOD COURT
While there is some debate about where the first successful food court opened in a mall (some claim it was in Canada at Toronto’s Sherway Gardens; others say it is the Paramus Park Mall in Paramus, New Jersey), there is little doubt about the visionary behind the idea: James W. Rouse. Rouse was the pioneering developer responsible not only for many suburban shopping centers (he's credited with coining the term "shopping mall" in the 1950s), but also urban shopping renewal projects like renewing Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall in 1976 or New York City’s South Street Seaport in 1983.
“Jim Rouse wanted to create what he saw as community picnics,” Robert Rubenkonig, Rouse’s communications director, told Shopping Centers Today in 2004. Rouse’s philosophy for all of his work—malls, urban projects, even the entire town of Columbia, Maryland—was based in this idea of community. He recognized that malls were the town centers of suburban sprawl: a gathering spot where people could linger, not just a shopping or dining destination. And, obviously, there is a real economic benefit to people with cash to spare lingering about—MarketWatch has noted that shoppers spend almost 20 percent more at a mall with a “good food court.”
THE AWESOME '80S
The children of the suburban boom became adults and had children of their own. Those children of the 1970s and 1980s grew up in and around the suburban malls. It was never just a shopping opportunity; it was the cultural experience that Rouse had envisioned. The mall and its food court gave the suburbs a "civic anchor," as Smithsonian magazine put it, and a handful of restaurants quickly emerged as favorites.
One vendor that immediately became a food court staple was Orange Julius, that mysterious, frothy concoction of orange juice and “a few choice ingredients." Along the west coast, the Hot Dog On A Stick franchise served corn dogs and fresh squeezed lemonade, though its true appeal was the circus striped mini-dresses and hats worn by its predominantly female staff. The food courts of the '80s also had their fair share of restaurants with roots in the ethnic immigrant communities, even if the food itself bore little resemblance to its old country ancestors. Sbarro pizza, Panda Express and its famous orange chicken, and a Greek gyro restaurant or two were common food fodder in suburbia.
Other, more specialized, food trends peaked in the '80s as well. There was the boom of cookie stores, complete with giant cookie cakes from the likes of Mrs. Fields and Great American Cookie Company, and 1-Potato-2 offered baked potatoes with a hundred varieties of toppings beyond sour cream or cheese.
CHANGING TIMES AND EXPANSION
The success and popularity of food courts began attracting developers of other types of commercial buildings. Beginning in the '90s, colleges and universities started to convert some of their traditional dining halls from cafeteria style to the now-familiar food court design, even bringing in brand name franchises like Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway. Hospitals followed suit in an attempt to combat the old stereotype of bland and tasteless hospital food. Airports began renovating their snack bars and clustering restaurants together food court style. Sbarro, one of those mall stalwarts, began appearing in terminals across the country.
Meanwhile, those original food courts were starting to show their age. The pink and turquoise Miami Vice-era design stood in stark contrast to the ubiquitous '90s grunge. Malls began to modernize by adding more casual sit-down restaurants as tenants, which continued to attract adults rather than just teens needing to kill time; one of southern California’s classic malls, the Beverly Center, was featured in the 1991 Woody Allen and Bette Midler movie Scenes From A Mall, which centered around a middle-aged couple who had a nice, loud argument over ice cream in the food court. Chains like the Cheesecake Factory and The Melting Pot opened locations in shopping malls. To increase its presence, California Pizza Kitchen expanded beyond its home-base in southern California, often setting up shop on the outer perimeter of a mall. This allowed for late-night access and liquor license zoning.
The Mall of America (MOA) in Minneapolis opened its doors in the summer of 1992 to great fanfare. Touted as the largest mall in the world, it was divided into four courts, each with its own dining areas. For many people, the MOA represented the best—and worst—of the suburban shopping mall taken to its ultimate extreme. The sheer size and scale of the mall was unprecedented, as were the entertainment options; the center of the mall featured both an amusement park and an aquarium.
In many ways, though MOA was a far bigger immediate success than anticipated, its completion also marked the beginning of a shift in mall culture. Shoppers started to turn away from the mega malls and their food courts. People were looking for the more intimate "civic anchor" of Rouse’s vision—not just a full-blown consumer experience. The appeal of food court culture was still there, but those options began to exist outside of the climate-controlled mall.
HOLDING COURT OUTSIDE
Now that shoppers spend more time and money online, malls have been struggling to attract guests. But the food court mindset is thriving with new concepts that harken back to the ancient bazaars and European food halls. In New York and Chicago, celebrity chef Mario Batali has opened outlets of Eataly, his food hall design that is part specialty store and part dining experience. There is artisan pizza and even a Nutella bar for desserts and crepes. In the basement of New York City's Plaza Hotel, another celebrity chef, Boston’s Todd English, has pioneered a food hall with gourmet desserts, classic hoagies, and lobster rolls. The Zipper, a new addition in Portland, has been called a “food court for grown-ups.” At all three, visitors are encouraged to linger—that time-honored tradition recognized by Rouse and the other community developers.
Food truck rodeos—where multiple food trucks gather in the same location, often around communal seating—are happening all over. And urban developments offering a variety of local and small-batch products have popped up in cities from San Francisco to Austin. In Los Angeles, plans are underway for its own massive outdoor pop-up food court. SteelCraft, a permanent food lot to be built out of metal shipping containers, is set to open in Long Beach this month reports L.A. Weekly, and will have tenants such as the local Smog City brewery and specialized vendors of ramen, waffles, and coffee. Even the aging Mall of America is spending money on a new food court, complete with a name to keep up with the times: Culinary on North.
James W. Rouse wanted a “community picnic,” and that concept is written all over Eataly’s manifesto “Good food brings all of us together and helps us find a common point of view.” It’s just proof that the food court isn’t going anywhere, even if current trends dictate that food be artisan and locally sourced rather than deep fried and on a stick.