By  on March 24, 2017
Spiller Park Coffee and Biltong Bar at Ponce City Market, Atlanta.

If you feed them, they will come.That appears to be the hope of retailers and mall operators throughout the U.S. as they rush to install a plethora of food formats to lure finicky and tight-fisted consumers to shop."The typical department store is losing ground every day," said Jaime Fasja, co-chief executive officer of Thor Urbana, the Mexican affiliate of Thor Equities. "We see what's happening with the big department stores in the U.S. We believe that the centers of future will have new anchors — food and beverage is the new fashion."Traffic at North American shopping centers has been declining since 2015, when it fell 8.1 percent in December, and it remained in negative territory through December of 2016.The confluence of interrelated reasons include consumers' continued shift to online and digital. There is also the difficult-to-engage Millennial cohort, the country's biggest demographic, which values experiences over purchases. Department and specialty stores have been closing at an alarming rate. The 2017 tally so far is about 1,000 stores, including Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., The Limited, American Apparel, BCBG Max Azria Global Holdings, Wet Seal, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. units.Now mall owners and retailers are hoping elevated food offerings and chef-driven restaurants can give consumers an appetite for, well, shopping.MAPIC, producer of the world's largest international retail real estate conference, in May will make food and beverage the focus of its Milan event featuring a diversity of cuisines, because "food consumption is breaking all records. Because of the shopping center evolution, mall owners want to find the top trends from authentic food to natural and healthy, to street food, to made-to-order dishes," said Nathalie Depetro, MAPIC’s show director, noting that it's all part of “the gourmet-ization of food.”New Italian flavors will be sampled such as Fattorie Garofalo's mozzarella bistro concept; Aromatica, showcasing a different top chef each month; Bistrot's menu created with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, and Pizzikotto.Attendance at February's Entertainment Evolution Experience in Santa Monica, Calif., doubled over last year, which in 2016 had twice as many participants as 2015. “All the mall guys were there,” Garrick Brown, vice president, research, Americas, Cushman & Wakefield, said. “There were all the big players. The place was a zoo. It’s really indicative of where the market is going. Every center is trying to upgrade and shift the tenant mix and build more space for upscale dining and food halls."Cushman & Wakefield reported that “food is a major growth driver everywhere,” noting that consumers last year spent $730.6 billion on meals eaten away from home, surpassing for the first time the amount spent on food consumed at home,  $718.1 billion. In New York City, residents in 2016 spent 40.5 percent of their disposable income on food.Gross leasable space occupied by food uses has more than doubled in shopping centers to 15 percent from seven percent a decade ago, according to JLL, which estimated the number will grow to 20 percent in the coming years.Brown is even more bullish. “In an age when every retailer is looking at shrinking its footprint, malls are trying to plug better food offerings into that space,” Brown said. “If you were to ask Westfield Corp., Simon Properties and GGP 10 years ago how much space they set aside for food and beverage, they would have said 10 percent. Now, it’s 20 percent and rising.”Another reason for the enthusiasm: food and beverage can increase a shopper's dwell time. Researchers Jikyeong Kang and Youn-Kyung Kim in a 2001 study found that shoppers who experienced a high level of enjoyment spent more time at the mall. Subsequent research found no correlation between the length of stay and average spend, however, entertainment and restaurants established a center as the dominant player in a market.Thor Urbana allots 32 percent to 33 percent of gross leasable area to restaurants and bars. “For us to do the volume we do, increasing the entertainment and food and beverage concepts is key,” Fasja said. “If people stay longer, it translates into higher sales.”Calle Corazon, the company's 150,000-square-foot project in Playa del Carmen, boasts seven dining spots and boîtes, including a branch of New York’s Catch, Argentinian steakhouse Harry’s Grill, Panaderia and 20 Laviente Cantina, among others.“We’re all about creating culinary destinations, where you have local, regional and national players,” Fasja said. “It becomes the center of gravity. The stores stay open until 11 p.m. You see people shopping after their meals at 10 p.m.”The food hall is the plat du jour, with the number in the U.S. expected to increase from 25 in 2010 to 200 in 2019, according to Brown.This isn't news to European department stores such as El Corte Inglés, whose Plaza Callao in Madrid offers a Gourmet Experience and Le Bon Marché with is La Grande Epicerie de Paris.Eataly's immersive Italian gastronomic tour featuring coffee bars, restaurants and markets can be found at the Prudential Center in Boston. A location was unveiled at Westfield World Trade Center in Manhattan last year and Eataly will anchor Westfield Century City's 400,000-square-foot expansion in Los Angeles.“Department stores are underperforming in terms of sales and traffic,” Brown said. “The truth is, department stores haven’t been up to the task of anchoring shopping centers for some time. Dominant malls have turned to food halls as traffic drivers. Eataly's doing no less than $1,200 a square foot in sales.”Malls are watching San Francisco's China Live, which hopes to do for Chinese food what Eataly did for Italian. The high-end operation features three restaurants, including one serving live lobster. Todd English’s 12,000-square-foot American Market by Todd English, set to bow in Times Square, will also be followed closely.“We’ll be announcing a 40,000-square-foot food hall operator for [Manhattan's] Hudson Yards in 30 days,” said Kenneth Himmel, president of Related Urban Development. “It’s a very well-known, highly regarded chef brand that will be new to the project.”An emphasis on elevated dining has long been the approach of Related Cos., which lured Thomas Keller, the celebrated chef of the French Laundry in Napa Valley, to the Shops at Columbus Circle, where he unveiled Per Se and Bouchon.“We’re applying all those learnings [from the Shops] on steroids to Hudson Yards,” said Himmel. “If you look at Shops, especially the third and fourth floors, we wouldn’t do that kind of sales volume if we didn’t have any restaurants. Some restaurants at our properties do $14 million to $15 million in annual sales in 7,000 square feet of space.“The retail world is waking up to the fact that food is vital,” Himmel added. “You can’t think of your restaurants at the end of the planning process. You have to pick the right restaurants and chefs. Sometimes you have to invest [money] in them. You have to be their partner.”Hudson Yards' dining options are all but guaranteed to be sophisticated since Keller is opening a classic American restaurant and advising on the selection of the more than 12 dining establishments slated for the one-million-square-foot development on Manhattan’s West Side. So far, José Andrés will unveil a Spanish restaurant, and Costas Spiliadis' Estiatorio Milos will have a grill area and market.Brickell City Centre, which in November bowed in Miami, has been feeding the city's financial district. “There’s 100,000 hungry daytime office workers in an area that’s been underserved,” said Debora Overholt, president of retail at Swire, one of Brickell City Centre's developers. "A lot of malls are fairly low-traffic during the day. It’s important for us to reach those daytime office workers; we need to have dine in and carry out.ƒapp"Visitors account for 60 percent of retail sales in Miami," Overholt added. "They’re not cooking at home. We’ve been careful to find food and beverage uses that accommodate a full spectrum of tastes.”Brickell's menu includes Pubbelly Sushi, Quinto la Huella, Luke’s Lobster, Big Easy Wine Bar & Grill and American Harvest. An Italian food hall is opening later this year. “It’s a really big coup for us. The uniqueness of it and the variety it will offer in 38,000 square feet will be a big draw,” Overholt said.With all the grub at Brickell, Saks Fifth Avenue is hoping shoppers will crave even more when its 18,000-square-foot Casa Tua Cucina, an Italian kitchen and market, opens in the fall.Time Out Market, a gourmet food hall from Lisbon, is reportedly planning to open in Miami near Lincoln Road. Time Out received high marks from tourists who praised its Portuguese bites.

Westfield World Trade Center has more food planned, including London steakhouse Hawksmoor, and a 7,000-square-foot restaurant overlooking the Oculus from chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, whose Make It Nice group is responsible for the three Michelin-starred 11 Madison Park.

"A focus on food is paramount in Century City's $1 billion makeover," said William Hecht, Westfield's chief operating officer. Besides Eataly, Century City's roster of eateries will have an international bent with Javier's Finest Foods of Mexico based on cofounder Javier Sosa's family recipes; Din Tai Fung's xiao long bao, or soup dumplings, and Petros, whose owner Petros Benekos is also opening Kafe for Greek tavern fare and Cafe Bugasta desserts and coffee.

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