If you grew up in suburban America, a shopping trip likely wasn't complete without a stop at the food court.
From yards away, the sweet smell of cinnamon rolls beckoned the most determined of shoppers. The first bite of fried rice and orange chicken scraped from a plastic-foam platter would melt in your mouth, even if the resulting digestive overdrive left something to be desired.
The dim, often windowless court transformed daily into a place of gossip and camaraderie — the meeting point for bored teenagers, herds of middle-aged visitors on mall-walking jaunts, and retail employees on break and in need of a quick sugar rush.
Today, this cultural touchstone is dying.
As a transformation in retail shutters giants like Sears and Macy's and threatens malls across the country, food-court mainstays like Sbarro, Cinnabon, Jamba Juice, and Panda Express face an uncertain future.
Cinnabon has been grappling with how to survive during periods of falling mall foot traffic since 2003, when 15% of locations were said to be in financial trouble. In 2015, Jamba Juice's CEO stepped down from the company, and it shuttered 22 stores in New York and Chicago amid struggling sales. Sbarro sought bankruptcy protection in March 2014.
"You eat Sbarro not because you want Sbarro, but because it is the food that is available at the moment you want some food," Neil Irwin wrote at the time in The New York Times. "Other fast-food chains may offer mediocre food, but their real estate strategies are less exposed to the epic decline in foot traffic in the nation's malls."
Cinnabon's president, Joe Guith, said Cinnabon wasn't necessarily a place you'd get in the car to go to, but more of a place you'd stop at when you're walking by.
"We're an impulse brand," Guith told Business Insider. "We work where the people are."
The people, however, aren't heading to malls like they used to.
The rebirth of food-court favorites
In response, chains are adopting a pragmatic yet radical solution: If no one is visiting malls, open shop elsewhere.
While many East Coast customers may associate Panda Express with samples of orange chicken handed out in the mall food court, for the past two decades, the chain has focused on opening more stand-alone locations — today just 2% of its locations are in malls.
In 2015, Sbarro announced it would debut a trendy fast-casual concept with made-to-order pizzas, pasta, and salads. Cinnabon and Jamba Juice are both investing in smaller, kiosk-like locations in high-traffic areas such as college campuses, amusement parks, and airports.
"Having a flexible store format that can translate to different geographies and store formats will somewhat help mitigate" declining mall traffic, Colin Radke, an analyst at Wedbush, told Business Insider. "But those that are heavily exposed to malls, there's not much they can do."
Other ways brands are trying to boost business include finding new ways to make money outside of physical locations. In the past few years, Cinnabon has leaned hard into licensing with products like Keurig K-Cups, Pillsbury cinnamon rolls, and even Pinnacle Cinnabon vodka. Delivery is also a hot topic, with Cinnabon and Sbarro trying to reach customers at home.
However, no single new revenue stream — kiosks in airports, delivery, or licensed goods — can save chains from the death of food courts if customers don't want to buy the brands anymore.
Lacking the captive audience of mall shoppers, chains need menus that compel customers to make an effort, no matter how slight, to visit and buy food. Even in high-traffic places like college campuses, people have more options than they would if they were within a mall. And with concerns that there are simply too many restaurants open in the US, food-court chains can't depend on customers stumbling upon locations.
There's also the issue of food quality. Opening new locations won't help brands that people associate with rewarmed pretzels or oversized tubs of fried mystery meat.
Panda Express saw the writing on the wall before other chains did. In addition to opening more locations outside of malls, in the past few years, the chain has added more items to the menu that draw from regional Chinese recipes and doubled down on trendy fast-casual aspects of the brand. A new location in Pasadena, California, for example, tested an orange-chicken wrap — a burrito-like concoction that uses a scallion pancake in place of a tortilla.
As a result, the chain has been celebrated by industry insiders as one of the first food-court success stories.
"They have pretty heavy food-court exposure," Radke said, "but it sort of works as a stand-alone, too, and sales have been booming over the past five to 10 years."
Now, trendier and fresher food is the name of the game for brands trying to ditch their tired "food court" reputations.
Jamba Juice is trying to win over customers with more fresh-squeezed juices, protein-rich smoothies, and energy bowls. Cinnabon has found success with smaller serving sizes, launching the instantly popular BonBites in 2016. Sbarro's updated menu is all about "fresh, quality ingredients," which the chain hopes will help it compete with industry leaders like Papa John's and the rising crop of fast-casual pizza chains like Blaze Pizza.
It's still too early to know if these revamps can convince customers, but if the struggles of casual-dining chains like Applebee's are any indication, it would take more than a few new menu items. Still, losing the "food court" image is ultimately just as important, if not more so, to chains' survival as opening locations outside of the food court.
In fact, chains aren't ready to go cold-turkey when it comes to food courts just yet — even as the brands expand beyond malls, they're eyeing shopping centers that use more experiential and creative designs to attract a new era of shoppers.
"It's really the tale of two cities here," Guith said. "With the rise of e-commerce, there's absolutely going to be a reconciliation of the footprint, but malls aren't going away altogether. People still need to connect."
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