Gone are the days of traditional food courts in Australian shopping centres, simply offering fast food options, fluorescent overhead lighting and uncomfortable seating. Now, the food court has grown up and landlords are focusing on creating more sophisticated dining precincts to encourage customers to relax and spend more time in their centres.
John Schroder, group executive and CEO of Commercial Property at Stockland, says a decade or so ago, there was the food court, which shifted to fast food takeaway, then really expensive fine dining in Australia.
“There wasn’t really much in between,” he says. “Yet over in the US, affordable fast casual dining had been around for a long time, like, Cheesecake Factory and Maggiano's. However, over the past 10 to 12 years, we’ve seen the growth of fast casual dining in Australia.”
According to Schroder, fast casual dining sits above the food court and fast food takeaway, but it’s not really expensive and not attached to a top chef’s name.
One reason for the growth in fast casual dining is Australians’ love of travel and they’re increasingly becoming global.
“The Aussie palate has matured. There’s also an expectation that the food is healthy, that it’s served in a nice environment and that the range is diverse,” he explains.
“In addition, there are a lot more people in the workforce than was traditionally the case. People are time poor … and are looking to have a quick meal with the family, where they don’t have to spend too much and don’t have to bother cooking.”
While coffee shops have always been located around retail areas to give shoppers a break, Schroder says the quality of their offering has also improved, too.
“Aussies demand good coffee. Our palate in Australia is ahead of US. We won’t tolerate poor coffee and the job of a barista is becoming an art,” says Schroder.
Schroder adds that to some extent, fast casual dining is replacing the old food courts. While different landlords are responding differently to this growth, much of what they do depends on the demographics of an area.
“They are starting to deliver an indoor and outdoor look and feel. People want to experience more of the natural environment and not be [in a] fully-enclosed, artificially-controlled jail where they can’t see in and out.”
When it comes to responding to the customers’ changing needs and lifestyles, shopping centres are also re-thinking beyond just the dining experience.
“It’s also about the other things that customers expect. For example, convenient and easy parking and an environment that is conducive to feeling good about yourself with more health, beauty and gyms. That part is also growing fast,” explains Schroder.
With the rise of apartment living and as backyards shrink or disappear, customers also expect entertainment at the shopping centre. As a result, we’ve seen the theatres, bowling avenues, game and children’s play areas increasingly surround the food offerings over the years, says Schroder.
Food retailers are certainly responding to the evolution of the food court and customers’ changing tastes.
Gelatissimo CEO Filipe Barbosa says: “From our perspective, it’s about how we get tenants in [that are] of an adequate size in precincts where people tend to loiter a bit more. It’s about realigning where we want to position a store in the centre.
“In store design, we are now trying to incorporate a bit more seating, say, 15-20 seats or even a breakfast bar where people can watch the world go by. It’s about creating an environment that’s more conducive to people hanging around, as opposed to being more transactional.
“Consumers also keep wanting more. So we have to forever continue to evolve in terms of store design and product because the consumer is now more educated, more savvy and more willing to try different things.”
Similarly, Oporto’s head of marketing Vanessa Rowed says: “Oporto continues to innovate around menu and experience in order to remain relevant, fresh and competitive. We have redesigned our restaurants, especially in shopping centres, to open up our kitchens and allow more transparency around our food. “Our food is fresh, real and prepared to the highest standards, and we want customers see that we are proud of our produce and cooking methods. This level of transparency is now expected by customers and we have been more than happy to respond.”
Rowed adds that Oporto continues to trial and invest in new technology.
“We are very focused on our customer experience and always looking at ways we can simplify and enhance the user journey,” she says.