Food Courts and Urban Revival

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As the redevelopment of the Pizitz progresses, new details about what will actually be in the building continue to emerge, including more information about the planned food hall.

The Pizitz food hall actually received a shout out in Eater, a site which mostly focuses on the culinary happenings of the major cities in America. I am very happy to see Birmingham positively mentioned in the article, sadly it also gives a backhanded, elitist comment about our city. “Once a trend reaches Birmingham, Alabama, does that mean New Yorkers must be totally over it?“ While I am disappointed that Birmingham can’t simply be mentioned along with the other cities in this article without being considered some last to the table city, the premise of food halls inspired me to write about this development in America and how it relates back to the urban/sub-urban divide.

The term food court conjures up many different thoughts, but I imagine for most Americans good food is not typically one of those thoughts. Enter the new food hall trend, which seeks to take this old concept of a large open area with multiple food vendors and shared seating, transforming it into something that creates great culinary experiences and is a place people actually want to come eat at. But why do we have such a negative view of food courts in the first place, so negative that a new term has to be created to differentiate it from the old? I actually think this ties directly into the effects of urban vs suburban built environments.

If I asked you to name a place that consistently serves bad, overpriced food, what would it be? Not a specific restaurant or food court, but a general type of food establishment you can find all over America. I’m sure people have a lot of place ideas, but mine would be amusement parks. Food is almost always mediocre to terrible and always overpriced. Why? Simple economics. No one goes to an amusement park for the food, they go for entertainment. People eat at amusement parks because they are hungry and have been walking around all day. They buy food because the parks do not let them bring food in. There is an economic term we use to describe this phenomena: easy money. Of course the food at an amusement park is terrible, what are you going to do about it?

While this is an extreme example of consumers having little choice, food courts often fall into a similar, if less extreme, situation. A classic, truly American environment you are guaranteed to find a food court in is the shopping mall. Once again, most of these mall food courts live up to the stereotype of well, being food courts. But a shopping mall is a long way from an amusement park, so why the similar outcome with food? Growing up, I accepted this reality without question. It was not until I traveled to China that I first encountered a food court genuinely worth eating at. The major cities of China also have large shopping malls, and many of these places have food courts. What was surprising was how good the food was and how popular these places are. Having been to China twice and having spent considerable time there, I can safely say this is not a fluke. So why do we in American have such mediocre food courts when food courts in China and many other places in the world are wonderful, tasty options? I think fundamentally this relates back to my analogy of the amusement park and the difference between urban and suburban environments. Simply put, the consumer has far more and more accessible options for eating in an urban environment. Walking into a mall in China, I have already passed many restaurants and food stalls, maybe even some right outside the doors of the mall. This is the result of a dense, urban, pedestrian centric built environment. In contrast, people in American drive to a mall, which is probably not that close, park their cars in a massive parking lot or deck, and then finally enter the mall. If they don’t want to eat mall food, they have to walk back to their cars and drive somewhere else. Access to different food options in such an environment is far less convenient. People go to malls for the primary purpose of shopping, not eating so there is nothing compelling the mall to offer good food.

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Ponce City Market

This is why I disagree with the assumption that these new food halls are a fad that will simply pass like frozen yogurt and pop rocks. I think they are a product of the ongoing shift back toward urban built environments in America. The Pizitz food hall needs to be good because people can easily walk down the street and eat somewhere else. Now, you might object to this rationale by pointing out the only food court in downtown right now, Harbert Plaza, which is OK at best. I would argue that this is the result of downtown having very little in the way of true urbanism and food choices until very recently with the revival of the city center. People working at Harbert have to come to work, good food or not. So it’s easy to see why the food court there is by no means a destination, though I do expect it will have to improve as more options become available.

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Atlanta’s new “Food Hall”

So don’t expect this “fad” to go away anytime soon. The food court going into the Pizitz looks to be a great option that will continue to add to the expanding list of tasty eateries in the city center.

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