Amid difficulties for American shopping malls, Arlington’s two malls are betting on new eateries to turn more diners into shoppers.
Management at the newly-renovated Ballston Quarter and the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City say elevated dining options — from Ballston Quarter’s trendy local eateries to newer, healthier options at Pentagon City mall — are becoming an increasingly important part of mall design.
Commercial real estate experts say food options are now the key driver of mall traffic.
A new study released by the International Council of Shopping Centers shows that 40 percent of customers choose which mall they go to based solely on the food there, and nearly 38 percent of those surveyed said healthy options were a priority, according to CNBC.
“People increasingly value experience-based shopping and place higher expectations on how they spend their time,” said Will Voegele, senior vice president of mixed-use development for Brookfield Properties, in an email to ARLnow. “We designed the revitalized Ballston Quarter with the community in mind and our vision reflects a strong focus on experiential retail, innovative food and beverage concepts, and diverse entertainment offerings to create a new all-season neighborhood experience with the density of an urban center that is purposeful, thoughtful and unique.”
Voegele said part of the redesign for Ballston Quarter was to maintain a focus on local vendors for the 25,000 square-foot food hall.
“The uniform array of national names that we associate with the traditional food court does not provide the richness and authenticity that is so important to our mission at Ballston Quarter,” Voegele said. “Families and young professionals still want grab-and-go, but they are also looking for better quality and healthy dining options. Food halls offer the perfect solution in this case.”
Voegele said the new food hall design has gradually supplanted the traditional fast food-oriented food court of the archetypical ’80s and ’90s malls.
“The fundamental design of the traditional mall no longer supports the way people like to shop and dine as consumers are craving visually stimulating and creative experiences,” Voegele said. “The boxy retail behemoths of yesterday are just not practical for today’s landscape.”
“Fashion Centre at Pentagon City has introduced enhanced dining options over the recent years, including Matchbox American Kitchen + Spirit, honeygrow, Sugar Factory and Shake Shack,” management at the mall said in an email. “In addition, the center added modern furniture, finishes and additional seating during the renovation in 2016 to offer an even better experience for shoppers visiting the dining pavilion.”
But does this translate into sales at other retail options in the mall? Voegele said the Ballston Quarter’s food hall, Quarter Market, has seen consistent traffic across all age groups — and events like Quarterfest last weekend boosted its local profile. The study said transactions increase as much as 25 percent at malls with quality food and beverage options, with shoppers who eat at the mall spending 15 percent more per trip.
Shoppers inside Ballston Quarter weren’t so sure. While several said they came for the food hall and loved the dining options, many also said this wouldn’t necessarily translate into going into the upstairs part of the mall to shop.
“I live across the street and I’ve been watching this go up for years,” said one shopper, proudly eating fried chicken after a visit to his cardiologist. “The food court was the focus of this visit. I like that it’s not trying to be Tysons. I come here for the entertainment.”
Entertainment has been a component of Quarter Market’ appeal, with the main doors often open to let in music from a live band playing outside. The chicken-eater said that if he needed something from one of the upstairs stores, he’d go shop there, but otherwise he would probably just come for the food hall experience.
Some diners said the Quarter Market was hard to find from the main section of the mall. The food hall is listed as being located in the “concourse,” which drew some confusion as shoppers were looking near the under-construction bridge for the food hall.
“When I see ‘concourse’ I don’t think ‘in the basement,'” one said.
Another diner, at the food hall with a group of friends from out of town, said she was excited for Francesca’s to open upstairs. The friend said they were considering moving to the area and would likely shop at the mall if they did.
Others eating at the food hall said they worked upstairs and loved the dining options in Quarter Market, but weren’t as enthusiastic about the selection of stores.
“We come down for the food court and we love it,” one said, “but there’s really nowhere else to shop here unless you’re looking for a new cell phone.”