There was a time when guests could walk into most American shopping mall food courts and find the usual lineup of brands represented — but that scene is now looking different in a post-recession climate.
Some malls are pushing out national restaurant chains to focus more on local and regional brands. At the same time, some traditional food court brands are seeing the lack of development of new malls as a sign that it’s time to go elsewhere.
As a result, a number of restaurant chains that once looked to food courts exclusively are finding new opportunities outside the mall — or at least outside the food court.
Rosemead, Calif.-based Panda Express, for example, was a brand that saw rapid growth in malls initially, but now the 1,500-unit chain has only about 230 mall locations. Malls are still part of the mix, but the concept is more flexible, said Thien Ho, a Panda Express spokeswoman.
“Our focus remains on obtaining quality locations in the right trade areas, whether it’s in a mall or street store,” she said.
Other brands are also hoping to find that flexibility. Wetzel’s Pretzels, for example, is growing internationally and in nontraditional domestic locations, with units in Disneyland and in Walmart stores. This year, Wetzel’s Pretzels opened its first street locations, as well as units in train stations. Deals are also in the works to go into airports.
Mall locations are “still our bread and butter,” said Bill Phelps, the pretzel chain’s co-chief executive. “For 30 years, the press has been talking about how malls are dying. But the numbers in malls are not bad at all. Regional malls are actually doing pretty well these days.
“That said,” he added, “we are expanding beyond the mall.”
The competition in food courts has gotten tougher, Phelps said, especially when some malls have more than one pretzel brand.