They are called “anchors” or anchor stores. They are the cornerstone to downtowns, shopping centers, and large neighborhoods. They command deep respect from urban planners, real estate developers, and city management. They get special attention, lease deals, and zoning. They are the foundation of urban revitalization and shopping patterns.

 Who are they?

They were traditional, full-line department stores with free land, financial incentives, unbelievably low rents, the best corner locations, power to approve adjacent tenants, and more. But they are no more. Most are gone and forgotten. Some still struggle on and a few have morphed into a narrower specialty role and are doing “OK.”

Next came the high-value stores with a somewhat diminished anchor role. They are the large liquor/wine stores, super-electronics, mega-DIY, and powerful discount merchants like Costco, Walmart and Target. But many are in a mature phase of the growth curve and are certainly not as busy as they were ten years ago.

Currently there is the Apple phenomenon and Crate and Barrel, but those retailers are few and far between.

So whose turn is it to star now? What retail sector has caught the consumer’s fancy and is doing it right? And doing it right now? The answer is clear and so very obvious—food, food services, and restaurants!

For the past several decades J.C. Williams Group, in its role as advisor to North American cities’ urban cores, has seen the evacuation or stagnation of department and specialty retailing in downtowns. For those cities with a passable shopper environment, the food service industry has slowly in-filled with fast food, restaurants, and in many cases a combination of food and clubs. These are successful where there is a downtown residential population and/or critical mass of restaurants that attract near-ins or suburbanites to return to the core as an evening experience.

The important observation here is that this has been a natural phenomenon caused in no large part by the significant improvement and creativity of North America’s restaurant offering and the multitude of TV shows on food and restaurants. And, not to be overlooked, is the ethnic food variety contributed by immigrants who often make their first home in urban cores.

Now it’s shopping centers’ (and catch-up downtowns’) time to embrace change and opportunity and install food as an anchor. This has been slow in coming. As far back as 1971 James Rouse put one of the first food courts (inspired by the Los Angeles Farmers’ Market) into Sherway Gardens in Toronto—called Gourmet Fair. The concept was quickly embraced and is ubiquitous.

Now food as an anchor has been further dramatically demonstrated, for example, by three new food service offerings—one in London, one in Toronto, and one in New York. Westfield London’s new center has vigorously and creatively embraced food services with a total of 65 places to eat, including 18 restaurants, 18 eateries  in a new concept café court, and 29 snack/light meal kiosks. These offerings are stunning.

The Toronto Eaton Centre has recently opened a huge 45,000-square-foot Urban Eatery with 24 food kiosks. The design is dramatic and the menu offerings cover all tastes and whims. The “china” plates and real cutlery are reused and the seating area offers three options with 980 seats. The critical point is that this food court, which is three levels below grade, will have approximately 1,700 people at any one time over the lunch period. The 817,850 square foot Sears department store will have approximately 365 shoppers at any one time during peak traffic lunchtime. So, which is the real anchor?

Still not convinced? Then check out New York’s fabulous new 50,000 sq. ft. Italian food store and restaurant, Eataly. It now anchors the Flat Iron district and does $80,000,000 a year! Enough said.

Creative food services is retailing’s new anchor—for the time being. But ignore it now at your peril!

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