On a sunny Friday, food ranging from pretzels, pizza and hot dogs are cooking in the Bowie Town Center Food Court, but inside the food court there is one ingredient missing — people.
The food court, which is home to such eateries as Subway and Dairy Queen/Orange Julius had only a few dozen people in the enclosed space at the storefront mall. It’s a scene that’s far from unusual, according to shop owners.
“Sometimes you can’t see anybody here,” said Federico Cruz, who has been manager of the Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, an Italian eatery since 2007. While business has been slow, the shop — part of a larger chain — will continue to hang in at the mall, he said.
With the light amount of foot traffic in the food court, Cruz said he has had to reduce staff. Two other sites in the food court lack tenants at all.
Overall, the mall, which is owned by Simon Property Group, is doing fairly well, with occupancy rates in line with the company’s average of about 94 percent, said Les Morris a spokesman for the company that also owns the Arundel Mills Mall. Beyond the food court, the center features other restaurants such as Noodles & Company, LongHorn Steakhouse and Panera Bread.
Business has been slow in the food court to the point where the owners of at least one eatery, White Tiger, are reconsidering remaining in the court, said Ravi Shanker, co-owner with his wife, Kavitha Shanker, of the Indian-food eatery.
“It all depends on business,” said Ravi Shanker of Bowie. “If it’s not going well, then it’s time to go.”
White Tiger’s revenue has dropped to about half of what it brought in in 2010, to the point where the couple’s catering business accounts for about 80 percent of the business’ revenue, he said. The restaurant needs about 40 percent to break even and more than 65 percent to make the venture worthwhile, Shanker said. Currently the business gets about 30 to 35 customers a day, he said.
“We have regulars who come by, but not enough to support this,” he said.
The outdoor mall concept lacks the central thoroughfare, which causes all shoppers to walk by the food court and potentially be enticed, Shanker said.
“They come, drive to the store get back in their car and drive off,” he said.
People are willing to walk only so far to grab a quick bite, said Ebony Coley of Washington, D.C, who dined at the food court on Oct. 5.
“I’m not going to walk all the way from Macy’s,” she said. “It’s too far to walk [for food].”
For Simon, the property is somewhat unique among the company’s properties, as the facility was a test bed for the business of the open air mall, he said. While multiple other properties have adapted the model, the centralized food court model isn’t something that has been copied, Morris said.
“The Bowie Town Center was clearly our first run at it,” he said. “At our other centers, we don't really have a food pavilion. There are restaurants all around [the shopping center].”
Still, the mall needs places such as those in the food court where shoppers can eat without going to a formal restaurant, said Danielle Douglass of Washington, D.C.
“It’s efficient,” she said. “Some people just want to get a bite to eat.”