The Mall of America celebrated its 25th birthday last month.
Fortunately, there were no festivities to mark its quarter-century of dining mediocrity.
It’s been an ongoing mystery: Why is the food (and drink) at the nation’s largest shopping mall so forgettable? If the megamall is going to make it to its 50th birthday — and maintain its persuasive sense of destination — its ownership should rethink their approach to dining. Relying on its current formulaic cocktail of Auntie Anne’s, Long John Silver’s and Tony Roma’s isn’t going to cut it.
Now’s the time to recast some of the mall’s vast square footage. Retail is in decline, and the megamall is particularly vulnerable. Not only because of its sheer size, but because two of its anchor tenants — Sears and Macy’s — rank among the nation’s most troubled retailers.
Equally important: Americans are trending away from shopping, preferring to invest in experiences rather than merchandise. Here is where the mall is at a distinct advantage. Thanks to its amusement park, aquarium and other activities-based crowd magnets, the experience business is baked into the mall’s DNA.
Except dining. Which is so weird, since there’s no trendier activity than dining. So why hasn’t the megamall caught on?
Its critical mass of second-string chains certainly makes dining there a downer. The roster reads either like a dust-covered page from a Reagan-era Who’s Who (Benihana, Hard Rock Cafe, Hooters) or their tired brand names (Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Cadillac Ranch, Rainforest Cafe) emanate a vague is-that-still-around? vibe.
And when it comes to recruiting new blood, delivering an original, trendsetting enterprise seems to be an entirely foreign concept. Recent additions include Margaritaville, a halfhearted eatertainery, and Cantina Laredo, a sad Tex-Mex-er.
Beer-focused City Works Eatery & Pour House is opening soon; it’s already a less-than-stellar presence at 7th and Hennepin in downtown Minneapolis. And on paper, another soon-to-arrive chain, Carlo’s Bakery, is a tailor-made tenant for the mall’s current pop-culture mind-set, a brick-and-mortar iteration of TV’s “Cake Boss” phenomenon.
Even customer service-obsessed Nordstrom disappoints. When the Seattle-based department store opened a shiny new location at Ridgedale in Minnetonka two years ago, part of the package was its fashionable, well-run Ruscello restaurant. Meanwhile, its megamall restaurant, the counter-service Nordstrom Cafe, looks, feels and tastes as it if were permanently stuck in the mid-1990s.
Coffee illustrates the mall’s easy-way-out food mentality. With five Caribous and three Starbucks on the premises, it’s perpetually 2006 at the Place for Fun in Your Life, to invoke an old megamall slogan. Good luck finding a representative from the industry’s quality-fixated third wave, a movement represented locally by Spyhouse, Five Watt, Dogwood and Peace, to name a few (and apologies to hardworking Coffee & Tea Ltd., buried, all these years, in a back first-floor corner at Sears). Their absence is glaring.
Meanwhile, the mall has been losing to competitors. When Barnes & Noble looked to launch a full-service restaurant initiative, it chose its Galleria store (rather than its gigantic megamall outlet) for Minnesota’s first Barnes & Noble Kitchen. Punch Bowl Social, a hot cocktails/gaming/Southern food concept, landed at the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park. Even the Cheesecake Factory, a megamall title if there was ever one, has turned a cold shoulder, choosing to drop its second Minnesota location at Ridgedale.
Sure, there are a few brightish lights. The mall’s two hotels, Radisson Blu and J.W. Marriott, both operate perfectly respectable restaurants. A few locals, including Masu Sushi & Robata and Cupcake, certainly stand out. Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You has long operated several solid, middle-of the-road mall operations, including Twin City Grill and Tucci Benucch.
Last year, one of the country’s great burger joints, Shake Shack, set up its Minnesota beachhead at the megamall’s very attractive new third-floor court, which is also populated by several other impressive newcomers, including Piada Italian Street Food and the Melt Shop. Dough Dough, the instantly popular cookie dough food truck by the enterprising couple behind the O’Cheeze food truck (which is going brick-and-mortar in the downtown skyway), will be debuting its first stand-alone location at, yes, the Mall of America.
But there have been setbacks. Recently, Rustica Cookies & Creamery, a sharp blend of first-rate soft serve ice cream and some of the Twin Cities’ most brilliantly conceived cookies (the brainchild of the folks at Rustica Bakery) gave the megamall a shot. It didn’t even last a year.
A possible future?
For a role model, the mall’s powers that be need only look a few miles east to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
It’s not the stretch that it might first appear to be. After all, the airport’s 39 million annual passengers are just shy of the mall’s much-touted 40 million annual shoppers. Where would you rather dine? MSP, by a frequent-flier mile.
Terminal 1 is in the midst of a remake that stamps a decided pride-of-place vibe on the premises. The airport carefully selected an impressive array of local chefs, bakers, barkeeps and restaurateurs, all culled from a long list of operators who lined up for the opportunity to reshape the airport’s dining scene.
Sure, there have been missteps (one particularly egregious example: saying “adios” to the splendid Surdyk’s Flights in Terminal 1), but so far, so good. And with more proposals on the block, airport dining is looking to get even better.
The mall could also turn to the local food truck universe for inspiration. Some of the dining scene’s most dynamic and distinctive newcomers — Hola Arepa, World Street Kitchen, Smack Shack, Chef Shack, Foxy Falafel, Cafe Racer, Hot Indian Foods, Sassy Spoon — were incubated on wheels. Why isn’t the mall recruiting them?
Or tapping top-shelf chefs? It’s thrilling to see premium local talent immersed in exciting new projects — Tim McKee’s collaborative remake of the former Heartland in Lowertown, the Corner Table-Revival duo headlining a food hall at the remade Schmidt Brewery, Gavin Kaysen taking Wayzata by storm with his four-star Bellecour — but when’s the last time a major chef landed at the Mall of America, suburbia’s de facto downtown? Um, never.
Ironically, downtown Minneapolis — which the mall replaced as the region’s leading retail center — could teach the megamall a thing or two about how to advance fast-casual dining beyond Burger King and Panda Express.
The city’s skyways are peppered with creative, independently owned restaurants, including Sprout, Greenfield Kitchen, Bep Eatery, Cardigan Donuts and One Two Three Sushi, along with food truck start-ups Green + the Grain and Vellee Deli. It’s telling that Chicago-based Roti Modern Mediterranean chose to place its (terrific) first Twin Cities outlet in the IDS Crystal Court.
With all the talk of innovative food halls sprouting up across the Twin Cities, the most obvious location — the megamall — continues with more of the same. When the best you can offer is yet another Chick-fil-A or Naf Naf Grill outlet, then you’ve run out of ideas, a strategy that does not appear to be sustainable in the long run.
Come on, Mall of America. Try harder.