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A History of the Food Court

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Fast Times At Ridgemont High did more than just guarantee the word awesome entered our permanent collective lexicon. The mall food court in the movie, shot in the Sherman Oaks Galleria in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, represented the '80s teen ideal of community, freedom, and independence. In the days before Wi-Fi or Snapchat, social networking was done in person, at the mall, with an Orange Julius or a Hot Dog On A Stick in hand.

Sharing a meal in a communal space is nothing new—the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, which is well over 500 years old, is one of the world’s oldest indoor markets. Fast-forward to the early 1900s, and the great department stores that presided over downtown shopping streets in the United States had a variety of full-service restaurants aimed squarely toward the ladies-who-lunch. Marshall Field's on Chicago's State Street was home to the famous Walnut Room (which now resides in a Macy's). Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had a spacious dining room, believed to be the largest in the city, that provided diners a place not just to eat but also to enjoy the store’s enormous pipe organ. Macy’s Herald Square in New York City offered white tablecloth meals. But at some point, meals for the masses became a selling point.

“FLIGHT TO THE SUBURBS”

When shoppers moved from the urban centers to the suburbs in the post-World War II boom, the retailers followed. By 1954, when Time published an article called "Flight To The Suburbs," 93 suburban shopping malls had been built around the country’s 20 largest cities and another 25 were on the way. The enclosed suburban mall had to build the retail experience from the ground up since it didn't have the benefit of the existing businesses or infrastructure of the downtown shops. These malls included restaurants—some in the department stores were similar to their urban counterparts, while others offered choices like a Morrison’s cafeteria, or the food counter at the Woolworth’s Five and Dime. The restaurants were more of a convenience to suddenly hungry shoppers rather than their own destination. Woolworth’s counter in particular was an early quick-service concept, in today’s restaurant industry parlance, but it does point toward the food courts that were yet to come.

BIRTH OF THE FOOD COURT

While there is some debate about where the first successful food court opened in a mall (some claim it was in Canada at Toronto’s Sherway Gardens; others say it is the Paramus Park Mall in Paramus, New Jersey), there is little doubt about the visionary behind the idea: James W. Rouse. Rouse was the pioneering developer responsible not only for many suburban shopping centers (he's credited with coining the term "shopping mall" in the 1950s), but also urban shopping renewal projects like renewing Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall in 1976 or New York City’s South Street Seaport in 1983.

“Jim Rouse wanted to create what he saw as community picnics,” Robert Rubenkonig, Rouse’s communications director, told Shopping Centers Today in 2004. Rouse’s philosophy for all of his work—malls, urban projects, even the entire town of Columbia, Maryland—was based in this idea of community. He recognized that malls were the town centers of suburban sprawl: a gathering spot where people could linger, not just a shopping or dining destination. And, obviously, there is a real economic benefit to people with cash to spare lingering about—MarketWatch has noted that shoppers spend almost 20 percent more at a mall with a “good food court.”

THE AWESOME '80S

The children of the suburban boom became adults and had children of their own. Those children of the 1970s and 1980s grew up in and around the suburban malls. It was never just a shopping opportunity; it was the cultural experience that Rouse had envisioned. The mall and its food court gave the suburbs a "civic anchor," as Smithsonian magazine put it, and a handful of restaurants quickly emerged as favorites.

One vendor that immediately became a food court staple was Orange Julius, that mysterious, frothy concoction of orange juice and “a few choice ingredients." Along the west coast, the Hot Dog On A Stick franchise served corn dogs and fresh squeezed lemonade, though its true appeal was the circus striped mini-dresses and hats worn by its predominantly female staff. The food courts of the '80s also had their fair share of restaurants with roots in the ethnic immigrant communities, even if the food itself bore little resemblance to its old country ancestors. Sbarro pizza, Panda Express and its famous orange chicken, and a Greek gyro restaurant or two were common food fodder in suburbia.

Other, more specialized, food trends peaked in the '80s as well. There was the boom of cookie stores, complete with giant cookie cakes from the likes of Mrs. Fields and Great American Cookie Company, and 1-Potato-2 offered baked potatoes with a hundred varieties of toppings beyond sour cream or cheese.

CHANGING TIMES AND EXPANSION

The success and popularity of food courts began attracting developers of other types of commercial buildings. Beginning in the '90s, colleges and universities started to convert some of their traditional dining halls from cafeteria style to the now-familiar food court design, even bringing in brand name franchises like Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway. Hospitals followed suit in an attempt to combat the old stereotype of bland and tasteless hospital food. Airports began renovating their snack bars and clustering restaurants together food court style. Sbarro, one of those mall stalwarts, began appearing in terminals across the country.

Meanwhile, those original food courts were starting to show their age. The pink and turquoise Miami Vice-era design stood in stark contrast to the ubiquitous '90s grunge. Malls began to modernize by adding more casual sit-down restaurants as tenants, which continued to attract adults rather than just teens needing to kill time; one of southern California’s classic malls, the Beverly Center, was featured in the 1991 Woody Allen and Bette Midler movie Scenes From A Mall, which centered around a middle-aged couple who had a nice, loud argument over ice cream in the food court. Chains like the Cheesecake Factory and The Melting Pot opened locations in shopping malls. To increase its presence, California Pizza Kitchen expanded beyond its home-base in southern California, often setting up shop on the outer perimeter of a mall. This allowed for late-night access and liquor license zoning.

The Mall of America (MOA) in Minneapolis opened its doors in the summer of 1992 to great fanfare. Touted as the largest mall in the world, it was divided into four courts, each with its own dining areas. For many people, the MOA represented the best—and worst—of the suburban shopping mall taken to its ultimate extreme. The sheer size and scale of the mall was unprecedented, as were the entertainment options; the center of the mall featured both an amusement park and an aquarium.

In many ways, though MOA was a far bigger immediate success than anticipated, its completion also marked the beginning of a shift in mall culture. Shoppers started to turn away from the mega malls and their food courts. People were looking for the more intimate "civic anchor" of Rouse’s vision—not just a full-blown consumer experience. The appeal of food court culture was still there, but those options began to exist outside of the climate-controlled mall.

HOLDING COURT OUTSIDE

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Now that shoppers spend more time and money online, malls have been struggling to attract guests. But the food court mindset is thriving with new concepts that harken back to the ancient bazaars and European food halls. In New York and Chicago, celebrity chef Mario Batali has opened outlets of Eataly, his food hall design that is part specialty store and part dining experience. There is artisan pizza and even a Nutella bar for desserts and crepes. In the basement of New York City's Plaza Hotel, another celebrity chef, Boston’s Todd English, has pioneered a food hall with gourmet desserts, classic hoagies, and lobster rolls. The Zipper, a new addition in Portland, has been called a “food court for grown-ups.” At all three, visitors are encouraged to linger—that time-honored tradition recognized by Rouse and the other community developers.

Food truck rodeos—where multiple food trucks gather in the same location, often around communal seating—are happening all over. And urban developments offering a variety of local and small-batch products have popped up in cities from San Francisco to Austin. In Los Angeles, plans are underway for its own massive outdoor pop-up food court. SteelCraft, a permanent food lot to be built out of metal shipping containers, is set to open in Long Beach this month reports L.A. Weekly, and will have tenants such as the local Smog City brewery and specialized vendors of ramen, waffles, and coffee. Even the aging Mall of America is spending money on a new food court, complete with a name to keep up with the times: Culinary on North.

James W. Rouse wanted a “community picnic,” and that concept is written all over Eataly’s manifesto “Good food brings all of us together and helps us find a common point of view.” It’s just proof that the food court isn’t going anywhere, even if current trends dictate that food be artisan and locally sourced rather than deep fried and on a stick.

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Supermarket Introduces 'Quiet Hour' to Help Customers With Autism Feel at Ease
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For some people on the autism spectrum, a routine trip to the supermarket can quickly morph into a nightmare. It’s not just the crowds and commotion that trigger feelings of panic—sounds that many shoppers have learned to tune out, like intercom announcements or beeps from the checkout scanner, can all add up to cause sensory overload. But grocery stores don’t have to be a source of dread for people with such sensitivities. By turning down the volume for one hour each day, one supermarket is making itself more inclusive to a greater number of customers.

As Mashable reports, Australian grocery store chain Coles is partnering with the Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) organization to roll out "quiet hour" in two of its stores. From 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., the lights will be dimmed by 50 percent, the radio and register sounds will be turned down to their lowest volumes, and cart collection and non-emergency PA announcements will be put on hold. The changes are meant to accommodate shoppers with autism and their families, but all shoppers are welcome.

The initiative is based on research conducted by Aspect on people on the autism spectrum and those who care for them. In addition to modifying the atmosphere, Coles has taken steps to educate its staff. If someone does start to feel overwhelmed in a Coles stores, employees trained in understanding and dealing with autism symptoms will be on hand to assist them.

Coles is following the lead of several chains that have made themselves more inviting to shoppers on the spectrum. Last year, British supermarket chain Asda introduced its own quiet hour, and Toys "R" US implemented something similar in its UK stores for the holiday season.

The Coles initiative is just a trial run for now, but if the customer reaction is positive enough it may be here to stay. Visitors to their Ringwood and Balwyn East stores in Victoria will have a chance to experience it now through the end of October.

[h/t Mashable]

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10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.

1. LEECH COLLECTOR

Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collector’s legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.

2. PURE FINDER

Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.

3. TOSHER

A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
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Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: Noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.

4. MATCHSTICK MAKERS

Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.

5. MUDLARK

Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.

6. CHIMNEY SWEEP

A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep
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Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.

7. FUNERAL MUTE

Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.

8. RAT CATCHER

An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot, the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.

9. CROSSING SWEEPER

The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.

10. RESURRECTIONISTS

An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their bodies to medical science.

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