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Movie Clips, Youtube

A History of the Food Court

Movie Clips, Youtube
Movie Clips, Youtube

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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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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