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Eaton Centre’s new $48M food court: fast food goes upscale

Behind the scenes at the Eaton Centre's new food court on August 29, 2011. CITYNEWS.

Just over a year ago, if you stepped off the Eaton Centre’s north-end escalator into the basement, you’d see a bagel shop, a hair salon, a Hello Kitty explosion of a stationery-and-pet store, and a large and bustling – if dim and grey – food court filled with the usual suspects: burgers, fries, pizza and quick-serve salad.

Now, 14 months and $48 million later, the food court’s facelift is complete – creating a 950-seat urban eatery blending old-school fast food with some upscale local options.

The cafeteria-style tables and trays are gone, and so are most of the nearby stores (The only shop now is a Sport Chek, which has taken over the old Gap location). The stores have been replaced by a brand-new design-heavy eating area – or rather, several of them. The new space boasts long, low tables surrounded by leather stools; high bar tables with stools; and dozens of circular tables for four, clustered in a red-painted nook.

The multi-million-dollar project is part of the Eaton Centre’s $120-million revitalization initiative, which will also include overhauling the south food court and all bathrooms; replacing all floors; and an extensive greening and tree-planting program. Also on tap: a custom-designed light sculpture suspended from the roof.

 “We had to rip out everything – we went back to the cement walls,” Eaton Centre property manager Brian O’Hoski said during a tour of the back-to-base build.

“The $48 million went to re-introducing mechanical and electrical components, like new air-handling units…A lot of that behind-the-scenes stuff,” O’Hoski explained.

And yes, many of the tables have purse hooks.

“Finally, right?” he said proudly.

Pop, poutine & pizza on a real plate

It’s a lot to look at. The tile finishes and red plastic chairs from Danish designer Vernor Panton fit the Eaton Centre’s status as a tourist destination.

There are 24 food counters in the new space. And while many of the food options remain unchanged, others have taken advantage of the revamped design to also modify their appearance. For example, New York Fries is now Poutinerie by NYF. The McDonald’s has a sleeker “European-inspired” design. Throughout the eatery the cutlery, plates, and glasses are not disposable – so you can eat that piece of pizza on a real plate.

Upscale meets fast food: a risky marriage?

But could the makeover be a risky move for the Eaton Centre?

“Any time you see a move to go upscale, you have to wonder who is that the target market of the mall and will [shoppers] latch on to an idea like that,” said University of Toronto retail instructor Tom Vassos in an interview.
 
However, Vassos adds, the risks associated with investing in going upscale are reduced because of the sheer size of the Eaton Centre and its many different types of shoppers – ranging from thrifty students to wealthy fashionistas.

 “When you get a mall of that size, you don’t just have to after one segment of the market – there are many segments that you can reach,” Vassos added.

O’Hoski, meanwhile, agrees that the Eaton Centre attracts a large range of customers — from commuters to tourists to dedicated shoppers. To accommodate that mix of tastes and backgrounds, there is a still a KFC but the food court also now offers a vegan option.

“We are able to have local guys, local fare – some clients that wouldn’t typically be in this environment…We’ve got quite a mix.”

Local faves now on the menu

Indeed, part of that mix includes Urban Herbivore (a popular Kensington Market vegan restaurant); Fast Fresh Foods (an upscale sandwich shop); Liberty Noodle (a Japanese restaurant); and Big Smoke Burger (an upscale burger joint).

Offering a wide variety is a clever business move, said Vassos. Typically, in tougher economic times, people don’t stop shopping – they just change where they do it. As such, this is one way for a mall to hang on to customers who may be thinking of shopping elsewhere.

“People will keep spending,” Vassos said, noting that alongside inexpensive eats there’s always going to be a market for the upper end of the spectrum too.

The revamped food court opens Thursday Sept. 1.  To read more about the Eaton Centre revitalization project, click here.