Efforts to revive local shopping malls; how about an ice skating rink?

The recent economic downturn has severely affected many retailers, especially shopping malls. One local mall, Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, has been hit particularly hard and is looking for ways to bring in more shoppers. One idea: build an ice skating rink.

Barring an eleventh-hour change of heart, 94 employees at the Sears store at Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles will lose their jobs in two months. But the mall management and city officials hope to coax the retail giant to stay.

And the city and mall owners see hope in new business coming to Charlestowne, including an ice arena…

There might be reasons to be optimistic about the mall. Anchor stores Kohl’s and Von Maur both own the property they operate, making them less likely to leave. Aiston said the mall also disclosed it’s in negotiations to bring two or three new businesses to the mall, including a restaurant.

In addition, the mall may soon have a new headline attraction. Aiston and Kekatos said the city is reviewing plans the mall owners submitted to build an 18,000-square-foot ice arena at the mall to revive foot traffic.

“What I really want the public to know is our new ownership is fabulous,” Kekatos said. “You have to remember it’s only been going on seven months since they’ve purchased the mall. We’re updating the interior and the exterior of the mall. The community, the people in it, they just don’t understand that it takes time to do all this.”

This seems to be a common strategy for shopping malls: attract new kinds of businesses that will bring in a steady flow of potential shoppers. The restaurant strategy has been a common one – it moves malls beyond the world of the shopping mall food court with its quick food and may bring in a crowd with more time and money. But bringing in a shopping rink hints at another area of potential uses: recreational uses. Could the shopping malls of the future include things like ice skating rinks, gyms, climbing walls, and more? If so, this could help further transform malls from shopping spaces to community centers.

It is also interesting that the quest for developers and mall owners to add uses to shopping malls mirrors the efforts of many downtowns who have also been interested in increasing foot traffic. Of course, the shopping mall is often blamed for helping to kill off many downtowns but perhaps they are both now in the same boat. Are there enough retail and recreational and restaurant businesses to fill all of the space in shopping malls and downtowns?

Ranking the Big 4 in Chicago deep-dish pizza

Recently, my wife had her first taste of Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza. With this pizza excursion, she and I have eaten deep-dish pizza in the last few years from all four of the big Chicago pizza restaurants: Uno, Giordano’s, Gino’s East, and Lou Malnati’s. Here is my ranking of the four pizza places (along with my wife’s thoughts as well):

1. Uno – and I’m referring to the Uno and Due locations just off Michigan Avenue in Chicago (and not the commodified version found all over the world). In my mind, this is the real thing: thick, greasy, and substantial and served in nearly claustrophobic spaces. On the downside (as my wife will point out), it is greasy, can disrupt your stomach, and is quite unhealthy. Still, I think if you had to have one taste of Chicago’s deep-dish pizza, this would be the place – and just make sure you don’t eat too much. (And, if I remember correctly from some things I have read, Uno was first and some of the other pizza places were founded by people who honed their craft here.)

2. Giordano’s. The taste of their pizza is different compared to Uno’s – it is lighter and sweeter. According to my wife, this is the number one pizza place because of its bready crust and the best sauce and cheese. A good pizza overall.

3. Gino’s East. Similar to Giordano’s but lacking in cheese and crust. And how come the customers can’t write on the walls anymore?

4. Lou Malnati’s. They have the thinnest pizza of the four, the cheese tastes a little different (perhaps a hint of Swiss?), and the sauce is lacking.

I can drive to each of these four restaurants within 45 minutes and they all seem to be quite busy on a Friday or Saturday night. I’m sure there are others with different opinions- Chicago pizza hasn’t exactly caught on big in other places and plenty of New Yorkers will tell you about their own pizza. But, it does seem like there are a lot of Americans that just like pizza in general and there is plenty of pizza to go around…

Don’t just ban Happy Meal toys; American food culture needs to be changed

After San Francisco recently moved to ban the toys in Happy Meals (by tying the ability to include toys to certain nutrition benchmarks),  Josh Ozersky argues that more than just banning Happy Meals is needed: American food culture and what foods it says are good needs to be changed.

No, the problem with the ban is that it doesn’t go far enough. America’s tots aren’t getting supersized simply by eating Happy Meals…University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro makes the case that “the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world.” And reversing that trend will be a lot harder than making Happy Meals a little less happy.

But still, you have to start somewhere, and I understand why the San Francisco supervisors picked Happy Meals as their beachhead…

Again and again, efforts to promote fresh fruit and produce in low-income urban areas have failed for the simple reason that Americans have been brainwashed. We have been conditioned, starting in utero, to prefer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar concoctions rather than their less exciting, more natural culinary cousins…

Why? Because as Americans, we like highly processed food. It was invented to please us. Cheap flavor bombs will always trump healthier alternatives. Dangling a Transformer or Beanie Baby or some other toy du jour in front of a kid may help balance the playing field at least a little. But why can’t cheap, processed food be made healthier? Is that really impossible? Or is it just too expensive?

Ozersky doesn’t quite come out and say it but he is suggesting that Americans need to radically rethink their diets and food choices. This is not a matter of just eating less fast food but thinking about all processed food and why we eat it rather than more natural food. As other writers like Michael Pollan have pointed out, other cultures make different food choices where natural is the norm and meals are events that then five or ten minute periods where Americans try to relieve their hunger while also getting essential nutrients. American food habits are tied to a whole host of other phenomenon including cars (fast food), ideas about efficiency, technology (eating in front of the TV, microwaved food), ideas about how expensive food should be, and more. And these are patterns that start young.

The question of whether all of this could be changed through governmental intervention or through other means is another controversy for another day.

(Another thought: how come McDonald’s is the most common target of such actions? It is kind of like the attention that Walmart draws – neither McDonalds or Walmart are the only games in town and yet their size and reputation tends to draw the most attention.)

Zagat rates fast food and full service chains

Zagat, the restaurant rating firm, has recently released results of a survey of 6,500 fast-food fans. The survey covers both fast food and full-service chains and has a variety of ratings including best burger and best value.

This quantification of the fast food and full service chain industry is interesting. Such food is considered by some to barely be real food. Zagat’s reputation is generally based on reviewing fine restaurants, not popular chains. So is the goal to help Zagat reach a broader audience? This is an example of an odd pairing of high-brow and low-brow culture.

After observing Dairy Queen’s 5th place spot in the popular quick-refreshment chains, one commentator says, “Of course, I can’t help but wonder: will we begin to see “Zagat rated” stickers adorning the take-out window at Dairy Queen?