Department stores have been in a race to set themselves apart from each other for years, and the quest has become even more urgent in the age of online shopping. Increasingly, food has started to play a bigger role in those efforts. In addition to exclusive brands and signature fashion lines, retailers have been focusing on offering customers experiences that can’t be replicated in the digital world — and that includes restaurants. New concepts include department store dining aimed at catering to foodies, menus designed for health-conscious consumers and spots set up to serve cocktails to customers stopping to catch a second wind.
Last year, Macy’s made a splash with the opening of Stella 34 Trattoria as part of the multi-year remodel of its Herald Square flagship in New York City. It’s not new for Macy’s stores to have on-site restaurants, but the new 10,000-square-foot Italian eatery will stay open later than the store, offer an innovative foodie-friendly menu and boast a gelato bar and views of the Empire State Building. Unlike many other in-store eateries, Stella 34 has the power of a big restaurant group behind it; Patina Restaurant Group is a heavy hitter, with standalone restaurants on both coasts as well as concepts at the Hollywood Bowl and Downtown Disney.
“Most restaurants in retail stores are designed and function as amenities to the retail concept, not destinations,” says Denver Restaurant Consultant John Imbergamo. “The Nordstrom Cafes and such are meant to keep shoppers in the store once they’re there, not to get them into the store. Stella 34 Trattoria might be the exception.”
Nordstrom boasts about 200 restaurants and espresso bars in its U.S. department stores, making the restaurant side of the company the size of a regional restaurant chain. The concepts include high-end cuisine, modern takes on comfort food, casual fare, small plates and even a fresh juice joint called Fruititude.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brooks Brothers, a fashion retailer best known for its men’s suits, revealed last year that it will open its first restaurant. The three-story, 15,000-square-foot steakhouse called Makers & Merchants will likely open some time this summer, around the corner from the retailer’s New York City flagship on Madison Avenue. It’s too soon to discuss details for the restaurant, a spokesman for the retailer said this week, but in a Bloomberg TV interview last December, CEO Claudio Del Vecchio said the vision is for a steakhouse that will serve up the best culinary experience the world has to offer. Whether the concept will become a chain remains to be seen, he said. “We’ll do one and see how it goes.”
The steakhouse and another new retail restaurant concept are designed to appeal to men, a significant shift from the more traditional in-store tearooms and other in-store eateries aimed at the ladies who lunch during a day of shopping.
Saks, which boasts high-end restaurants at some of its luxury department stores, opened a bar and cafe last year inside the men’s department on the third floor of the Houston store. The spot called 12 is an offshoot of the upscale in-store eatery 51Fifteen Restaurant & Lounge, but it’s more low-key and casual and aimed at offering the store’s male customers a respite from shopping.
In-store restaurants have traditionally served as a convenience for shoppers and employees in need of a place to grab lunch during their shifts. Others, like Saks’s 51Fifteen Restaurant & Lounge and Macy’s Stella 34 aim to become destinations in and of themselves, with innovative design and chef-driven menus aimed at appealing to foodies and bringing in customers who might otherwise never enter the store.
“Small cafes with a selection of sandwiches and salads will not drive traffic to a retail store. A superb restaurant with great food, service and views could possibly increase traffic,” Imbergamo said.