Foodcourts, synonymous with cheap eats, have long been a favourite with diners. So what’s the recipe to their success? Craig Hoyle reports.
Rose Matafeo doesn’t hesitate when asked for her favourite eating spot in the world.
The awarding-winning comedian and rising TV star has her pick of fine eateries in London – “I’m lucky enough to go to a lot of places because of comedy” – but her fondest and tastiest food memories are back home in Auckland.
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“Foodcourts are a big thing in New Zealand,” she says, in a recent episode of the Table Manners food podcast hosted by British mother-daughter duo Jessie and Lennie Ware, as she describes the foodcourt in Ponsonby, “which is where I grew up”.
“A laksa from there, a red curry… the best!”
Matafeo is far from the only celebrity to frequent Ponsonby’s foodcourt. English comedian Russell Brand gave it a shout-out as one of his favourite places in Auckland, and its current manager Gigi van Kuijk says it’s common to see famous Kiwis enjoying a bowl of noodles amid the crowd.
“You can quite easily sit here and spot an All Black,” van Kuijk says.
She reels off a list of frequently-seen musicians, actors and sports stars. TV shows often film here, she adds, and Ponsonby International Foodcourt has a loyal clientele.
“Our demographic is more local,” she says, “and includes sports events, local businesses, and people that live around the area.”
Matafeo is right: foodcourts are indeed a big thing in Aotearoa. From hidden alleys to flash halls, thousands dine in mixed food venues each day.
They’re also a relatively recent trend. Until the 1980s our takeaway habits were mostly monocultural: a sandwich for lunch, and fish and chips for dinner on Friday night.
“I graduated from university in the mid-80s and worked in the city centre, and it was basically sandwiches everywhere,” says Bill McKay, a senior lecturer at Auckland University’s School of Architecture and Planning.
“There was no sushi or any of the wide variety [of food that we see now].”
Things changed quickly in subsequent years as immigration and travel saw us exposed to a dizzying new array of foods.
“We developed a taste in the 80s and 90s for a wider variety of food, especially what you might call ‘ethnic’ food, and the foodcourt is dealing with that,” says McKay.
“It’s a reflection of much more diverse eating habits, and a much more diverse population.”
It’s why Gigi van Kuijk’s mother started Ponsonby International Foodcourt 20 years ago. The family is Dutch-Indonesian; Irene van Kuijk had already successfully started Auckland’s first Indonesian restaurant, and had greater ambitions.
“I wanted to bring a variety of food predominantly from Asian areas to Auckland for everyone to experience,” says Irene van Kuijk from Singapore, where she now lives.
There was nothing like it in New Zealand at the time. Some doubted whether there was enough of a market for ‘foreign’ food, but Ponsonby International Foodcourt went from strength to strength.
“The people of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn were so friendly and wonderful,” says Irene van Kuijk, recalling those early days.
“We have families that raised their children in the foodcourt and now those children bring their children to eat and experience different food types. It has become generational.”
Recipe for success
Around the corner on Karangahape Rd, Lim Chhour Foodcourt also recently celebrated 20 years.
Like Ponsonby International Foodcourt, it was started by immigrants from Asia; the Chhour family arrived in New Zealand as refugees from Cambodia and the enterprising Lim Chhour set about introducing Asian cuisine to receptive consumers. A Birkenhead dairy in the 1980s became a fruit and vegetable shop in Hobsonville, followed by the first Asian supermarket in Ōtāhuhu.
By the turn of the century Lim Chhour’s name was plastered on more than a dozen Asian supermarkets across Auckland, and he wanted to try something different. The Karangahape Rd site, he decided, would be more than just a supermarket.
“When my father purchased this building in 2002 he targeted international students,” says Muy Chhour, who took over the family business after her dad died of liver cancer in 2013.
“We’re set up with all the different Asian cuisines here. We have the Asian foodcourt, and we have student accommodation upstairs.
“If the students want to cook they can get all their ingredients [at the supermarket], their spices and Chinese vegetables, and cook upstairs. If they don’t want to, they can just order food downstairs [from the foodcourt].”
The secret to a good foodcourt, says Chhour, is keeping things cheap and cheerful.
“All the food here is great value for money. They charge roughly $14 to $16 and you have a decent size. For me personally I can never finish it, and you feel full after a meal.”
The other cardinal rule: never have two vendors selling the same food.
“They all have to be different, otherwise you’re fighting against each other for the same clientele, and you’re not going to make much money,” says Chhour.
“It’s better if it’s all different cuisines. So no, I wouldn’t lease to someone else that had the same type of food.”
The foodcourt formula has been repeated with great success. They’ve become ubiquitous in large retail shopping malls such as the Westfield chain, and shopping and foodcourts now go hand in hand.
“Foodcourts are great for getting people into malls,” says Auckland University’s Bill McKay, the urban design expert, explaining that they’re very deliberately placed.
“They’re often at one end of a mall, or sometimes in the centre … They’re bait, really.”
Shared dining in public spaces is nothing new, McKay adds. In centuries past, people congregated in village squares and needed to be fed and watered if street vendors wanted them to stick around.
“In modern times the ancestor of the foodcourt is the tearooms in the department stores,” he says.
“The first department stores in New Zealand – Selfridges, Farmers – put tearooms in, and the idea was that you could have a bit of a rest stop, recuperate, have lunch in there, and then carry on shopping.”
Like supermarkets, McKay says, mall foodcourts are carefully designed.
“There are really complex algorithms and experiences behind all of this, but they like to keep it quiet.”
True to form, Westfield is cagey about revealing its secrets, but does grant permission for Stuff to dine at and photograph two of its marquee venues: Westfield Manukau – which hosts the bread and butter of mall foodcourts, with cheap eats and big chains like McDonald’s – and Westfield Newmarket, which offers a more high-brow dining experience in an upmarket shopping centre.
Westfield is keen for its Newmarket site to be included, because it’s a prototype for what all Westfield foodcourts may one day look like: soft lighting, decked with greenery, and not a McDonald’s in sight.
It’s part of a wider trend, says McKay, with foodcourts increasingly expected to target an upscale market “because there’s more potential profit going that way”.
He points to Commercial Bay, the downtown Auckland shopping precinct opened in 2020, as an example of what the future holds: there, the associated Harbour Eats floor offers 27 bespoke food retailers with enough seating for 900 people.
But please don’t call it a foodcourt, says Andrew Trounson, Commercial Bay’s retail centre manager.
“We definitely don’t refer to it as a foodcourt, because we think it’s a much more elevated space than that.”
Instead, Trounson prefers the more refined ‘food hall’, describing Harbour Eats as “a flagship part of the development”.
“We really wanted to get inspiration from other iconic food halls around the world, and a big influence for us was New York,” Trounson says.
“There’s a great market there called Hudson Yards in New York City, which we looked at for design inspiration, and we also looked at a place called DeKalb Markets in Brooklyn, and a place in Barcelona called El Nacional.
“Harbour Eats represented an opportunity for us to create something that from a design point of view was a more premium setting, where people would want to come and experience a beautiful meal, and be in an amazing environment.”
Trounson describes the main strip through Harbour Eats as its “line of fire”.
“We wanted these tenancies to bring a bit of theatre to the space, with cooking and flame-grilling on display, so there’s commotion and excitement.”
Branching off from the main strip are three quieter areas known as “exchange pods”, where smaller operators are grouped together.
“They specialise generally in one or two food items, because they’re smaller tenancies, so they’re all about trading,” says Trounson. “It’s the old notion of exchanging and trading quick turnaround meals.”
At the far end is a bar called Public, where diners can grab a wine or a beer and enjoy “amazing views out onto Queen St”.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Commercial Bay. The precinct’s highly-anticipated opening in early 2020 was dealt a major blow by the arrival of Covid-19, which Trounson describes as “pretty challenging”.
Patronage has rebounded since then, with the lunch trade “really strong”, but evenings are more of a challenge after shoppers and office workers have left the central city. Normally visitors would be the target for dinner, but tourist numbers are still far below pre-Covid levels.
“I think we’ve still got a little bit of room to grow, obviously, with international tourism returning,” says Trounson, who would like to see a capacity increase of 15-20%.
Lim Chhour Foodcourt was also hit hard by Covid; owner Muy Chhour says it was “heartbreaking” to see her tenants lose money during the forced closure, and she did what she could to help them survive financially.
Chhour’s hostel for international students above the foodcourt also emptied out, and she was forced to pivot to hosting construction workers for Auckland’s new City Rail Link.
Foodcourts faced an added challenge post-Covid with many diners reluctant to return to enclosed spaces thronged with crowds; for some, it’s been a death knell.
When Stuff visited the Anzac Ave Foodcourt – a long-time favourite for crime reporters and High Court staff – just one Chinese restaurant remained in a mostly abandoned alcove.
The staff spoke limited English, and gave a one-word response to gestures at the surrounding empty shop-fronts.
They point out a phone number for landlord Ted Chen, who says Covid dealt the foodcourt a fatal blow.
“Before Covid it was alright,” Chen says. “Customers were normally from surrounding businesses, and students, and construction workers. Normally it’s busy during lunchtime, but it’s gotten worse because of Covid.
“We’re probably gonna close the whole thing [this] year.”
For the foodcourts that survived, new challenges are emerging such as inflation – higher food prices threaten to wipe out the concept of cheap eats – and staffing shortages. When Stuff visits Ponsonby International Foodcourt van Kuijk has been out on the floor collecting dirty plates herself, because she’s a worker short.
“It’s a hard slog,” she says.
The foodcourt’s had a spruce-up recently with a fresh coat of paint, and van Kuijk’s pondering further upgrades.
“We’d like to go upmarket, but you’ve got to be careful, because if you change the concept, then it loses that old New Zealand feel,” she says.
For now though, despite the challenges, she’s pleased with how far the family business has come.
“We’re just really happy that we’ve served this community for 20 years,” she says.
“We’re an institution, and we’ve done it really well.”
What we ate
Lim Chhour Foodcourt
Stir-fried rice noodles with beef from Swordsman Chinese Cuisine, $14.
Harbour Eats at Commercial Bay
Teriyaki chicken rice bowl from Kai Eatery, $18.90.
Ponsonby International Foodcourt
Lamb kebab on rice from Papa Tasty, $17.
Super combo set from Master Bao – chicken/chips/dumplings with spicy sauce and a drink, $18.90.
Spicy miso tonkotsu ramen with pork from Daruma Ramen, with side of chicken karaage. $16.80 for main, $4.80 for side. Added two seasoned eggs for $2 each.
Anzac Ave Foodcourt
Chicken & black pepper on rice from Yummy BBQ, $16.