When the first department stores began opening restaurants to serve their shoppers, those shoppers were women, and those women ate salads. Many of those retail restaurants went away, but now they’re back again, and there are still women — and men, this time, too — eating salads. Except they’re also eating roasted bone marrow, or coconut rice cakes, or tofu with cauliflower and harissa, and drinking nitro cold brew and sparkling elderflower-blackberry sodas.
Retail restaurants are just like other restaurants. Except they’re in a store, which makes them nothing like other restaurants, because they don’t carry the same risks. They have a guaranteed space, a steady stream of customers and an ulterior motive: to get you to buy stuff. And not just another salad.
It’s “old retail,” said Barbara Kahn, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “The notion of the impulse buy, and the idea that the more time you spend in the space, you’re more likely to buy something.”
Come for the avocado toast. Leave with some jeans.
Department stores in the early 20th century set the precedent, with their glamorous tea rooms offering extensive menus.
“They were not cheap, but they were not luxury places,” said restaurant and retail historian Jan Whitaker, author of “Service and Style: How the American Department Store Fashioned the Middle Class.” “The whole idea was to keep your customers in the store as long as possible. And so you’re not going to have some place that nobody can afford.”
They were mostly open for lunch, with elaborate salads — considered very upscale at the time — as well as hot dishes. There would be fashion shows in the restaurant, and extravagant displays of merchandise, especially around the holidays.
But after World War II, department stores began to decline: People moved to the suburbs, and discount stores captured more market share. As companies began to cut back, the restaurants suffered. By the 1970s and ’80s, said Whitaker, they seemed hopelessly outdated.
“They were these sort of formal-looking restaurants . . . with big columns and chandeliers and all that kind of stuff,” said Whitaker. “People would have said, ‘Oh that’s where old ladies go.'” Some survived in New York, but the mall food court ascended elsewhere.
The first American Ikea opened outside Philadelphia in 1985, with a 200-seat restaurant serving its now-iconic Swedish meatballs. Other brands, throughout the years, have similarly experimented, with varying degrees of success. Ralph Lauren’s Chicago restaurant opened in 1999, and is still dishing out burgers and lobster bisque. But nothing remains of Torpedo Joe’s, a short-lived sandwich chain that occupied flagship Old Navy stores in the late ’90s.
Retail restaurants come and go. But what’s different about the most recent wave is that it’s not just big chains. Smaller clothing brands, single-location boutiques, banks and cellphone companies are getting into the restaurant business, some in a way that competes with independent restaurants nearby.
There’s a Jimmy’s Coffee inside the Frank and Oak store in Toronto’s cool Queen West neighborhood. You can actually now have breakfast at Tiffany’s, which opened a restaurant in its New York store. An AT&T in Seattle features “the Lounge,” a coffee shop and community gathering space. A Paula Deen restaurant is in a San Antonio Bass Pro Shop. Four European locations of H&M have cafes, called It’s Pleat, that serve sandwiches and cold-pressed green juice. Ralph Lauren, in addition to its successful Polo cafes, has launched Ralph’s, a stylish coffee shop in its Upper East Side store. Capital One now has 36 cafes serving Peet’s coffee in its banking branches in 15 cities, including the District.
“We want to be where our customers live, work and play,” said Jennifer Windbeck, managing vice president of Capital One cafes and branches. The cafes offer “the delivery of financial services through new technologies, balanced with the desire for human connection.”
Big-name restaurateurs and chefs aren’t shying away from the retail world, especially in partnerships with smaller, more upscale brands. After the success of his 2010 restaurant ABC Kitchen, in New York’s ABC Carpet & Home, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened ABC Cocina in 2013 and the vegetable-focused ABCV in 2017. Restaurateur Stephen Starr’s La Mercerie serves omelets and oysters in New York’s Roman and Williams Guild, a purveyor of fancy housewares (“Tablewares are available for purchase,” reads a note on the menu). Restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff, of New York’s popular Au Cheval, is behind the Restoration Hardware restaurants. Chicago chef Bill Kim is partnering with Crate and Barrel, which will open the Table at Crate in Oak Brook, Ill., in July.
It’s all part of a strategy to lure online shoppers back into physical stores by offering unique experiences.
“People eat out more often than they shop for, say, a pair of shoes. So if you’re after increased traffic and increased frequency of use of your store, restaurants are the obvious solution,” restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman said in an email. “These new restaurants are no longer mere amenities; they can become destinations.”
At Anthropologie’s Terrain Cafe, “we see a correlation between increased foot traffic within the cafe on days when the stores are seeing a high volume of customers, like the winter holiday season,” said a spokeswoman for URBN, Anthropologie’s parent company. “Likewise, on bigger holidays — like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, graduations — it’s likely the store will see an increase of foot traffic from our diners.”
Retail restaurants don’t have the same opening hurdles as stand-alone restaurants. Stores probably “provided much (if not all) the financing to building these restaurants; either that or they’re settling for far less rent than would be normal — or some combination of the two,” said Whiteman. “So the economic burden shouldered by these restaurants is far lower, making them more sustainable.”
The URBN spokeswoman said Terrain cafes are not operated by Anthropologie, “as they are completely separate.” URBN owns a restaurant group that operates the five locations of Terrain Cafe. (Restoration Hardware declined an interview request, and Kim did not respond to The Post’s inquiries. Windbeck did not answer a question about Peet’s agreement with Capital One.)
As Kahn said, though, “You still have to justify sales per square foot and operating margin. Bottom line is bottom line.”
Can a restaurant in a store ever truly be cool?
With the exception of ABCV, which has an interesting vegetable-forward menu, the food at these restaurants is designed to appeal to the widest swath of a store’s customers — so they’re trendy, but not edgy (remember: salad). But the spaces are lovely: Restoration Hardware’s New York restaurant is on the top floor of its massive Chelsea flagship, with gorgeous views. And on the third floor there’s a wine bar, where you can sip glasses of (red!) wine on the showroom couches (and wonder how many tipsy people have spilled).
Then there’s Terrain Cafe, which fills its Bethesda, Md., restaurant with greenery to establish a connection with the Anthropologie-owned garden shop of the same name. Look through the windows at the bar as you dine, and you’ll see racks of dresses. The food — colorful and Instagrammable, just like the clothes — has plenty of on-trend ingredients, such as watermelon radish, bee pollen and fiddlehead ferns. The cafe works with local farms and changes its menu seasonally.
The marketing is a bit more overt at the Capital One Cafe in Washington’s Chinatown. Cardmembers get 50 percent off at the bright and vaguely Scandi space, which is designed to entice those who work from coffee shops with comfy chairs, tons of outlets, free WiFi and meeting rooms that nonprofit organizations can reserve online. But there are also big screens constantly flashing promos: “We believe banking should fit your everyday life.” “Looking to knock out your debt?” There are “ambassadors” standing around to talk budgeting and answer questions about banking products. But how many people are actually ordering a matcha latte and then applying for a credit card?
“It’s a branding play,” said Kahn. “A lot of this physical retail is substituting for advertising dollars.”
At these restaurants, it’s impossible to forget that you are not only a diner, but a retail customer.
After some burrata toast and — you guessed it — a salad at Terrain Cafe, I ventured into the Anthropologie. It was for journalism purposes: I wanted to find out if the soaps in the bathroom, a brand called Botaniculture, were also for sale in the store. I wandered around the furniture section and sniffed a few candles. I didn’t see any Botaniculture, so I checked out the Mario Badescu skin care products. There were some cute earrings nearby. And all of the sale shoes were 50 percent off. Including a pair of gold d’orsay flats that I hadn’t planned to buy, but the price was too good to pass up.
What can I say? The strategy works.
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