From Night Market Treats to Food Court Fine Dining

The evolution of Taiwan’s mass market eating establishments has speeded up over the past decade to meet developing tastes and higher expectations.

In recent years the long and colorful tradition of food vendors setting up roadside stalls has become less common, as hygiene requirements and city ordinances tighten up. Taking its place is a multitude of food courts at MRT stops, department stores, shopping malls, airports, hospitals, and universities – even in one of the world’s tallest buildings, Taipei 101.

While it would appear that Taiwan’s plush new food courts are a world away from their chaotic and stained forebears, it’s fairly simple to trace how they developed from the night markets of old, while at the same time incorporating ideas from the United States and Japan.

A clear example of this transformation is the iconic Shilin Night Market. When a wealthy merchant built Cixian Temple near a wharf on the Keelung River at the tail end of the 18th century, it naturally attracted stallholders jostling for space to do some business. They stayed long after silting put an end to the port. Eventually the area found fame as a night market, a place to browse for clothes and trinkets, but especially to sample the rich array of foods on offer.

Today, vendors need permits and are expected to pay taxes, and they have been corralled into enclosed spaces with clean running water and public conveniences. Ironically, the more sanitary and “upmarket” surroundings have been a bit of a turnoff for locals, though the market still does a roaring trade, partly due to foreign visitors being encouraged by the Tourism Bureau to seek out an “authentic” experience.

“You’re right, Shilin isn’t such a popular market with locals anymore, but it is with tourists,” says Peter Tou, general manager in Taipei of the communications marketing firm Edelman Public Relations, which works with many of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies. “The place has lost a lot of the mom ‘n’ pop vendors who made it such a draw in the first place. You could say it has been over standardized and codified, almost as if it’s lost the original recipe.”

“The original experience was spontaneous, exciting, authentic, with artisans or masters cooking while you watched. In the new space it feels more like a food court atmosphere, but smellier and not as pleasant,” says Tou, who has handled accounts such as the Mitsui Outlet Park in New Taipei’s Linkou and Jamie Oliver’s new eatery at Shin Kong Mitsukoshi in the Xinyi district of Taipei.

Essentially, food courts have upgraded the night market food experience for a new generation of office workers and families, those who want convenience, hygiene, and the advantage of choice, but also an atmosphere more suited to contemporary sensibilities. “Night markets have always developed where there’s food, near wet markets for instance, whereas these days we are more likely to shop at department stores or malls,” Tou observes.

The concept of food courts began in North America. Real estate developer James Rouse – originator of the terms “urban renewal” and “shopping mall” – introduced the idea of restaurants with shared seating in 1962 at Toronto’s Sherway Gardens Hall. The objective was to create a kind of “community picnic” area, where diners could choose what they wanted to eat from an assortment of choices and then sit together in democratic harmony.

Food courts became an integral part of the American lifestyle, while Japan led the way in Asia. According to Tou, the influence of U.S. food courts on Taiwan derives mostly from the emphasis on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), sanitary conditions, and fast food practices. “The night markets were often family-owned businesses, which provided an authentic communal experience rather than just being about the money.”

The Japanese Influence

The other significant influence on Taiwan’s food court culture has been Japan. One of the legacies of the 50-year Japanese colonial rule of the island beginning in 1895 was a strong food culture, including the adoption of bento (lunchboxes) and signature Japanese dishes, and the presence of numerous Japanese restaurants.

Added to which, Taiwan’s rather uninspiring retail environment was transformed by Japan’s Sogo (partnering with Pacific Construction and later the Far Eastern Group) in the late 1980s, followed by Mitsukoshi (with local operator Shin Kong Group) in the ’90s. Naturally, food courts were part of the package. Tou makes the point that Japanese restaurants account for at least a quarter of the total at the huge Mitsui Outlet Park, which opened in mid-2016.

“Taiwanese are naturally receptive to Japanese foods. It’s quite usual for restaurants in Japan, which has a saturated market, to look abroad at Taiwan first,” Tou notes. “This is why a lot of branded mid-range eateries open up here, before they set up shop in China and elsewhere.”

After online shopping reached a critical mass in 2007 and the financial crisis hit a year later, malls in the United States struggled for business. Consumers were tired of the humble food court, its fast food, and plastic surroundings. High-end food emporiums like Grand Central Market in California supplied the solution. Similarly, in Japan, Tokyo’s depachika have merged food halls and pop-up restaurants for a fusion of fine dining.

While Taiwan is slightly behind the curve with this trend, there are a couple of honorable exceptions. Addiction Aquatic Development (上引水產), near Songshan Airport, was also developed by Japan’s Mitsui Food and Beverage Enterprise Group. It completely upgrades the old fish market experience, adding wine bars and best-in-town sashimi. Meanwhile, the ornate Bellavita in the Xinyi district offers an aristocratic afternoon tea spread, decent Italian food, plus an oysters and champagne bar.

Chen Shih-ming, president of the Taipei Financial Center Corp. (TFCC), which owns and operates Taipei 101, recounts that the original idea behind its food court, which opened in 2004, was to enable shoppers to re-energize when indulging in some retail therapy at the luxury mall. Research from financial information provider MarketWatch indicates that a decent food court can boost spending by up to 20%.

At the same time the food court had to cater to hordes of tourists, families, footfall from the MRT stop, 101 office workers, and others. “Every day 10,000 to 12,000 people make their way to work here, in what is effectively a vertical city, so we need to support them,” explains Taipei 101 spokesman and TFCC Vice President Michael Liu.

As has been the case elsewhere, however, changing demographics led to the need for the 101 food court to be renovated in 2012 in order to meet higher consumer expectations. Chen describes the new look as “seriously upmarket, a more stylish space for a high-end shopping mall.” He notes that to “complement the luxury retail space, we wanted an excellent quality food space, with LED lighting, TV wall panels, expansive chandeliers, and improved seating to produce a lounge-effect style.”

Eating in the 101 food court has edged closer to becoming a restaurant type of experience, rather than merely a simple cafeteria or canteen. Instead of the food court being just a place for a quick bite to eat, one now finds people reading newspapers and taking their time. The food offerings have changed as well, with fewer night market staples, sandwiches, and other lower priced choices. These have been supplemented or replaced by premium ice creams and coffee and English tea concessions, plus Din Tai Fung – a huge hit, as shown by the snaking queues at all times of the day. There is also a new dining section dedicated to Japanese foods, with branded restaurants.

These changes “made the food court a value-added part of the mall, a place to relax and enjoy the atmosphere,” Chen says. “I think the prices are still moderate, and there is differentiation between the food court and the fine dining options we have elsewhere, such as Shin Yeh Taipei, Diamond Tony’s, and the VIP lounge for prestige customers.”

The importance of a good food court that meets the needs of a mall’s customers is not lost on Michael Liu. “It can help determine the future success of our operation, since there has been a 20% increase in online shopping over the past 10 years. So there’s a need to look at how to keep our customers. The food court has a very important role in this.”

Chen says that though retail space offers a higher profit margin, improving food and beverage profits is a logical next step. “We’ve noticed a trend toward going upmarket and we’ve responded,” he says. “We see casual dining as a focus in the future. Since we sell high-end products, when there is a financial slowdown there’s usually a corresponding slowing of sales. There is still a predisposition to spend but a natural hesitation. But such economic problems never affect the stomach. People will always eat.”

Back to the future

According to a Taiwan Institute of Economic Research report, double-income families are the norm in Taiwan, and about one-third of household spending goes to dining out. Further, the typical destination for a family outing on the weekend is a mall for shopping, perhaps watching a film, and eating – which is why decent food offerings are crucial to the success of such operations.

Given the challenge posed by e-commerce, food has become an even more important selling point for department stores and malls, since providing a great meal with decent service is obviously an experience that cannot be replicated online. Conceivably, retail sales will continue to migrate online, but food courts will still make money and also bring in customers to boost bricks-and-mortar retail sales.

For example, TaiMall in Taoyuan’s Nankan district, built in 1997 and resembling a castle, was said to be the first large-scale shopping and leisure center in Taiwan. After turning a profit in 2004, it was snapped up by Government of Singapore Investment Corp. in 2008. It underwent a NT$1.5 billion, 20-month renovation in 2009 with the aim of meeting higher consumer expectations and beating off increased competition.

The food court was a major element in this revamp, with sectioned seating areas that are more spacious and imaginatively lit, better cleaning and service, and improved food offerings, including some from branded restaurants. TaiMall representatives report that food and beverage sales comprise 28% of the mall’s total profits, and the food court pulls in 3.6%.

As for the humble night market, that too is getting a makeover. Commune A7, situated in the Xinyi district shopping zone, next to Shin Kong Mitsukoshi A9, boldly advertises itself as the “brand new urban community in the heart of Taipei.” It includes well regarded standalone restaurants, such as mini-versions of Selfish Burger, Campus Café, and Alley Cat’s. The units are smartly converted shipping containers or tricked-out trucks.

Clean and stylish, with gentlemen in tuxes marshalling the well-dressed crowds, Commune A7 is only a 10-minute walk from the traditional Tonghua Night Market, but there is a world of difference. In a sense, Commune A7 blends the comfort of food courts and the atmosphere of night markets to create a hybrid, the outdoor food court.

Commune A7 is the new kid on the block, and though it is only scheduled to run for six months – after which the fancy shipping containers will leave and a new building goes up – no doubt the format will be repeated elsewhere. Peter Tou describes the concept as a “Western-food night market, without the friendly price of a night market,” but its customers seem happy to pay the difference.

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