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Wilde & Greene: Food Court Game-Changer

Wilde & Greene: Food Court Game-Changer

This suburban Chicago restaurant/marketplace reinvents the food court.

It's hard to do justice to the level of ambition on display at the new Wilde & Greene Restaurant + Natural Market, which opened this September at the Westfield Old Orchard Mall in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Il. The official description calls it “the world's first in-mall dining and green grocer specialty food shopping venue.”

Can't figure out exactly what that means? Let the numbers tell the tale. Wilde & Greene's 29,000 sq. ft. space includes a 17,000 sq. ft. restaurant with 500 seats; a 6,000 sq. ft. rooftop patio that holds 140; and a 6,000 sq. ft. natural grocery market that has 5,000 different items on display. Factor in the 18 food and beverage stations where chefs prepare food in front of patrons for both dine-in and takeout and the whole works portends a level of operational complexity most RH readers wouldn't dare touch.

Wilde & Greene's owner, Toronto-based Natural Markets Restaurants, is more than up for the challenge. The company already operates restaurant and open marketplace concepts at big malls in Canada. But it has never tackled something of this size and complexity.

“We have a lot of experience on the restaurant side of things and are now combining this with an organic grocery store where people can shop and purchase groceries themselves,” says company f&b boss Robert Mayer. “This is a new opportunity for us and we're very excited about being able to offer this kind of flexibility to our customers,” he adds.

Several other high-profile operations that combine multiple prepared food options with gourmet shopping have opened of late. Most prominent are two in New York City led by celebrity chefs: Mario Batali's Eataly and The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English. Wilde & Greene's take on this format is a little different. It combines the multiple chef-prepared food options of an Eatzi's with the shopping experience of a Whole Foods Market,

Yet it's not a pure play on either. The default idea at Eatzi's is that customers will take their prepared food home. They can do that at Wilde & Greene, too. But with seating for 640, many will choose to eat on site. Why not?

On the retail front, the market space is only one-tenth the size of a newer Whole Foods store. But it helps reinforce the message that it's all about healthier dining and shopping at Wilde & Greene.

The 18 food and beverage stations combine into what is billed as an "onstage" restaurant where fresh and all-natural ingredients are prepared in front of guests. That's a lot of exhibition cooking.

"We have created a varied and delicious menu at Wilde & Greene with the shopping center guest in mind. Multiple styles of contemporary dishes from around the world are presented in the most unique way possible, using only the freshest ingredients, prepared by our experienced team," says Mayer. "It's truly a dining experience like no other." He expects his 300-person staff to prepare 3,000 meals per day.

This operation has a lot of moving parts, and it's going to be a challenge to make them all mesh. But Wilde & Greene has some key elements working in its favor. The site is terrific, with virtually unlimited parking and foot traffic estimated at 13 million shoppers a year. Many are upscale consumers who have the budget for Wilde & Greene-level offerings. Sales of beer, wine and cocktails brighten the revenue picture, and the idea that patrons will shop, have a sit-down meal and then purchase additional food and beverage items to take home could well produce terrific per-person sales averages.

Those who always wondered why Eatzi's (which still operates two units in Dallas) never really took off despite its excellent food and solid customers base will want to keep on eye on Wilde & Greene. It has added a few aspects that might finally make this format work.
One thing's for sure. Wilde & Greene is going to be a strong competitor for the other 20 restaurants that have outlets at Old Orchard. The list includes California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, Maggiano's Little Italy and McCormick & Schmick's. Will they take a hit from this new rival?

Or, more importantly, will you? Presuming it gets the formula right, Wilde & Greene seems like it would be a tough competitor for any mall-based restaurant wherever it opens.

Parent Natural Markets Restaurant Corp. is tight-lipped about the future. "While we do have plans to open in other locations throughout the U.S., I am not at liberty to disclose this information at this time," says Mayer.

That's if this one works. Will it? This company knows large-scale mall restaurants and open marketplace concepts, and it has run natural foods markets, too. Now all its expertise is being put to work on a single concept. If any operator is going to get the everything-for-everybody food emporium concept right, Natural Markets might be the one.