At PPG Place food court, dining options are dwindling

The food court at Two PPG Place in Downtown is fast becoming a food corner.

A once-bustling hub for hungry lunchtime crowds, the food court likely will be down to just two restaurants -- Sbarro and Little China -- by the end of May.

That's when three other restaurants -- Asiago Express, Market Street Deli and Market Street Grill, which are all under the same ownership -- will be leaving the lower level spaces they have occupied for years. They follow three others -- Au Bon Pain, Grecian Isles and Fernando's Gourmet Eatery -- that have left under varying circumstances over the past few years.

The departures have unnerved some of those businesses left behind.

"It's scary. We don't know what's happening. We don't want to leave. We want to stay," said Cindy Lam, Little China manager.

The exodus comes at a time when fewer restaurants seem to be interested in food courts, preferring the exposure that comes with street-level space, said David Glickman, director of retail services for the Newmark Grubb Knight Frank real estate firm.

At Two PPG Place, Dennis Scott, owner of Asiago Express and the Market Street restaurants, said he was forced to look elsewhere for space in Downtown when landlord Highwood Properties did not renew his lease.

"They told me the food court is too 1980s and it hasn't been profitable for them in 10 years," he said.

That was news to Mr. Scott, who said 2013 was his best year ever in his 18-year run in the food court.

"I'm here every day and we have a line every day," he said from behind the counter at Market Street Deli. "If they feel that way, they didn't ask their tenants."

Nonetheless, he thinks the food court's days are numbered. "They told me in no uncertain terms that unless things change, this would not remain a food court," he said.

Raleigh, N.C.-based Highwoods, which purchased the six-building complex for $179.4 million in 2011, has made no secret of its interest in upgrading PPG's retail and restaurants to better complement neighboring Market Square, which benefited from a $5 million makeover a few years ago.

But Andy Wisniewski, a Highwoods vice president in Pittsburgh, said there has been no concerted effort to move out restaurants or to shut down the food court.

Highwoods, he said, has been trying to attract national operators and vendors to fill the vacant food court space, but that so far has "proven to be very difficult."

"If we can find the interest, it may very well stay a food court for years to come. That's one of the options at this point. We haven't been able to attract a national retailer to the food court. We work continually to try to do that, though," he said.

At the same time, Highwoods has been considering a number of other options for the space, including a grocery.

"We're looking at everything. We're looking at keeping the food court. We're looking at what options exist if it doesn't survive as a food court," Mr. Wisniewski said.

Mr. Scott, he said, had the option of moving to a ground-level spot within the PPG complex but declined. He added that there are no plans to dislodge either Sbarro or Little China, both of which have time left on their leases.

Highwoods needed the Market Street Deli and Market Street Grill spaces to make room for a new two-level restaurant it is planning for the space between Market Square and Fourth Avenue, Mr. Wisniewski said.

The landlord is working on a deal with a possible tenant for that space. It is looking for a restaurant that would be appropriate for both business and casual meals, and one that can bring more vibrancy to PPG and Market Square, he noted.

Mr. Glickman of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank said three of his clients -- Max & Erma's, Jimmy Wan's and Walnut Grill -- wanted to fill the space but were not selected by Highwoods.

The PPG food court is only one of three left in Downtown. The others are in Fifth Avenue Place and Oxford Centre. The Warner Centre food court closed nearly a decade ago.

With restaurants preferring to be at street level, the days of large food courts with six to eight tenants in Downtown buildings "are probably fading," Mr. Glickman said, although he stressed that he still sees a viable market for smaller ones.

"There might not be a need for large food courts, but there is a demand and great potential to have indoor restaurants in larger office buildings [in] Downtown like U.S. Steel and PPG because the majority of people who are going to patronize food courts are going to be in that building or the buildings immediately surrounding it," he said.

"Food courts, if done right, are very successful, so they're not obsolete by any means. It's just that some tenants know they're going to do better at street level."

Mr. Scott, meanwhile, plans to move his restaurants to a new building on Wood Street in July. The new space will be a "little more sophisticated version" than what he had in the food court. He said the ground-level PPG spot offered by Highwoods would have been too close to a Five Guys Burgers and Fries opening soon within the complex.

While he's excited about the new beginning, he'll be leaving PPG with mixed emotions.

"We've been here for a long time -- 18 years. It's sad in a way. It's been really good for us," he said.

Mark Belko: or 412-263-1262.

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