The half-empty, surprisingly good food court at the Bellevue might be done

Rumors are more plentiful than customers, as vendors in the basement plaza have seen traffic plunge.

The Dining Court at the Bellevue

The Dining Court at the Bellevue

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
danya

Philadelphia’s Bellevue building is a giant of a space, containing among its lush office suites a mini-shopping mall with a Williams-Sonoma and a Starbucks. The building also houses a fancy health club (The Sporting Club at the Bellevue), a salon and spa (Artur Kirsch), and even a high-end hotel (Hyatt at the Bellevue). Its marketing website says the structure, in the city’s Theater District, is “lovingly known as The Grande Dame of Broad Street and appears on the US List of Registered Historical Places.”

But its food court, buried below street level, might just be history. There’s a rumor floating around that the Bellevue is looking to replace it with a grocery.

Several vendors have caught wind of that gossip — “Not Whole Foods, but something similar, is what I heard,” one told Billy Penn — and so have folks working on the reconstruction of The Palm, located right above subterranean plaza on the Beaux Arts building’s ground floor.

For now, Bellevue management is noncommittal.

“We are currently exploring a variety of different leasing opportunities geared towards delivering an enhanced experience to the thousands of office workers, hotel guests and general visitors walking through The Bellevue complex on a regular basis,” wrote Bellevue marketing director Maureen Weir via email.

However, she admitted, “[t]here is no doubt that consumer interest in traditional food courts has decreased over recent years.”

The lower level of the luxurious property, first launched as Fountain Court in 1989, has very obviously lost its luster. It once housed a mix of food vendors and art galleries, and was a buzzy meeting place for shopping, business lunches and coffee talk. These days, if you head down during lunch, the 235 seats at tables surrounding the central escalator might be half populated. Swing through when it’s not prime mealtime, and the space can feel like a ghost town, with the seven open stands glowing forlornly between vacant shuttered kiosks.

“Used to be, if someone liked our chicken salad, they’d come every day — maybe twice a day,” said 12-year food court proprietor Bret Goldman, of Ellen’s Bagels. “Traffic has decreased dramatically.”

Hoagie at Ellen's Bagels

Hoagie at Ellen's Bagels

Facebook/Ellen's Bagels

Goldman can’t pinpoint a specific reason for the downturn, but suspects a confluence of contributing factors.

First, the sports thing. Currently, most of our pro teams kind of suck. When the Phillies were good, Goldman said, the hotel was abuzz, and the traffic couldn’t help but flow downstairs. Plus, he’s personally very knowledgeable about all the local outfits, so even when it wasn’t a championship season, he had a set of regulars who’d come down just so they could chat sports

“Monday morning it would be like, ‘Oh let’s go talk to Bret about the Eagles game yesterday!’” he remembered wistfully. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

There’s also been a general shift in societal dining habits. Goldman described the kind of food at his stand — which is named after his mom, and serves breakfast faves like bacon-egg-and-cheese followed by meaty hoagies for lunch — as “nostalgic.” Nowadays, “people are looking for lighter food, and more of an experience.”

And of course, there are more experiential healthy food options than ever in Center City, Goldman noted, citing the downtown food boom as an obvious third reason traffic has slowed.

The fourth component to Goldman’s perfect anti-food-court storm is that demographics around Broad Street have undergone a big shift, with residences replacing former office towers. “This big law firm used to be right across the street, when they moved and it turned into condos, that took away 200 to 300 lawyers who used to be on the block for breakfast and lunch,” he said. “There’s UArts, but they’re only here for part of the year.”

Although he is branching out with other projects (he recently returned to managing the cafe at the Sporting Club, and does a lot of off-site catering), Goldman’s not planning to leave the food court anytime soon. Ellen’s Bagels has another seven or eight years left in its lease — which was recently renegotiated with better pricing.

But, he said, “I feel bad for anybody that tries to open up down here.”

This constitutes a weekday lunch rush at the food court

This constitutes a weekday lunch rush at the food court

Danya Henninger / Billy penn

Better deals on rent is likely how the Bellevue has been able to keep at least some of its food court tenants. Per Weir, management has “adjusted occupancy costs based on current sales volumes.”

Pizza Mia is a relative newcomer to the below-ground eating cluster (which is officially known as The Dining Court). Opened at the end of 2015, the shop is run by Robin Novelli. The NYC native, whose great-grandfather helped start Little Italy’s famous San Gennaro Festival, has lived in this area for the past 25 years. She was running the kitchen at Maxi’s Pizza at Temple when the Bellevue opportunity came up.

“They came looking for me,” she explained. “ Someone came up to ask the folks at Temple [if they knew anyone], and they said, ‘Hey, we got a lady here who knows her stuff.’”

She decided to give it a shot — the discount on the lease for the turnkey basement pizzeria helped sweeten the deal — and took over and rebranded the spot with her nickname, Mia.

Students make up a large percentage of her clientele. “I feed them, I always give them extra Oreos or something,” she said. “They’re broke-ass college kids — I worry that they’re hungry.” But some office workers know to swing by Pizza Mia too — the pies Novelli turns out from the double-wide stand are unexpectedly good.

But quality of product is not the food court’s problem.

Most of the tenants in the sunken plaza pour their hearts into their menus, Novelli said. “Each one of these vendors is authentic. The Greek place makes everything fresh to order. The noodle guy does the same.”

Novelli isn’t counting on the Pizza Mia stand for her future. She’s currently in the process of opening her own, standalone Italian restaurant in deep South Philly. But since she’s got the pizzeria too, she does wish the Bellevue would do something to help boost food court appeal. “The place needs an update,” she noted. The layout hasn’t changed since 1989, although a new coat of paint and new high-top tables were added a decade ago, and in 2015, new TVs were installed. “Plus,” Novelli added, “they don’t promote it at all.”

Margherita pizza from Pizza Mia

Margherita pizza from Pizza Mia

Danya Henninger / Billy penn

Lack of prominent advertising or promotion is something that also bothers other food court vendors, several of whom would only speak off the record. “For some reason the Bellevue doesn’t like to bring attention to the food court,” Goldman said.

Weir maintains that’s not the case. The food court is featured in all advertising for The Bellevue, she said, including an annual media buy of approximately $30,000.

However, management seems to be aware that the current situation is not ideal — and appears to be looking for something new: “In terms of priorities,” Weir wrote, “we are committed to formulating an action plan for The Bellevue’s lower level that will meet the changing needs of local consumers.”

Whether that action plan includes wooing a hip organic supermarket to the space, she wouldn’t say.