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March 6, 2023 Deal Watch

Food court, modeled after Hartford’s popular Parkville Market, planned in Farmington office building

HBJ PHOTO | ANDREW LARSON Landlords Sheila and Michael Reiner plan to build a 3,200-square-foot food court in this Farmington office building they own at 17 Talcott Notch Road.
PHOTO | COSTAR Landlords Sheila and Michael Reiner plan to build a 3,200-square-foot food court in this Farmington office building they own at 17 Talcott Notch Road.

When Sheila and Michael Reiner bought a Farmington office building at 17 Talcott Notch Road in 2012, they never envisioned one day carving out 3,200 square feet of office space for a food court.

The nondescript building, which spans 34,000 square feet and was built in 1982, contains several tenants, including an accounting firm, medical facilities and hair salon. Until recently, it also housed a business that ran focus groups, whose space includes a labyrinth of rooms and a one-way mirror wall.

Now, the Reiners plan to convert that vacant space into a food court, with seating for 24 people, and eight “stalls,” or bays for restaurant vendors, each serving a different type of cuisine. The Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously approved the project after a public hearing on Feb. 13.

The building’s office space is fully leased except for the roughly 3,200 square feet formerly held by the focus group company. Rather than leasing the space to another office tenant, the Reiners believe transforming it into a food court will make the building more attractive to tenants — while serving a town need.

The food court won’t just be for employees; most of the business will come from the general public.

There’s a restaurant void in Farmington, Sheila Reiner said, following the closing of Talcott Plaza at 230 Farmington Ave., a sprawling complex that once housed a Loehmann’s department store, Beijing Garden Restaurant, Andy’s Italian Kitchen, Pepperidge Farm outlet store and the Connecticut Culinary Institute. Since 2019, the plaza has been empty.

“There are a few fast-food places but nothing where you could just grab a nice salad or a pizza or a quick grab-and-go,” Sheila Reiner said. “There’s just nothing anymore. I thought it had become a food desert, basically.”

On top of filling a consumer need, she said the food court will be an amenity that gives 17 Talcott Notch Road an advantage.

Nationally, office building landlords are struggling to attract and retain tenants, as many businesses downsize office space amid their embrace of hybrid work-from-home arrangements.

Joel Grieco

Joel Grieco, executive director of office brokerage in Cushman & Wakefield’s Hartford office and broker for The Atrium at Gillette Ridge, a 500,000-square-foot office building in Bloomfield with a cafeteria, said the current market makes it difficult for landlords to keep food amenities in buildings because employee headcounts remain down.

However, buildings with on-site food options are “looked at more favorably by tenants evaluating their options.”

“The convenience to the existing office tenants is more serendipitous than it is a result of a landlord focused on adding tenant amenities,” Grieco said.

During the Feb. 13 hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission, Michael Reiner said a survey of current tenants revealed that all were in favor of the food court.

Employers tend to like food courts because they allow workers to get lunch without having to leave the premises, said David Jakubowski, general manager of the 676,353-square-foot Class A State House Square office tower complex in downtown Hartford, which also has a food court.

Additionally, workers like having multiple options and the convenience of being able to grab a coffee or snack at any time during the day, Jakubowski said.

State House Square has nearly completed a $2-million renovation to its food court, including all new furniture, seating upgrades and better signage.

“There’s a tremendous amenity value to having a food court in a commercial office building,” Jakubowski said. “If there’s inclement weather, my tenants don’t need to go out into the snow or the rain to have different dining options to get breakfast, lunch or a takeout dinner.”

As the last of Connecticut’s pandemic restrictions are lifted, downtown Hartford offices remain relatively quiet, including at State House Square, which has temporarily shuttered its food court as a result. Property manager David Jakubowski said food vendors haven’t been charged rent during the closure.

Property and casualty insurer Travelers Cos. also recently invested in a sprawling 53,000-square-foot cafeteria within its downtown Hartford headquarters, Travelers Plaza. The company renovated the dining hall, which has 10 primary food and drink stations and seating for up to 700 employees, to include touchless self-checkout areas, a teaching kitchen and an indoor, hydroponic garden.

Local dining option

After the workday, the Reiners envision a bustling takeout business. The food court will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. A least one of the stalls will be reserved for a food vendor that serves breakfast; the others will be open for breakfast and lunch.

The parking lot, which will be restriped and optimized, will have 128 spaces, including six spots reserved for takeout — enough room for both office tenants and food court customers, the Reiners said.

The building is nestled in a moderately wooded area about 500 feet from the busy intersection of Talcott Notch Road and Farmington Avenue. It’s across from UConn Health, Jackson Laboratory, several condo complexes and numerous medical offices.

Also nearby is Metro Realty Group’s 146-unit residential development at 402 Farmington Ave., which is under construction.

Sheila Reiner said she believes there are more than enough people in the area to sustain the food court. Currently, many Farmington Avenue workers travel to West Hartford Center for lunch, Michael Reiner said.

Each vendor stall will be 199 square feet — the same size as the stalls at the popular Parkville Market in Hartford — and have its own kitchen, including a stovetop and exhaust fan.

The Reiners met with the owner of Parkville Market, Carlos Mouta, to discuss their plans, and said they’re modeling their project after his. Parkville Market opened in May 2020, and has 21 food vendors.

Takeout sales skyrocketed during the pandemic, and with lower overhead, a food court is more affordable for a small restaurant during a still-challenging time for the industry, Sheila Reiner said.

Also, because the Reiners will own the kitchen equipment, some of the restaurant startup costs are baked in.

It could offer food truck operators the opportunity to open brick-and-mortar locations as well.

Within the last 60 days, Jakubowski said he has received numerous inquiries from food truck operators looking to open in State House Square’s 450-seat food court.

“The demand for office space is not high at the moment,” Jakubowski said. “And I think we’re seeing tenants who are interested in leasing office space, demanding more and more amenities from commercial landlords. Having a food court with multiple dining options is definitely something that is attractive to commercial tenants.”

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