Helene Stapinski | October 14, 2016
Helen Lee, executive vice president at F&T Group, is leading the expansion and redesign of a food court inside the Shops at Queens Crossing in Flushing. CreditFred R. Conrad for The New York Times
In our epicurean culture, the lowest species on the culinary food chain is the generic food court, and it has been marked for extinction. For many, the scariest-looking food truck is more desirable these days than a franchise outlet like Cinnabon or Taco Bell.
Even the term “food court” is passé, replaced by the trendier “food hall.” Leading the way are City Kitchen in Times Square and the Pennsy, near Penn Station
Now joining the dining evolution are the Shops at Queens Crossing in Flushing. Back in April, Helen Lee began redeveloping the second floor of the mall that her family’s company owns, a popular spot in the lively racket of the Chinatown neighborhood.
Ms. Lee, 37, is executive vice president at F&T Group, a Flushing-based international developer that has for three decades been a driving force behind the neighborhood’s building boom, nudging its transformation from one of European to Asian immigrants. Born in Taiwan, Ms. Lee studied finance at N.Y.U., went on to Harvard and has worked in the family business for the past two and a half years. The dining area, however, is a different breed of challenge.
Aside from curating the restaurants, Ms. Lee has other worries: how to get the plates in and out of the newly expanded dishwashing room, how to refrigerate the 19-spice, two-week-marinade mix for the Japanese curry restaurant, and whether to build a giant nest of wood or simply hang big birch logs for decoration. “I’m totally winging it,” she said, laughing.
When Ms. Lee took over, the second floor was a confusing mix of restaurants and retailers selling low-end merchandise. “Like jeans nobody wanted,” she said. The food court was small and industrial.
Ms. Lee has more than doubled the food-court space, to nearly 10,000 square feet, making it appear more upscale and youthful for the quickly gentrifying Chinese community. She has carefully selected the restaurants, creating a potential destination for local bankers, doctors and business and condominium owners in the area. The compass guiding her search is food that she herself would like to eat.
Ms. Lee inside the space,which will be larger and more upscale, with charred wood accents, faceted plywood columns, birch furniture and a wall garden. CreditFred R. Conrad for The New York Times
One ramen chain will remain, and so will a Shanghai street-food spot that offers the obligatory dumplings and noodles.
But by November, there will be a Korean tofu spot called Wonjo SoonToFu, a Happy Lemon bubble tea juice bar and a Korean fried-chicken chain called Tori. Natalie Graham, owner of SakaMai on the Lower East Side, will operate a Japanese restaurant, Curry Bo, as well as a Hawaiian poke spot.
“If you don’t think carefully about what people want, you’ll do something that’s been done before or go too far out of the box and you’ll fail quickly,” she said. “People are picky. Philly cheesesteak is not going to work here.”
Ms. Lee seems to have her finger on the pulse of the community, having recently opened Leaf, a popular craft cocktail lounge on the roof of another of her family’s developments, the Hyatt Place Hotel at nearby One Fulton Square. Dozens of vendors have approached her over the past few months, she said, about space in the new food court. “We’ve been saying no to a lot of people,” she said. Most of them were offering noodles and dumplings. “You’re really tempted to say yes, since these people are more than willing to pay the rent. But we have to think in the long term.”
To match the upscale new vendors, Ms. Lee had to reimagine the nondescript space. She brought in BHDM, a design firm from Manhattan, whose clients include Calvin Klein, Kate Spade and the Great Northern Food Hall at Grand Central Terminal. Dan Mazzarini, a lead partner at BHDM, said he was thrilled to work on his first Flushing project, since the neighborhood is so unlike any other in the city. “It’s amazing that you can leave Manhattan, and 20 minutes later, you’re in a place so different and diverse. It’s so close yet it looks like you’ve taken a 15-hour flight and have arrived somewhere else entirely.”
The dining area has a theme: modern forest, with charred wood accents, faceted plywood columns, birch furniture, a wall garden made up of both living and fake plants and the hanging birch logs. (She decided to forgo the giant nest, out of fear that customers would crash into it while climbing the stairs.)
Not all the improvements are cosmetic. Kitchen exhausts and plumbing had to be added, gas capacity expanded, the refrigeration rethought.
The dishwashing room was expanded by 24 square feet to accommodate the move from throwaway plates to real dishware. Using real dishes is good for the environment but also improves presentation, which allows vendors to charge an extra dollar or two per plate, said Ms. Lee. Figuring out how to get all those new dishes clean in a short period of time has been a challenge. “We have a complicated chart just for that.”