The Untold Truth Of Target's Food Court

There are plenty of big-box stores you can choose from when you need to get some shopping done. But when it comes to quality and style, it's difficult to compete with Target. In recent years, this department store has blossomed from a Walmart look-alike to the higher-end-but-still-affordable millennial wonderland it is today. Target is one of the few stores shoppers prefer to visit in person instead of just ordering from online. In fact, you may have even heard of the "Target effect": walking into the store looking for an item or two and leaving $100 poorer with a bunch of stuff you don't need (and often without what you went in for in the first place ... yes, we're all guilty).

And while the products and store layout are huge factors in the company's growing popularity, there's something else that lends itself to Target's success: the food. The Target food court may not be the ideal place for a first date or fancy dinner with friends, but it is one of the reasons why Target is a top shopping destination. Where else can you grab a Starbucks drink to carry around while you shop and leave with a hot personal pizza ready to be devoured at home (or in your car)?

But no matter how often you frequent Target, there's still a good chance there's a lot you don't know about its food court. The untold truth of Target's food court may be more surprising than you think.

Starbucks is a Target food court staple

When you think of the food at Target, perhaps the first eatery that comes to mind is Starbucks. That makes sense, since the relationship between Target and Starbucks goes all the way back to 1999. As of 2016, there were 1,300 Starbucks cafes in Targets across the country, which is likely why a Target run often coincides with a venti cold brew or caramel macchiato.

This partnership makes sense: Target and Starbucks have similar target customers. These are buyers who want a high level of quality without having to pay a fortune to get it, and that's just what both brands offer. Plus, it's a practical partnership. Target wants to treat shoppers to an experience — not just have them run in and back out — and the fact that customers can sip on something or even get a snack before they shop means that they'll be less likely to rush out of the store before seeing everything on display.

The partnership is such a huge success that every new Target built since 2003 has included a Starbucks. 

Target Starbucks aren't really Starbucks

Ever wondered what it's like to be a Starbucks employee at Target? Well, you might be surprised to learn that they don't even exist. Though the Starbucks locations in Target might offer the same food and drink as any other Starbucks, they're actually managed by Target, not by Starbucks itself.

That means that the people who are working behind the counter at your local Starbucks are actually Target employees — they just don't get stuck wearing the red shirts and restocking shelves. Even if these workers wanted to start working for an actual Starbucks instead of Target, they would have to be re-trained at the new location. Starbucks doesn't consider its stores inside Target to be Starbucks at all.

This policy doesn't have too much of an effect on the customer, though. For example, you can still use a Starbucks gift card at a Target location, and loyal Starbucks customers can redeem their points there as well.

Some Target food courts have self-serve snack bars

If you're a long-time Target fan, then you'll have probably noticed that the store has changed a lot in the past decade. Gone are the days of the budget-store aesthetics and '90s-era decor. A lot has changed in the Target food courts, too, and we're not just talking about adding in a Starbucks. 

Some Target stores have tried to revamp the previous success of their cafes, while at the same time, embracing the newer and more sophisticated Target aesthetic. Enter the grab-and-go snack bars, which Target started testing in 2019. What sets these snack bars apart from the old cafes (beyond the — let's be honest — much better design) is the fact that customers can pay via a self-service kiosk — no Target employee needed. 

These self-serve grab-and-go snack bars highlight a lot of the old Target favorites like Pizza Hut pizzas and popcorn, but also offers other quick bites like salads and fruit. The combination aims to strike a balance between beloved Target cafe favorites and trendier, healthier options that are more in alignment with Target's current consumer base.

Target's Freshii partnership failed

Target has worked hard to create an image that's more in line with consumers' desires for a higher-end (but still affordable) big-box retail chain, and it's been relatively successful so far. As it's developed that image, it became increasingly clear that healthier, fast-casual restaurants were gaining steam — and food courts stocked with just hot dogs and pretzels were not as trendy as they once had been. 

So, in 2015, Freshii became Target's attempt at offering healthier "fast" food to customers as they shopped. Freshii locations were added to 18 stores, including locations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California.

Freshii offers salads, bowls, wraps, soups — just what you'd think of when you go to a healthy fast-casual restaurant. It may have seemed like a good idea, but it didn't quite work out as planned. Just two years after the chain restaurant moved into Target stores, it shut all of its Target locations down. Apparently, Freshii food wasn't what Target customers were after when they headed toward the food court.

According to reporting by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Freshii claimed that "sales levels of these locations did not support a continued investment of resources by both parties." Target offered a similar statement, stating that the venture "did not meet our shared business goals."

The Target food court offers magical ICEE flavors

Everyone knows about the seasonal drinks at Starbucks, and you can definitely find those at many Targets. But a better-kept secret is the Target-brand ICEEs. They've gained an enthusiastic following among store loyalists, and it's not hard to tell why. Not only do they have a variety of standard flavors, but they occasionally add new, interesting flavors into the mix. These flavors are often associated with a cute character and come in a bright, Instagrammable color that's hard to resist snapping a photo of.

For instance, take 2019's mermaid ICEE. It came out in the summer, which is why its bright blue shade and blue raspberry flavoring was perfect. Then, over the holiday season in 2019, Target rolled out the cherry lime elf ICEE. This may not have been appealing to every shopper (especially in the dead of the winter), but you have to hand it to Target for coming out with something new and novel. And then in February 2020, the baby narwhal-flavored ICEE came out as well. Did we want to know what a baby narwhal (or the idea of one) tastes like? No. Are we going to buy it anyway because it's pink and you can get a medium for under $2? Yeah, probably.

Target's food court gets you to spend more money shopping

You probably know all about the "Target effect" and how it gets you to spend more money that you planned. But one thing you might not know is that the food court is actually a big part of how Target gets you spend money. Since shoppers often walk right by the food court when they walk into a Target store, a big part of your first impression of Target.

According to Business Insider, "The coffee shop helps establish a welcoming vibe, inviting people to come in and hang out." At most Target Starbucks locations, customers can actually sit down in the cafe with their drink or wander around the eye-catching displays nearby, which likely encourages them to view a Target shopping trip not simply as a chore but as an experience.

With a coffee from Starbucks in your hand — and the kids occupied with popcorn and ICEEs, you're a lot more likely to wander the aisles mindlessly. Suddenly, your Target run becomes a lot less about running in for a bag of dog food and more about much needed "me time." You're there to escape the sometimes-droll reality of your life and cheer yourself up with a pair of $15 earrings you don't really need. We're on to you, Target, and we're totally fine with it.

One Target location had a Chobani Cafe

Target made another attempt at offering healthier meal options at one of its stores in 2016. The Chobani Cafe in New York's Tribeca neighborhood opened in October of that year, and it sought to offer a variety of yogurt options in addition to soups, salads, and sandwiches. The company boasted that Chobani only used artisinal ingredients, playing into the new ethos of Target's branding.

But less than three years later, and the Chobani Cafe no longer seemed viable in the space. The Chobani media lead for corporate affairs told the Tribeca Citizen in May of 2019: "With the lease expiring on our Chobani Tribeca Café, we've decided not to renew and close the location .... Target will be repurposing the current Café space from restaurant to retail, allowing them to showcase more merchandise." 

While Target has tried offering healthy food options in the food court area at multiple locations, they seem to fall flat with the Target audience for some reason.

The popcorn at Target's food court is a really big deal

It's not available everywhere, but where it is, it's a hit. Target popcorn seems to have a cult-like following online. There are people who love popcorn, and then there are people who love Target popcorn specifically. It's easy to grab and go, making it the ideal in-store snack for when shoppers need a quick bite to eat. But it's also a lighter option than most of the other items, like french fries and hot dogs, that you'll find at many Target cafes. Not to mention it's great for sharing with the rest of your shopping party.

For all those reasons and more, it's no surprise that some popcorn fans have been upset by the news that their Target popcorn was disappearing — along with much of the other food court food — to make way for Starbucks. In fact, the popcorn is such a popular food item that there was even a petition to keep it in stores where it was slated to be removed. 

No need to panic, though. It looks like the popcorn is here to stay in many stores, especially since it's been spotted in the new grab-and-go snack bars. If the new snack bars see widespread success, more Target shoppers who've lost their precious popcorn may see it return.

Some Targets offer free fruit (and cookies) to kids

Super Targets are everything shoppers love about a Target plus a full grocery store. And since Target stores stock their own top-notch brands and products, plenty of people have turned to Super Targets for much of their grocery needs. Target bakeries have everything you'd expect to find in any grocery store bakery, but they have a special incentive that makes it a big hit for parents: the free cookie for kids. Children 12 years of age and under can get a free cookie anytime they go to the bakery. 

This program has been around for years, and it's always been a big hit. But some parents would prefer if there were healthier options on hand too. So, in 2016, Target started offering a free piece of fruit as well. Kids can choose between a cookie, a banana, or a clementine. This keeps kids occupied when mom and dad are shopping. Plus, if the adults are lucky, they might be able to snag a bite from their kids. It's one more way Target enhances customers' shopping experiences in tangible ways.

Target customers can take advantage of Starbucks Happy Hour

Imagine this: It's a Thursday afternoon. You're gearing up for the weekend, but it's not quite there yet. You need some caffeine to help you power through the evening so you can successfully make it to Friday. Then, you walk into your local Target to pick up whatever it is you're looking for, and you come face-to-face with Starbucks.

This is your opportunity to take advantage of Starbucks' happy hour. Even though Starbucks' Target locations aren't officially Starbucks, they still offer the coffee chain's famous happy hour. Happy hours take place every Thursday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., and when you buy one drink (grande or larger), you get one (of equal or lesser value) free. That doesn't count for every single beverage, but it does usually apply to most of them. Therefore, it's a perfect excuse to grab a friend, go on a Target run, and indulge in your favorite Starbucks drink to sip on while you shop.

You might find exclusive items at Target's Pizza Hut Express

One of the long-term staples of many a Target food court is the ever-popular Pizza Hut Express. Look, we're not saying it's on par with a trip to the best pizzeria in Naples. Let's be realistic. But if you're looking to indulge in a slice of cheesy, salty goodness, then the Target Pizza Hut Express has got you covered.

You've got your chicken alfredo Tuscani pasta. You've got your twisty cheese sticks with sauce. You've even got your breadsticks, loaded with all the carbs you didn't care about back when you ate Pizza Hut for the first time. But the most iconic item on the menu has to be the personal pizzas. At six inches, they're ideal for a small meal or a large snack. And since you can choose from cheese, pepperoni, and even sausage, there's something for everyone. The culinary snobs among us might not approve, but it's hard to deny the appeal of a pizza you can completely finish and not feel (too) sick from afterward.

And while you may not see many old-school Pizza Huts across the country anymore (the company said in 2019 that it could be closing up to 500 dine-in locations), you're not likely to miss out on the Pizza Hut Express at Target. In fact, the locations are popular enough that they sometimes even get exclusive Pizza menu items, like the Mac N' Cheese Personal Pan Pizza released in early 2020 only to Pizza Huts Express locations inside of Targets. 

You can get a free smash cake for your baby's first birthday from Target

We're all familiar with this scene: You're at a baby's birthday party, and the little one starts to go in for the cake. They're a baby, they don't care. Their tiny fingers reach for the impeccably smooth frosting you've been dying to dig into, and a small but determined fist snatches a hunk of the previously unblemished cake. Yes, that's the cake that everyone has to eat from ... even the adults.

Smash cakes are an adorable — albeit messy — way for babies to celebrate their birthdays, and they help parents avoid the above dilemma. They're small cakes made just for the birthday baby. Baby can get as messy as they want while the rest of the guests enjoy a separate (and preferably more sanitary) dessert. And Target might just be the best place to get your child's smash cake. If you buy your baby's first birthday cake from the Super Target bakery, you'll get a smash cake for free.

Target's food courts offer more than one type of pretzel

Of the Target food court options, perhaps none is more coveted than the soft pretzel. This street fair food has been in Target food courts for quite some time, and it has a loyal fan base who you might see snacking in the aisles. While not every store offers these treats, the ones that do are sure to please long-time Target food court fans.

The magic of these pretzels is the fact that you can get them both sweet and salty. Of course, you've got your normal salted pretzels that everyone loves. No need to reinvent the wheel there. But Target wanted to offer something different as well, while still keeping it simple and accessible. That's why the cinnamon sugar pretzel bites (available at select location) are also a huge hit. Add in the fact that you can get both traditional pretzels and the famed pretzel bites in both flavors, and it's easy to see why Target is keeping its cafes and their most famous food items around for its loyal customers.