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Marketers put food at the top of the menu

Not long ago malls and shopping centers tended to brag about their retail menus. These days, however, it is increasingly common to see restaurants and recreational offerings get top billing in retail industry ad and marketing campaigns. From food courts to food halls, from indoor dining to outdoor eating areas, operators know they have to accommodate the rapidly changing tastes of today’s consumers if they are to thrive in this evolving landscape.

Wendy Ellis, marketing director of the Texas-based Lincoln Property Co.’s Fairview Town Center, says that she has been in this industry a long time but has never seen anything like what is going on now — not since she started out as “one of the promo girls” years ago. “Here at Fairview, we’re about to get the first Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen in the state of Texas,” Ellis said. “I have a whole campaign out right now that is specifically on its [the restaurant] coming in, which is not something I would have ever done seven to 10 years ago. You’re seeing restaurants really starting to drive how we market our centers.”

Ellis points out that eating establishments were once little more than a subheading on the mall directory, or they were perhaps listed at the bottom of an ad, if they had a high-profile name. That has changed. Now the restaurant mix is vital to a mall’s marketing plan. “In our industry, folks realize that restaurants can make or break a center — whether that’s a traditional indoor mall or a big Cheesecake Factory property like we have here at Fairview,” Ellis said. “They attract people to the center. They drive sales.”

The Collin Creek Mall (a property of Dreien Opportunity Partners), in Plano, Texas, got a new lease on life after it reoccupied an empty department store space with an Amazing Jake’s, a 90,000-square-foot food and entertainment emporium. “In one market it might be the Cheesecake Factory, and in the next market it might be Buffalo Wild Wings,” Ellis said. “But you’re seeing restaurants be a huge, huge driver for our business.”

Savoring Santana Row One of the first operators to emphasize restaurants and nontraditional retail in its marketing was Santana Row, a Federal Realty Investment Trust property in San Jose, Calif.

One of the first operators to emphasize restaurants and nontraditional retail in its marketing was Santana Row, a Federal Realty Investment Trust property in San Jose, Calif., that opened in 2002. “They’ve done a tremendous job,” Ellis said. Santana Row bills itself as “Silicon Valley’s premier destination for shopping, dining, living and more” as it touts some 70 shops, 20 restaurants and nine spas and salons. Jeff Kreshek, Federal Realty’s senior vice president of West Coast leasing, says Santana Row has not actually added more space devoted to food, but only “changed the menu,” as it were. “All we’ve done at Santana Row in the last seven years is upgrade our restaurant offerings,” said Kreshek.

At the end of February, Simon introduced Dining Week, an event to promote restaurant deals, at three Simon malls on Long Island, in New York: Roosevelt Field, Smith Haven Mall and Walt Whitman Shops. “There’s absolutely no question that restaurants, dining pavilions and nonretail are taking up more space,” said a Simon spokesman. “If we take a food court and revitalize it, we definitely message that, put out releases and have media opportunities, but we would do that with anything that is new at the mall.”

Food took top billing in January when Simon announced that six popular eateries were joining The Westchester, in White Plains, N.Y., as part of a multimillion-dollar renovation that began in 2016. “Westchester’s first-class shopping destination will have the first-class dining destination that its loyal shoppers deserve,” said Paula Kelliher, the mall’s director of marketing, in a press release.

Food on Facebook An image from Simon's Roosevelt Field Facebook page promotes the center's dining options

At Simon’s Arundel Mills, just outside Baltimore in Hanover, Md. (which bills itself as the largest outlet and value retail shopping destination in Maryland), the company last November promoted the debut of its dining pavilion, featuring a dozen eateries in a redone 30,000-square-foot space.

Meanwhile, across the country on the opposite coast, Matthew Hammond, a principal at the Southern California–based Coreland Cos. brokerage and property management firm, says he has observed the shift to nonretail and restaurant openings. Coreland’s 6 million-square-foot portfolio consists mainly of grocery-anchored shopping centers. “In 2017 over 70 percent of our deals were restaurants, fitness and services,” Hammond said. “Now you make it a healthy lifestyle type of center, whereas before, you’d go out and get the grocery store — or, on a larger project, you’d get a Macy’s or a Target. You’re basically creating your environment from the restaurants that you get, knowing what type of demographics you’re going to attract.”


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CBL Properties converted former Sears stores at two of its malls into a “fresh mix of retail and restaurants,” according to Sarah Enlow, marketing director at one of those malls: Fayette Mall, in Lexington, Ky. The other mall is CoolSprings Galleria, in Franklin, Tenn. “The whole shopping center industry is evolving to include more than just retail by incorporating dining and entertainment locations,” Enlow said. “It’s about bringing more uses to your shopping center or town center destination for people to come, shop and dine and enjoy themselves while they’re here.”

Enlow spared no effort promoting the arrival of the first Cheesecake Factory in the Lexington market of slightly less than 1 million people. “We hit it hard with social media and it worked out well,” she said. Last August she promoted the first Fayette Mall Restaurant Week. Every eatery participated, and each offered one menu item for $5, as customers went from venue to venue, sampling the varieties of cuisine. Enlow says her marketing required finding “a new recipe for reaching customers so that we can provide them with relevant information on restaurants they want to visit.”

As Hammond put it: “It’s really the restaurants that drive the development,” he said. Thus, these days it seems the rest is just gravy.

By Spencer Rumsey

Contributor, Shopping Centers Today

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