Upscale eateries give regional malls a lift

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Osteria is between Boscov's and Sears at the Moorestown Mall. It's one of many upscale eateries that are generating business at the region's malls.

After perusing a few boutique stores and getting her hair done at Rizzieri Salon & Spa at Moorestown Mall, Jamie McCulloh-Martin decided to go for dinner at Osteria a few doors down.

"I've been here more in the last 1½ years since [Osteria] opened than in all of my 22 years living in Moorestown," said McCulloh-Martin, 50, owner of a physical therapy chain, who ate outdoors with her administrative director, Kelly Casio. "The mall is really changing, and for the better."

In the new mall world order, you can taste Jose Garces' tacos at Moorestown Mall, Bobby Flay's burgers at Cherry Hill Mall, and filet mignon at Morton's - the Steakhouse at King of Prussia Mall.

The mall and high-end restaurants have struck up a marriage that's holding on to shoppers longer and generating a better return for powerhouse owners such as Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) and Simon Property Group.

"There is a shift in the retail tenants at these centers," said retail analyst Garrick Brown of the consulting firm DTZ. "A lot of malls used to be wary of putting too much dining in. But they've realized that the more dining, the better, and the more varied. That you can have a food court, as well as a food hall-type where it's higher end."

Celebrity chef Garces, who last year opened Distrito at Moorestown Mall, agrees.

"Customers are certainly more aware and curious than ever about a wider range of foods," he said. "They've traveled and dined out more than previous generations, and they're hungry for new flavors and experiences." He credited the Food Network and Cooking Channel for driving the shift.

For mall owners, it's all about extending the length of time that shoppers stay by putting everything under one roof. Americans have steadily spent less time shopping, dropping to an average of 42.9 minutes a day in 2013, from 48.6 minutes in 2003.

Restaurants reverse the trend, said Jeff Benjamin, chief operating officer of Vetri Family, a Navy Yard-based developer of high-end restaurants. "We saw it as PREIT redid the Cherry Hill Mall and renovated it with the Capital Grille and Bobby Flay's burgers.

"Mall operators realized that to attract people, they had to up their food game and mimic the concept of the hotel industry."

Restaurants, instead of department stores, have now become anchors at some malls, he said. "People no longer go to brick-and-mortar stores, because now you can go online. But you can also go to the mall and have the whole experience."

Creating experiences is what his industry is all about now, said Joe Coradino, CEO of PREIT. About 20 percent of his appointments were with restaurateurs during the recent International Conference of Shopping Centers, the industry's Super Bowl in Las Vegas, compared with 5 percent five years ago.

Moorestown Mall has added not only restaurants, but a wide seating theater, a gym, and a spa. It also brought in a dozen local-based high-end retailers considered the best in their class - including Zeyzani and Erdon - to form Boutique Row.

King of Prussia Mall boasts 17 restaurants, with the most recent, Bonefish Grill, added in April, and Grand Lux Cafe's opening next month. Cherry Hill Mall is up to nine.

PREIT is leading the charge on this culinary front. Since 2008, it has added 27 dining restaurants at its eight regional malls, including Cherry Hill and Moorestown.

During PREIT's second annual South Jersey Restaurant Week, from July 12 to 19, several retailers will give discounts to shoppers who show mall dining receipts. Guests also will be offered special menus and/or pricing at restaurants at six of its malls, including Cherry Hill, Moorestown, and Voorhees Town Center.

"When we started out, we would sign a lease and collect the rent," Coradino said. "Today, it's about creating experiences and being creative, all customer-centric things that make someone say, 'I've got to go there.' "

At Plymouth Meeting Mall, Coradino said, Redstone American Grill, P.F. Chang's, California Pizza Kitchen, and Benihana do more business combined than a department store.

"When you begin to think about the consumer that we have today, everybody is time-starved," Coradino said.

"The one time that you are not in a hurry is when you are dining out. All of a sudden, the rest of the mall creates a more relaxed shopping trip. You have dinner at the mall, and, 'Oh, by the way, my son or daughter needs a pair of jeans.' "

The Pollard family of Moorestown spent two hours enjoying octopus salad and pizza at Mark Vetri's Osteria last week. The elegant eatery is tucked between Boscov's and Sears.

"It's wonderful it's so close to home," said Elizabeth Pollard, 46, while sitting with husband Mark, 42, sons Ryan, 8, and Matthew, 11, and father Robert Toborowsky, 76, of Center City.

Elizabeth Pollard said that, a week ago, she had lunch at Distrito and then bought chaise longues for her patio at the nearby Home Depot.

"You do feel more relaxed after a good meal," she said.

Moorestown Mall will have a dozen new stores this year as part of a $30 million renovation that began in 2010. PREIT pushed for, and won, a liquor license ballot question in the long-dry township.

In the fall, Yard House Brew Pub will be the fourth restaurant to open in the last year and a half, with 100 beers on tap.

Some shoppers will be lifting a glass to that.

sparmley@phillynews.com 215-854-4184 @SuzParmley