Now more than ever, Canadian shopping centre landlords are adding full-service restaurants to their properties in order to increase dwell time as well as improve the overall consumer experience. It’s part of a bigger trend of landlords devoting more food and beverage offerings to centres as they transition to become comprehensive community hubs.
It’s also part of a global trend as landlords realize that creating unique experiences will keep customers coming back. In Asia and the Middle East, shopping centres devote considerably more space to food and beverage than in North America, and local landlords are catching up by adding restaurants as well as food markets and food halls to create enhanced culinary experiences. The intention is to keep customers coming back more regularly and with that, they’ll hopefully also shop at other retailers in the same centre.
Last month, Vancouver-based Aburi Restaurants Canada launched a unique new concept at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre called TORA, which occupies a ‘futuristic’ second-level space in the mall’s most recent expansion that is anchored by RH Restoration Hardware and Sporting Life. TORA is a unique and highly experiential concept featuring a technology driven ordering and delivery system. The ‘sushi concierge system’ includes a series of ‘laneways’ that use a conveyor belt system to shuttle orders directly to a guest’s table, with orders made on a digital screen at each table.
Aburi’s founder, Seigo Nakamura, explained that the order and conveyor delivery at TORA in Yorkdale is partly in response to a chronic staff shortage in the city. Mr. Nakamura said that he anticipates a labour shortage until at least 2021, and in order to mitigate, Aburi Restaurants Canada is looking at technology to keep costs down without affecting operations or product quality.
TORA’s interior is meant to be experiential, with a futuristic atmosphere which Mr. Nakamura said is meant to align with its innovation. Aburi partnered with Vancouver-based firm Ste. Marie Design Studio for the interior design of TORA and Glasfurd and Walker for the branding — TORA’s branding was inspired by vintage Japanese movie posters from the 70’s and their interpretation of what the future might look like.
The menu includes flame-seared Aburi Sushi, as well as nigiri rolls and Japanese-style tapas with traditional techniques combined with local flavours. Given that nigiri sushi should be enjoyed immediately after it is made, orders are shuttled to diners as soon as they’re finished being prepared.
Yorkdale was chosen for several reasons, said Mr. Nakamura. The centre is Canada’s most productive in terms of annual sales per square foot according to a recent Retail Council of Canada study, and he noted that the centre appeals to a wide range of visitors. While guests might visit Miku in downtown Toronto for special occasions, Yorkdale’s TORA is intended to be more approachable and as a result serving a greater range of clientele.
More food and beverage at Yorkdale is in the works, according to Claire Santamaria, General Manager of the shopping centre. Adding good restaurants to the centre “result in guests spending more time while traveling further, with food becoming an essential part of the visit,” she explained. “Dining adds to the appeal of the centre overall, and guests have requested exceptional food options,” she said.
Canada’s first location for the Cheesecake Factory opened at Yorkdale in the fall of 2017, and it continues to be very busy. Restaurant chains Pickle Barrel and Joey are both in the centre, and they were joined in late 2015 by Canada’s first location for UK-based Jamie’s Italian. Besides its comprehensive food court, Yorkdale also houses a bakery/cafes Michel’s Bakery and Uncle Tetsu Cheesecake. Nadege and Ladurée also both operate restaurants in the centre, not to mention more ubiquitous offerings such as Starbucks.
Full-service restaurants are opening in Canadian shopping centres nationwide in an effort to draw in more shoppers at a time when consumer dollars are going elsewhere. Housing costs continue to go up along with the overall cost of living, while more consumer dollars go to technology as well as experiences. Adding restaurants to mall properties contributes to experiences, and TORA even adds an element of technology to the experiential mix.
In Canada, some retailers are hesitant to sign leases for new stores. Some chains are re-evaluating their overall operations including store count, and shifts in consumer preferences has led to a downturn in sales for some brands. Plenty of restaurant providers continue to seek out new locations and are more than willing to lease space in a shopping centre that already has ample foot traffic, not to mention a captive audience.
West Edmonton Mall is arguably the national leader in featuring large full-service restaurants in its massive property. The centre boasts a robust offering of restaurant concepts, with an entire wing in the mall, called Bourbon Street, dedicated to food and entertainment. Other major restaurants and bars flank the centre, along with a casino, dinner theatre, and Cineplex-owned The Rec Room. Canada’s first location for restaurant chain Bubba Gump Shrimp opened in the mall to much fanfare in the summer of 2018.
From British Columbia to Nova Scotia, restaurant concepts are being added to more traditional shopping malls. Restaurant groups such as Recipe Unlimited are specifically looking to open new locations in malls while also rebranding other nameplates. Recipe’s ‘Landing’ concept, for example, is targeting malls with a location set to open at Upper Canada Mall in Newmarket, near the mall’s recently unveiled food hall. Even some independent food providers are choosing enclosed malls — Toronto-based iQ is an example, having opened at Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre last fall with plans for more shopping centre locations.
Other restaurant providers such as Cheesecake Factory appear to favour locating in major shopping centres, upon review of the chain’s list of restaurant locations. It signals a shift in shopping centres in North America, as landlords aim to create a more holistic offering that includes more traditional fashion, jewelry and gift retail, along with more food and beverage, entertainment concepts and even more recently, food halls and even co-working spaces. We’ll continue to monitor trends in Canadian shopping centres as landlords invest to create them into financially productive community hubs.