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Texas Mall Banks on “Restaurant District”

This story originally appeared in Nation's Restaurant News on September 6, 2018.
By Ron Ruggless

As shopping malls continue to grapple with traffic challenges in a retail market that is swiftly migrating to online shopping, The Shops at Willow Bend in Plano, Texas, is investing heavily in creating a “restaurant district” to draw consumers.

Starwood Retail Partners, which owns the Willow Bend mall that originally opened in August 2001, is investing $125 million in reimaging and renovating the regional shopping center. Starwood owns 30 malls in 15 states.

Row of restaurant eaters
Diners enjoy the new District at Willow Bend during an early-October preview event.

The Shops of Willow Bend already has a food court and a California Pizza Kitchen, but the new restaurant additions are chef-focused concepts that share an outdoor plaza and a grand entrance to the shopping center. The mall features such anchor tenants as Dillard’s, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus.

With a total of more than 28,000 square feet of new restaurant space, which will be phased in this month ahead of a grand opening on Oct. 4, the new restaurant district features such operators as noted James Beard-honored chefs John Tesar and Patricio Sandoval and notable local restaurateurs Omar Flores, Jalal Chanaa and Adam Shanaa.

Terra chefs
In the Terra Mediterranean location, from left: brothers Jalal Chanaa and Adam Shanaa.

“Each have their own culinary signatures and offer taste experience that are out of the ordinary,” said Amy Medford, Willow Bend marketing director, in a statement.

The four new full-service restaurants at Willow Bend will be Knife steakhouse from Tesar; Mexican Bar Co. Cocina from Sandoval, fried-chicken concept Whistle Britches from Flores, and Terra Mediterranean from brothers Chanaa and Shanaa.

Two of the restaurants will feature limited-service options as well. Tesar’s fast-casual concept Knife Burger and a counter-order version of Mexican Bar Co. Cocina will be attached to the main dining rooms, but face onto the entrance courtyard.

“We have created our own little food hall, as opposed to the food court,” Tesar said during a walk-through of the 7,000-square foot Knife in July. It will offer 70 seats, a 12-seat patio with a fire pit and a glassed-enclosed private-dining area for up to 60.

The patio, which was scaled back from earlier plans because of zoning restrictions, still will allow for customers to “smoke their cigars and text their loved ones,” Tesar said.

The Willow Bend location of Knife, the brand’s second outpost, expands on a dry-aging program pioneered at his first Dallas location. He expects to be dry-aging 500 cuts at a time and offer them in 45-, 60-, 90-, 120-, 150- and 240-day options.

Tesar said the Willow Bend location will also offer a limited number of steaks for retail sale from an in-store “jewelry case.” The chef is also slipping in a version of his Knife Burger, which has an outlet in the Legacy Hall food emporium a few miles away.

Sandoval has teamed with his brother, Felipe Sandoval, to open the 7,000-square-foot Mexican Bar Co. Cocina, which will offer sharable plates. The restaurant will offer 230 seats, Felipe Sandoval said.

“Our cocktail program will also be extensive,” Patricio Sandoval said. “It will be based on tequila and mescal with fresh fruits.”

While Tesar and the Sandovals have a national profile, The Shops at Willow Bend is also highlighting local culinary talents, including Omar Flores of Whistle Britches, known for its fried chicken specialty, and brothers Chanaa and Shanaa of Terra Mediterranean.

Terra Mediterranean covers about 7,500 square feet, not including the patio, said Channa. The space is larger than the brothers’ existing Ali Baba and Terra Mediterranean restaurants in the area.

Flores said Whistle Britches will feature a retail area for spices, jams and jellies as well as 120 seats inside and 80 on the patio. The beer and wine will be all on-tap with no bottles or cans.

Flores said the restaurant is targeting a $15 to $18 per person check average, which should appeal to residents of nearby neighborhoods as well.

“It doesn’t break the bank,” he said. “You can come here two or three times a week.”

Flores and his partner, Alec Marshi, said they learned from their first Whistle Britches, located in a converted Sonic Drive-In in Dallas.

“This is obviously a much bigger project,” Flores said, “but we took a lot of time with the design.”

“We’re comfort food,” Marshi added, “so we wanted to make this very comfortable.” Whistle Britches is also offering a smartphone app for to-go orders, which should be convenient for mall employees, he added.

Flores said the mall restaurant district offers Whistle Britches the advantage of roadside signage, which faces the high-traffic Dallas North Tollway.

“It was attractive going into a district that has other popular chefs,” Flores said.

The restaurant district will also feature the Ascension Annex, a brand extension for Dallas-based Ascension, an Australian-style coffee shop. The Annex will also serve wine and a small menu of breakfast and lunch items. The location is Ascension’s sixth in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Bryant Siragusa, Starwood Retail Partners’ vice president for national restaurant and entertainment leasing, said the Willow Bend restaurant district has been in the planning for more than two and half years and will eventually cover more than 35,000 square feet.

“Adding exciting dining brings more traffic to the property on a more regular basis,” Siragusa said. “After all, you have to eat — why not do so in a lively, inviting locale?”

The District at Willow Bend