NATICK — Outside the Apple Store, plates of salmon nigiri and seaweed salad glide by.
The sushi has nothing to do with the newest product from Apple but rather the latest food trend at the mall. Shoppers, loaded with bags, pause and line up for a table at conveyor-belt sushi hotspot Wasabi. For over a year, the restaurant in the middle of the Natick Mall has been an “absolute madhouse,” said general manager Jeffrey Miller, who sells 5,000 plates of sushi on a typical Saturday.
Goodbye, Orange Julius. From Wasabi to Pinkberry in Boston’s Prudential Center, mall restaurants are becoming untethered from the food court. As traditional malls strive to compete with trendy lifestyle centers and the appeal of online shopping, they are rethinking the way they serve food.
Malls began to differentiate themselves during the recession with new food concepts, according to a study by Cornell University’s Center for Hospitality Research. The study showed that customers tended to linger longer and spend more on food in lieu of retail purchases.
“It’s an ever-changing trend,” said Rick Tonzi, general manager of South Shore Plaza, who has worked for malls for 24 years.
Just as malls seek to stand out with unique retail options, “the challenge is to get the right restaurant in the right location. You can’t just drop it into a mall,” he said.
Although kiosks in the middle of shopping centers or restaurants outside the food court are not entirely new, serving food in unexpected places where shoppers stop and linger over quality cuisine is. Malls are allowing restaurants to set up in areas once designated for sitting or pass-throughs.
Ani Collum, a partner with Retail Concepts in Norwell, a firm that creates and markets stores, says open kiosks are big in Los Angeles, where cafes like The Coffee Bean in The Beverly Center have attracted shoppers for years. Instead of dashing into shops, “people hover over tables. Malls are thinking of ways to reinvent themselves and make the atmosphere more about being social,” she said.
The idea is to “create a pause point for customers, a place where they can be social without being destination-focused,” she said.
Consumers at The Shops at The Prudential Center who reach for addictive frozen yogurt at Pinkberry can relate.
The beachy feel of the open kiosk, with pebble flooring, potted plants, and yellow-and-white-striped couches is a world removed from the hectic food court a few paces away. Amid the bustle of holiday shoppers recently, customers snacked on gingerbread frozen yogurt at circular tables. Bathed in yellow LED lighting, it’s an oasis of sophisticated calm just outside Saks Fifth Avenue. “With tons of people walking by, it was a no-brainer putting it in the midst of everything,” said Jason Hopkins, who manages Pinkberry’s only open kiosk in New England.
The store without walls is one of the top-grossing Pinkberrys in the country, said Hopkins, director of operations for NE Frog Pond LLC, the Boston company that operates most Massachusetts Pinkberry stores. It is working so well that the chain will open a similar concept in South Station in January. “Pinkberry is all about the experience,” said Hopkins.
Retail experts say the open-kiosk experience is different. “They are able to keep the Pinkberry vibe, but let it bleed out into the mall,” said Collum.
But opening in an unexpected place can also pose its own challenges. At the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, grilled cheese purveyor Cheeseboy opened in the center of the food court two years ago. The Boston company was looking to set itself apart and the mall made the space, formerly designated for seating, available.
“It is unusual to see a food vendor right in the middle of the food court, which is usually a square vanilla box,” said Vicki Bartkiewicz, marketing director for the South Shore Plaza.
But Michael Inwald, founder of Cheeseboy, has discovered that because his eatery is not in the usual traffic pattern, some people do not notice him.
“There is not a correlation between open spaces and higher revenue,” said Inwald, who operates stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut — with three in open kiosks in malls. He is testing the concept in transportation hubs like South Station to see which works best. So far, mall kiosks are “not equating to more sales than other locations,” he said.
At Wasabi, some shoppers brake for the novelty. Exiting Lululemon at the Natick Mall recently, mother and daughter Sophie Smith and Andrea Brown spied Wasabi below.
“It looks cool with things moving around,” said Brown, a 26-year-old from Hopedale who was attracted to the restaurant’s theatrics. “It’s good people-watching. It draws you in.”
Running the conveyor-belt sushi restaurant is like working in a “carousal in the middle of an amusement park,” said Miller, the manager.
The 100-seat restaurant, featuring sushi on demand, is generating a lot of enthusiasm in a former dead zone. “It provides a great focal point to that area,” said J. Lynn Josephson, marketing manager at the Natick Mall.
Starting out with a brick-and-mortar restaurant a few blocks from the White House in 2006, Wasabi transitioned to open-air mall-only restaurants 10 months ago.
“Malls want excitement; they want energy. They want to combat the showrooming and online shopping,” said Bo Davis, president of the modern Japanese restaurant company based in Virginia.
Besides the Natick Mall, there are Wasabis in Braintree’s South Shore Plaza and in Orlando, Los Angeles, and McLean, Va. Three more will open by this summer.
Davis said he pays twice as much in rent to serve maki rolls in an open kitchen for all to see versus a traditional street location outside the mall, but it’s worth it. “People are going for the experience of the mall and we fit in nicely with that experience,” said Davis.