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by Gail Ciampa

Boston, MA — Are restaurants important to the retail mix at malls? Do restaurateurs want to be there? What about diners? And what effect is the economy having on these questions?

That was the topic of Food as Fashion, a whimsically named panel at last week’s Commercial Real Estate Women’s (CREW) national convention in Boston at the Hynes Convention Center.

New England is generally underserved in malls, restaurant-wise, because many of the older malls don’t have enough space to add a restaurant, said Cynthia Kernan. Restaurants require high ceilings and special ventilation so they can’t simply move into a space vacated by a store. As the senior vice president of leasing for the Simon Property Group, she oversees 19 shopping centers in New England, including nearby Massachusetts properties Emerald Square in North Attleboro, Wrentham Village and South Shore Plaza.

But when additions are made at older malls, they are building out space for restaurants because they are a draw, she said.

If you’ve ever waited for a table at a Cheesecake Factory at a mall, you know there are not enough dining seats.

Back when malls began popping up across the retail landscape, restaurants weren’t the entertainment draw they are today. The mall destination was for shopping. But today’s consumer isn’t satisfied to simply make purchases, they want to dine, too, said the panel which included Steve DeFillippo, owner of three Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouses, in Boston, Patriot Place in Foxboro, and Philadelphia, and Avila in Boston, and Thomas John, executive chef of Au Bon Pain. Au Bon Pain began 30 years ago with fresh baked breads and today offers a menu of sandwiches, soups and salad bar that caters to diners all day in their 200 cafes. It’s fast casual style reflects the change in people’s lifestyles, John said. They grab food when they have time and keep going.

Lunch is strong at malls, noted Kernan.

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