High-end plans for the Moorestown Mall

The 5,000-square-foot Osteria at the Moorestown Mall will be the first Vetri family restaurant outside Philadelphia.
The 5,000-square-foot Osteria at the Moorestown Mall will be the first Vetri family restaurant outside Philadelphia. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 13, 2013

For 50 years, she has danced in the shadow of her glamorous big sister in Cherry Hill.

Suitors with names like Nordstrom and Saks would flirt, only to slip away - sometimes into big sister's arms.

But now, the Moorestown Mall has two new beaux. And with suave super chef Marc Vetri on one arm and hip Iron Chef Jose Garces on the other, its owners say the gray-haired maiden of Moorestown is poised to outshine Cherry Hill Mall as a place to "dine, shop, and be seen" in South Jersey.

Construction is underway on a 5,000-square-foot Osteria, modeled on Vetri's acclaimed pizzeria-trattoria in North Philadelphia, where diners from across the region queue up for such delectables as swordfish in grilled figs, rib-eye fiorentino, rabbit casalinga, and apricot tart with tarragon gelato.

With opening day targeted for late October, the new Osteria will be the first of the critically acclaimed Vetri family restaurants outside Philadelphia.

The mall owners "came to us and said, 'Why not be one of the anchors that makes this a new mall?' " Vetri's business partner, Jeff Benjamin, said last week. "They said, 'Be brave.' "

Also under construction is a 12-screen movie theater with 3D, stadium seating, and digital sound, due to open in fall.

Garces - winner of the Food Network's prestigious Iron Chef award in 2009 - expects to break ground soon on a 7,500-square-foot Distrito cantina. It will be a variation on his playful, eye-popping Mexican restaurant in West Philadelphia, where patrons can sit in neon-colored autos or perch on swings while nibbling coconut habanero chicken, grilled Spanish octopus, or slow-roasted pork belly with achiote, pineapple, and citrus.

Distrito is "one of our more accessible concepts," said Garces, a native of Ecuador.

His firm already operates 16 restaurants across the country, including in Chicago, Palm Springs, Calif., and Scottsdale, Ariz. But it was the Garces Group's success at the Revel Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City that has "given us the confidence to move into this part of New Jersey," he said.

The mall's parent company also has signed on Firebirds, an upscale steak house chain that features flame grilling within a stone, and timber and red-leather decor. It says it is in talks with another local celebrity chef and a premium chain for the fourth spot.

All will front Route 38.

Why might these eateries, with entrées ranging from $12 to $50, make a Cinderella of the Moorestown Mall?

Because the 1960s-era model of a shopping mall - the kind anchored by department stores - is giving way to a new concept, says Joe Coradino. He is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) in Philadelphia, which owns and operates 38 enclosed malls and "power centers," including Moorestown and Cherry Hill.

"Restaurants are the new anchor" for malls, Coradino said. "And not just new. In many respects, they're a better anchor: They drive traffic but don't compete with the stores."

What's more, upscale restaurants seem to open patrons' wallets even wider than do department stores. According to Coradino, studies show people who go to a mall to dine typically spend more on shopping than those who go just to shop.

"We used to think of shopping as about people filling needs," Coradino said. "But as we've learned more about the customer, we've discovered that a trip to the mall has to be experiential."

To that end, PREIT campaigned vigorously in 2011 for a local referendum on allowing traditionally dry Moorestown Township to issue four liquor licenses for exclusive use at an enclosed mall.

Voters consented, and the firm has paid $4 million to acquire the licenses - an essential part of its strategy to woo a lineup of restaurants that sell $12 martinis.

PREIT also has plans to bring a "great spa" to Moorestown, Coradino said, and some "top regional women's boutiques" selling high-end fashion - the sartorial equivalent, he said, of celebrity restaurants.

Asked whether he was contemplating a clothing chain such as Talbots, he said, "No, no, no, no. Talbots is great store; we have them at several of our malls.

"But we want something edgier than a Talbots or Chico's or Coldwater Creek. We want this to be a place where the shopping experience is different from any other shopping mall in the region."

Offerings of Swedish massage and duck barbacoa washed down with a midday margarita are a far cry from the Moorestown Mall's marketing of past decades, such as this radio jingle from the 1970s:

We've got the big three you've known for years:

Gimbels, Wanamakers, and Sears.

Moorestown Mall wants to show you

How much more a great mall can do.

Moorestown: The mall with it all!

Sears remains an anchor, but Gimbel Bros. and John Wanamaker were close down or rebranded in the 1980s and '90s. A Macy's is now on the site of the former Wanamakers, and a Boscov's occupies the old Gimbels.

Despite the addition of 190,000-square-foot Lord & Taylor in 2000, and PREIT's acquisition of the mall in 2003 and a multimillion dollar face-lift, Moorestown still struggles.

At least 15 of its 90 shops are vacant and gated. Those that remain include a Dollar Mart, a masseuse, and Payless Shoes. Shoppers seem in short supply. On a recent weekday evening, the only occupants of the Aeropostale store were two employees folding T-shirts.

Citing the mall's down-at-the-heels state, PREIT is negotiating with Moorestown Township to reduce the mall's $111 million assessment and $2.6 million annual property-tax bill. Any reduction would be a short-term victory, Coradino insists, because if his new marketing strategy succeeds, the mall's value and tax bill should take off.

The stagnant national economy partly explains the mall's lassitude, he said, but some of the vacancies are tied to PREIT's marketing strategy.

"We're saving them" for the kinds of high-ticket shops he expects will come flocking once Osteria, Distrito, Firebirds, the new theater, and the fourth restaurant make the Moorestown Mall synonymous with style and money.

"Think of a group of women meeting for lunch at Osteria, then taking some time afterward to shop. It goes back to the experiential concept."

Teenagers who "wouldn't be caught dead" today at the Moorestown Mall will continue to flock to the Cherry Hill Mall.

But once Moorestown acquires cachet, "they'll want to go there, to be seen there," Coradino predicts, "even if they can't afford it."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841, doreilly@phillynews.com, or follow @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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