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Meet Me at the Mall

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Burgers and fried fish leaving mall

STAFF AND WIRE REPORT

It’s not quite fast-food flight, but the downtown mall in West Virginia’s capital city said it has declined to renew the leases of McDonald’s and Long John Silver’s restaurants while citing “the nation’s new direction of better and healthier dining opportunities.”

The Charleston Town Center mall will reconfigure its third-floor food court beginning next month, expanding a Steak Escape outlet and adding office space at the expense of the two chains, said Thomas Bird, the mall’s general manager.

It’s not as if traditional fast-food joints are being pushed out altogether: Chick-Fil-A, Taco Bell and two pizza places will remain among the food court’s 11 offerings.

“It’s not the role of a shopping center owner to determine where someone has to eat,” Bird said. “But trends change, and we’re always looking for the newest, best concept that customers will accept. Healthy eating is obviously part of that.“

A McDonald’s official disputed the Town Center’s press statement that it was the mall that had declined to renew its lease.

“It was our decision,” said Rick Rehak, a McDonald’s regional marketing director. “They proposed a different site that we thought would not be as convenient for our customers. Then we mutually made a decision not to renew.”

Rehak also disputed the mall’s implication that McDonald’s does not represent a “better and healthier dining opportunity.”

“Our menu is filled with healthy choices and variety for everybody,” said Rehak, adding that he was “taken aback” by the Town Center statement.

An official with Charleston Town Center’s owner, Forest City Commercial Management in Cleveland, backed away from the mall’s reference to “healthier dining opportunities.”

Tom Gilkeson, Forest City’s vice president of operations, lauded McDonald’s new, healthier menu and said he enjoyed one of their low-fat chicken salads just this week. He agreed the mall and McDonald’s couldn’t agree to terms.

McDonald’s has restaurants in several of Forest City’s other 12 malls across the United States.

“We would have liked to have renewed a relationship with them for another 10 years in Charleston, but it just didn’t work out,” Gilkeson said.

A spokeswoman for Yum Brands, which owns the Long John Silver’s chain, did not respond to a request for comment.

At Seminole Towne Center Mall in Sanford, spokeswoman Shelley Sloan said there are no plans to make any changes to the food court there. “Our food court is pretty healthy already, with Subway, Chick-fil-A and Nature’s Table,” Sloan said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Attempts to contact Volusia Mall were unsuccessful. The Daytona Beach shopping center also has a Chick-fil-A and Nature’s Table as well as a McDonald’s and Long John Silver’s.

Many West Virginia shoppers Friday were upset to learn of the restaurant closings. McDonald’s was an original Town Center tenant in 1983 and remains one of the food court’s most popular spots, with long lines every lunch hour.

“It’s for the public to decide how they want to eat,” said Miles Cary Jr., 24, a Charleston resident who put down his Quarter Pounder in disgust when he heard the news. “That’s not a choice a mall needs to make for you.”

In the McDonald’s line, 19-year-old Natalie Wesley said, “Healthier? Like Taco Bell? That doesn’t make any sense. Steak Escape fries your food right in front of you just like this place. People are going to be upset.”

The departure leaves downtown Charleston without a place to buy a Big Mac, though three outlets remain in other parts of the city.

Rehak said bringing a restaurant back to downtown Charleston “is No. 1 on our priority list.”

Malls are generally featuring smaller food courts with eight or so restaurants, about half the number that was the trend two decades ago, said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade association.

Malls are also looking to incorporate more sit-down restaurants among their fast-food choices, including those like Applebee’s, with menus that inform customers of the number of Weight Watcher points for each meal, Duker said.

Charleston Town Center has seven sit-down restaurants, which Duker said was a large number.

Large supermarkets that include fast-food franchises are moving toward replacing those spaces with their own restaurants that make healthier fare, said Phil Lempert, a food trends analyst for the Today show and editor of SupermarketGuru.com.

Business writer Valerie Whitney contributed to this Associated Press report.

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