What can indoor shopping malls do when international restaurant chains pull out of their food courts? For the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, the answer is to find local replacements.
Recently Burritos Los Azaderos, a St. Charles-based Mexican restaurant and bar, opened a Fox Valley Mall food court outpost in what was formerly a 903-square-foot space occupied by Taco Bell.
And a West Suburban franchise of the 62-year-old Chicago-born Harold’s Chicken is aiming for a summer opening in what used to be the mall’s 2,184 square-foot McDonald’s.
“There is a shrinking universe of the national-brand retailer names and eateries and restaurants that you would find in a typical mall,” said Scott Samson, senior general manager for the shopping center.
In response, Samson said the mall created a local leasing program to work with restaurant owners or franchisees who might want to expand with a mall food court location.
“In a way, we’re kind of their business partners creating that brand, creating that store with them,” said Samson about the mall-adapted restaurants. “It’s creating a unique spinoff of a popular business.”
With the closest West suburban Harold’s Chicken location in Bolingbrook, the husband-and-wife team of Maurice and Ernestine Newman felt it was time to bring the legacy family-owned restaurant brand to Aurora.
“I believe the Fox Valley Mall is poised for a huge comeback after the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maurice Newman said. “We believe that Harold’s Chicken would be beneficial and a value to the area. It’s something they’ve never had.”
Samson was also keen to tout the impending Fox Valley Mall arrival of La Catrina Michoacana. The second-level restaurant specializes in Mexican ice cream treats with unique flavor combinations like mango-jalapeño. La Catrina Michoacana also will feature lemonade, horchata and other specialty drinks.
“Every time a shopper comes here, we want them to see something new,” said Samson, noting how Mexican ice treats have recently become more trendy. “We’ve found our younger shoppers tend to quickly embrace brands and concepts that are local, or that they haven’t seen before.”
Samson said physical shopping centers built in the last century need to adapt and diversify to compete with online retailers. One way is to offer more “experiential attractions” like The Comedy Shrine, the longtime comedy club and pop culture memorabilia-festooned museum that relocated last year inside Fox Valley Mall.
And finding new uses for vacant anchor stores like Sears and Carson’s has prodded the mall to open luxury apartments or consider senior living centers.
“I think we’re on that forward edge of reinvention of a typical regional shopping center,” Samson said. “We’re fortunate to be in a trade area that supports it.”