When the acclaimed restaurant e+o Food and Drink opened in Randhurst Village earlier this year, it left some people pondering a question: What's a place like this doing in a mall?
Randhurst Village isn't a traditional mall, though. It's an example of what retail experts say is a national trend -- an open-air shopping center with a prominent dining/entertainment component.
"We've heard that a lot, that people are surprised we opened in a 'suburban mall,'" e+o co-owner Aeron Lancero said. "I think part of that is because people remember what Randhurst used to be. It's a different place now."
Randhurst Village opened in Mount Prospect in 2011, replacing an iconic indoor mall that had stood on the site for decades. The center still features department stores like Carson's and TJ Maxx, but it's structured in a walk-up, Main Street-style manner. And in the new design, dining and entertainment are every bit as important as the big retail tenants.
In fact, the dining/entertainment component has been the early success story for Randhurst Village. In addition to e+o, restaurants like the Billy Goat Tavern, BlackFinn American Grille and Tony Sacco's Coal Oven Pizza have opened on the site, and the center is anchored by the revamped AMC Randhurst 12 movie theater, which includes MacGuffins, a full-service bar, inside.
The retail side has progressed more slowly. A vacant Borders building still stands on the site, and smaller retail slots in the main development remain empty.
Still, Mount Prospect officials are delighted with how well Randhurst Village has done so far.
"It's already become a destination type of place," Mayor Arlene Juracek said.
Dining and entertainment were key elements of the plan for Randhurst Village from the beginning, officials say. The property's owner, Ohio-based Casto Lifestyle Properties, wanted to rebuild the center around the theater, Juracek said.
"The idea was that the theater would be an anchor that would draw you down the main street, which would have a mix of restaurants and retail shops along the way," she said. "We were on board with that concept from the start."
Village officials were eager to try something new because the traditional mall on the site was struggling. Built in 1962 as the first Chicago area's first indoor mall, Randhurst was a massive success in its heyday, attracting shoppers from all over the region. Over time, though, business declined as shopping habits changed and nearby competitors like Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall siphoned customers away. In 2008, Mount Prospect officials approved Casto's proposal to demolish the enclosed part of the mall and rebuild it in an entirely different style -- and Randhurst Village was born.
John Melaniphy, a retail analyst with Melaniphy & Associates in Chicago, said similar decisions are being made all over the country.
"Many 'classic' malls, the kind of places that combine smaller shops with a few big anchor stores like Sears, are dying," Melaniphy said. "So towns are looking at alternate uses, and one way to go is to focus on food and restaurants."
Melaniphy said that approach makes sense, as restaurants tend to be a big draw, especially at night.
"We all feel those hunger pangs at least three times a day," he said.
The restaurant that has made the biggest splash at Randhurst Village so far is e+o, an upscale eatery that is the brainchild of renowned Chicago chef Rodelio Aglibot. Aglibot, often referred to as "the Food Buddha," previously was known for his work at the Chicago restaurant Sunda.
E+o immediately brought an urban vibe to Randhurst Village, along with a burst of media attention; Chicago Magazine, for example, named it one of the best new restaurants of 2013.
"We knew there was a market in the suburbs," e+o's Lancero said. "We knew suburban residents wanted a restaurant like this closer to home. So far, the response has been above our expectations."
Kevin Finegold, operating partner of BlackFinn American Grille, reported similar success at his outlet.
"We opened last August, and honestly, I don't think I've seen a community embrace a restaurant as quickly as ours has been," he said.
BlackFinn, a more casual dining spot than e+o, benefits from its proximity to the movie theater, Finegold said.
"It really improves our visibility," he said. "People will walk by our place on the way to the theater. They'll remember where we are. Next time, they might set aside time to have a drink or a full meal with us."
As strong as the restaurants at Randhurst Village have been, the development continues to have empty retail spots, particularly the smaller spaces. A Randhurst shopper noted the vacancies during a recent visit.
"You definitely see all the places that are still empty," said 21-year-old Shannon Aronson of Wheeling, who had just finished browsing inside Charming Charlie, one of the new retail tenants. "I think there would definitely be more energy here if these other places got filled."
Juracek said the economy was largely to blame.
"Obviously, we'd love for the retail side to be more robust than it is," she said. "But this is a tough economy. A lot of national chains are consolidating, pulling back. They're just not opening new spots. And it's a difficult time for mom-and-pop businesses, too."
Despite those struggles, Randhurst Village appears to be having a positive impact on village economics, retail analyst Melaniphy said. Mount Prospect's overall retail sales increased by $40 million from 2011 to 2012, he said, adding that Randhurst Village likely has a lot to do with that increase.
"You can't say for certain how well this kind of thing will do a few years out, but right now it looks to have things going in the right direction for Mount Prospect," he said.