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Can Westfield's operators withstand the recession?

30 April 2009 by
Can Westfield's operators withstand the recession?

When Westfield London opened its doors last October, record numbers of shoppers flooded through its gates. But six months on, with the recession in full force, has the novelty of Europe's largest shopping mall worn off? Kerstin Kühn investigates

Westfield London, the £1.6b retail development in London's White City, opened with a bang last October and in the run up to Christmas record numbers of shoppers flocked through its gates. It was good news for the centre's many retailers and hospitality operators, as fears that the credit crunch would overshadow the launch of Europe's largest shopping mall proved unfounded.

But six months on, the economy has deteriorated and Westfield isn't immune. Footfall plummeted after Christmas and the delay in opening a 14-screen cinema, which is now scheduled for December, and a hike in service charges has angered some of the tenants.

THREE FOOD AREAS

Westfield is home to nearly 50 dining outlets featuring 25 different types of cuisine. The food offer is divided into three distinct areas: the Balcony, the Loft and the Southern Terrace.

The Balcony area, which is located in the very heart of Westfield, overlooking the main shopping hub, The Atrium, comprises 13 kiosk-style dining outlets including operators such as dim sum concept Bamboo Basket, Italian venture Ooze Risotteria and Yo! Sushi.

According to Tracey Mills, director of development at Davis Coffer Lyons, the property agent for restaurants at Westfield, the Balcony has been an "overwhelming success".

"The Balcony is modelled on Westfield's café courts, which it runs at its malls in the USA and Australia, and it's a completely new concept in the UK that has worked incredibly well," she said.

This was echoed by Tony Kitous, owner of London restaurants Pasha and Kenza, who launched casual Middle Eastern dining concept Comptoir Libanais at the Balcony.

He told Caterer that despite a recent drop in footfall, Westfield has been "the best thing" he has done and that business has been "amazing since day one".

He added: "It's unfortunate that the launch of Westfield was in the thick of a recession, but business is still good and I'm positive things will recover."

However, not everyone shares his sentiment. Michelin-starred Club Gascon owner and Independent Restaurateur Catey winner Pascal Aussignac said for him things haven't turned out as planned.

With business partner Vincent Labeyrie, Aussignac launched the Croque Gascon dining outlet at The Balcony, which offers speciality dishes from south west France.

Six months on, Aussignac said the concept hasn't been received as well as he'd hoped.

"We're sandwiched between two healthy eating concepts - salad bar Tossed and Vietnamese noodle bar Pho - and it's difficult to compete with them," he said.

"We've had to change our offer and make it a bit lighter and healthier to make it more accessible to a wider audience."

He added that the recession has had a huge effect on Westfield and during the week the centre is "incredibly quiet".

"At this point, I'm not sure if our concept is wrong for Westfield or whether it's Westfield that's wrong for the current times. But six months isn't long enough to judge and we'll have to give it until the end of the year. Either way, it's been a great experience."

FACING CHALLENGES

The Southern Terrace is the pedestrian street of dining at Westfield, with 17 restaurants including chains such as the Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Wagamama and the Real Greek.

Here operators are facing their own challenges. Two have been forced to shut their outlets: Tom Etridge, whose healthy eating concept Ito shut after just a few weeks, and Italian restaurant group Esca, which collapsed into administration.

Other outlets have performed better and Mark Selby, managing director and co-owner of Wahaca, said the Mexican street food outlet had been trading well and attracted return customers from outside Westfield, including BBC employees and local residents.

Westfield London
Westfield London

However, Selby added that there was a lack of marketing for restaurants located outside.

"Westfield concentrates all of its marketing on getting people into the centre but not so much on letting people know what else is there other than the shops. Many people aren't even aware that the Southern Terrace exists and a lot more could be done to promote it," he said.

Rachel Belam, food leasing executive at Westfield, said Westfield was actively working with operators on the Southern Terrace but conceded: "The area was the one part where we didn't get it completely right.

"We're working to change the aesthetics in the lower Southern Terrace to create a better level of intimacy and improve way-finding," she said.

"We're also looking to diversify the offer more and are currently in discussions with operators to launch a gastropub, an Indian and a fish restaurant."

Six months on, Westfield continues to trade well but the recession hasn't passed it by. The company continues to broaden the centre's dining concept in a bid to attract shoppers and locals, but the next six months will be the real acid test.

Westfield in discussions to open new restaurants >>

London's West End restaurateurs deny impact of Westfield opening >>

Video: New concepts make their debut at Westfield London >>

By Kerstin Kühn

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