A pastry shop moved into Steeplegate Mall food court – wait, it moved  “into” the food court?

  • Owner and baker Domenic Ciolino works behind the counter at Terrasini Pastry Shop in the food court of Steeplegate Mall in Concord on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Owner and baker Domenic Ciolino serves a customer at Terrasini Pastry Shop in the food court of Steeplegate Mall. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Terrasini Pastry Shop owner Domenic Ciolino and Steeplegate Mall’s food court are reflected off the oven as Ciolino bakes a batch of cookies. Photos by Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Owner and baker Domenic Ciolino removes the last crumb cake from the display case at Terrasini Pastry Shop in the food court of Steeplegate Mall in Concord on Wednesday.

Monitor Staff
Sunday, October 01, 2017

Domenic Ciolino generally gets one reaction when people learn he moved his pastry shop from Union Street in Laconia to the food court at Steeplegate Mall.

“ ‘What, are you crazy?’ That’s the reaction: ‘Are you crazy?’ ” said Ciolino. “I had two people here yesterday say, ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you in the mall? The mall is dying!’ ”

The reaction is understandable. Ciolino can see six empty storefronts when standing behind his counter at Terrasini Pastry Shop, including a vape shop that shut suddenly last month. Earlier in the year, before Basil’s Pizza opened, the only eatery left in the once-bustling food court was a Dunkin’ Donuts.

But in the five weeks since Terrasini Pastry opened next to the VI Party Rental entertainment center, selling Italian pastries and some sandwiches, Ciolino says the mall doesn’t seem dead to him.

“My sales are probably four times what we did in Laconia,” he said Thursday.

This is impressive partly because he hasn’t even installed a sign yet.

“Most of my customers, I was kind of surprised, are not here shopping in the mall – they come in specifically for me; they know it’s an Italian bakery and want to see it,” he said.

If this holds up and others follow suit, then Steeplegate Mall might see a transition being touted in some places: from a food court to a “food hall,” filled not with franchised fast-food outlets designed to quickly placate shoppers but with a wider variety of food-oriented shops, often independently owned, that are attractions in themselves.

Competition from e-commerce and shoppers’ return to downtown streets has left many malls struggling, including the 480,000-square-foot Steeplegate, which defaulted on its loans in 2014 and was taken over by the bank, then sold to a New York retail-property firm in 2016 for $10.3 million, a fraction of the its valuation just two years earlier of $83 million.

With food halls, malls seek to flip the old business model, in which people came to shop and ate as an afterthought. Instead, they hope to lure people in to eat, who will then shop as an afterthought.

It’s part of a push by the mall industry to replace fading brick-and-mortar stores with more experience-related establishments.

Ciolino’s neighbor, VI Party Rental, is a good example: It features bounce houses, laser tag, inflatable sumo suit fighting, and other ways to spend some enjoyable time, selling people an experience rather than an item.

Also in this category is Hatbox Theater, a live theater that moved into the defunct Coldwater Creek store in March 2016.

There’s no guarantee this will work, of course. In fact, the 800-square-foot space that Terrasini Pastry Shop rented made a food hall-like transition once before, without success. It started as a franchised D’Angelo’s sandwich shop, but was later turned into Cranberries: Food for Life, an independent, organic sandwich shop that didn’t last.

If Steeplegate Mall is thinking of going the food hall route, they’re keeping it a secret: A woman who answered the phone at the management office, who declined to give her name, would say only that the mall wishes Terrasini well. Ciolino says he approached them, not the other way around.

Lum Hajdari, owner of Basil Pizza, opened his eatery because he’s familiar with the mall, having run the ISmartFix cell-phone repair kiosk for three years, and knew that customers wanted some food.

“It’s been okay,” he says of business since he started in the spring. “We need more choices. The mall needs to be doing more advertising. We need more people in the mall.”

The experience has been positive enough that Hajdari is opening a creperie – however, he’s doing it in the Mall of New Hampshire in Manchester.

As for Ciolino, he says the per-square-foot rent at the mall is about the same as he paid in Laconia but his overhead is lower.

“I don’t have to deal with bathrooms, with washing windows and shoveling the driveway or the walkway out front, cleaning the tables off and washing the floors out in the public space,” he said. “The mall handles all that.”

Ciolino says he did look at Main Street in Concord, which would seem a more obvious location for a specialty pastry shop, but couldn’t find a location that already had the right kitchen equipment installed.

“I was looking for someplace I would go in and open. I didn’t want to build out, spend a lot,” he said. “Here I’ve got a hood, a walk-in refrigerator, three-bay sink, water heater.”

In fact, he says he’s already thinking of expanding because his place is too small for him to display and sell soup.

“The whole mall idea started as something as a joke,” he admits. “But you know, for me it works perfect.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek)