Omahans aren’t the only ones gauging the success of Westroads Mall’s new food hall, Flagship Commons. National mall operators and developers — including General Growth Properties, which owns Westroads — are watching, too.

The concept, with eight local restaurants under one shopping mall roof, may expand its reach beyond Nebraska in the coming years, said Nick Hogan, chief executive of Flagship Restaurant Group, which operates the hall.

Sales at the hall are exceeding Flagship’s expectations and are double those of the old food court, which closed just before the new hall opened, said Jim Sadler, senior general manager at Westroads.

Hogan said the Omaha-based business, which operates restaurants such as Blue Sushi Sake Grill, Plank and Roja Mexican Grill in downtown Omaha, has been in casual talks with national mall developer General Growth Properties about expansion opportunities.

The hall could exist someday outside of a shopping center, too. Hogan said airports and stand-alone locations in more of an urban core have been considered as well, but shopping centers like Westroads — many of which are looking to update their dining options and draw in more traffic to compete with online retailers — present the greatest opportunity.

“They’re the ones sitting on this real estate, that are the most motivated because they’re not just getting the rent, they’re enhancing their mall,” he said of mall operators.

Sadler said corporate personnel from General Growth Properties have been paying close attention to the hall’s popularity, and its sales volume.

“There’s great interest in expanding this sort of concept where we can and where it becomes viable,” he said. A representative from General Growth’s corporate offices in Chicago could not be reached for comment.

Hogan said any firm plans to expand are on hold until the company can predict sales trends and the newness of the concept wears off for customers and employees. A demographics study to see what kinds of people are drawn to the food hall will soon be underway. Feelers also will go out in May at a real estate convention in Las Vegas.

Flagship may have hit a gold mine of opportunity: Malls across the country are upping their ante when it comes to “experiences,” said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Conference of Shopping Centers. The goal is to add entertainment and dining options that complement shopping — things the Web retailers can’t compete with.

“This idea of the food hall is something that’s definitely gaining some traction,” Tron said.

Why? “That’s what the consumer expects,” Tron said. “A lot of shopping centers are seeing there’s real value in just drawing in the consumer, even if their main goal is just to come to the restaurant.”

That builds a good reputation and comfort level with shoppers that keeps them coming back. “So it’s OK if today they’re just coming for a quick bite to eat, but tomorrow they’re going to do some discretionary shopping as well,” he said.

The goal, Flagship’s Hogan said, is to tailor the hall to each market and partner with local restaurants, while maintaining the Flagship Commons brand, he said.

“The demographic we’re pursuing is not as much interested in the restaurant chain they see on every pad site in front of every grocery store across the country,” Hogan said. “The idea is to be able to, as we grow the concept, offer a local flair, maybe partner with local operators, but still carry through a Flagship Commons brand.”

That demographic — those looking for a business lunch, or a quick dinner close to home — most likely will have greater spending power than some of the folks who were drawn to the previous food court; they, in turn, can spend more at the mall merchants.

The idea for the food hall came about when General Growth Chief Executive Sandeep Mathrani toured Westroads and found it odd that the old food court faced West Dodge Road. He proposed moving it to the current location of Flagship Commons, at the back of the building, Sadler told a group of real estate professionals at a Thursday presentation.

With the help of General Growth’s Eat/Drink team — focused on revamping food courts — the original plan to relocate the existing food court evolved quickly into replacing the offerings with fast-casual concepts like Chipotle and some local operators. That’s when Hogan proposed taking over the whole space. The partnership grew from there.

The hall has changed traffic patterns at Westroads and has increased the value of the retail bays near it, Sadler said. (The space was previously occupied by TGI Fridays and a handful of retailers, including CJ Banks and RadioShack.) Sadler said the mall is in talks with a new-to-Westroads retailer that is interested in opening right across from the food hall. A few of the shops there now are on temporary leases.

Sadler said all of the department stores at the mall have noticed increased traffic, and Hogan was told by a manager at Younkers — next door to Flagship Commons — that sales are up.

Still, some Omaha critics have said the hall is too expensive and lacks options for families.

Gordon Ritter of Harlan, Iowa, was shopping at the mall Thursday and chose to dine at Dairy Queen, which reopened in a new space on the lower level near Scooter’s. He hadn’t eaten at Flagship Commons, but “taking a look at the menu, it didn’t really appeal to me,” Ritter said.

Others on social media have sounded off that some of their fast-food favorites can’t be found at the mall anymore. Some of the previous food court restaurants will move elsewhere in the mall; others closed their mall locations.

Even so, Flagship’s Hogan said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The hall opened with more than 400 seats, and owners were forced to add more than 100 permanent seats and even some temporary seating in a nearby hallway to accommodate the crush in opening days.

That includes Stephanie Weeden and Kim Uhing, who work at Medical Solutions nearby. The pair never ate at the previous food court, but decided to give Flagship Commons a try for lunch last week.

Both were eating large bowls of ramen from Yoshi-Ya ramen, one of the new concepts in the hall.

“It just seems like it’s more upscale, but also fast enough for lunch,” Uhing said. Others have praised Flagship for having vegan, gluten-free and other healthier options.

Katie Carnaby, Katy O’Keefe and Nikole Stroup met for lunch at the hall last week with a few of their kids.

“It’s nice we can all get something different, and we can walk around the mall when we’re done,” O’Keefe said.

All said the space was a better option for people with young children over a full-service restaurant, and enjoyed the healthier, local options.

“If Clark started crying right now, I wouldn’t feel like I’m bothering people,” Carnaby said of her son.

Fans of the old food court are in luck, though. A handful of other restaurants are reopening within the mall, including Raising Cane’s, which opens in a new space near Dick’s Sporting Goods on Saturday. Subway will reopen in the same area in the coming weeks, Sadler said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1414, paige.yowell@owh.com

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