Castle Mall boss says long-awaited restaurant quarter can start new era at Norwich centre
- Credit: Ella Wilkinson
After a spate of high-profile shop closures, Norwich's Castle Mall has had a difficult few months. But its centre manager is upbeat about the future and believes it is on the verge of a breakthrough, as Mark Shields reports.
When the hoardings went up around Castle Mall's proposed new restaurant quarter in 2016, they excitedly advertised an opening date of early 2017.
Eighteen months on, however, just one restaurant is up and running as questions mount over whether the £3m development will ever fulfil its owners' ambitions as a new leisure destination for the city.
But with fit-out work beginning on a second restaurant, Castle Mall centre manager Robert Bradley says the completion of the project is within sight and shoppers will have three new restaurants to choose from at the Timberhill Terrace by autumn.
He believes the opening of wine cafe Veeno next month can kick-start the project once more, and hints at a major arrival at the centre that he believes will put Castle Mall 'ahead of the game' in a retail environment that has been under unprecedented pressure in 2018.
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'All these things have been negotiated for a while. The hardest thing has been persuading people that it's actually going to happen,' said Mr Bradley.
'We've always known that it was going to happen but it's only now becoming visible to people.'
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After Veeno's opening in September, steak-and-lobster restaurant Bourgee and British-inspired Babel expected to finally move in and begin service before November. They will join Mexican restaurant Cocina, which has been the only restaurant open in the revamped section for the past year.
'We are expecting them by the autumn,' said Mr Bradley. 'Babel is just ironing out the last points of its design. They've been paying rent for some time, which is why we've had their name all over the signage.
'But all credit to Cocina, as they've been trading there for a year. Now that Veeno are on the site, that's going to kick-start the development.'
Mr Bradley said the promise of the restaurant quarter had been enough to lure him back to Norwich from Liverpool, where he had been managing the city's St John's shopping centre. He returned 18 months ago to Castle Mall, where he had served as operations manager between 2003 and 2012.
They have not been easy times in retail or casual dining, with a combination of increasing costs, a weak pound, dropping consumer confidence and fiercer online competition ratcheting up the pressure across the country.
Castle Mall has lost major shops including Argos, Mothercare and Poundworld in the past year, leaving a string of empty units in the centre.
While admitting such closures 'can be difficult', Mr Bradley pointed out that the failures were not specific to Castle Mall, but reflected nationwide pressures on big chains rather than their underperformance at the centre.
He and his team have tried to manage the empty units by using some for community projects, a children's club which attracts around 250 children a session, and sports activities such as a ping-pong parlour, while new tenants are being sought for other units.
'We don't see occupancy as low, but some units are strategically empty,' said Mr Bradley.
'Shopping centres have to adapt at some point and it's given us the opportunity to get ahead of the game in some ways. It's allowed us to progress the evolution of the centre.'
He argues that Castle Mall has been performing well, with footfall trending 4% above the national average, positive car park figures and cinema attendances boosted by a cut-price ticket trial at Vue. Some of the tenants are ranked in the top 10 performers for their chain, he said.
Timberhill Terrace will be marketed separately to Castle Mall in a bid to bring a different clientele into the centre – recognition that retail centres now have to diversify as much as possible to protect themselves.
'Consumers are demanding more and more,' said Mr Bradley. 'They won't settle for what they've had for years and years.
'You can't just open your doors at 9am and expect people to come in and spend money.
'We know from market research that we have a loyal customer base but we have to grow it further. To do that, we have to offer something new, an experience.'
That new offer is being worked on, with Mr Bradley suggesting the announcement of a new name at Castle Mall could come within weeks.
'I think in 18 months' time, people will be using Castle Mall as a place to shop, eat and relax, whereas at the moment they only use it to shop and eat,' he said.
'We are being proactive in managing the centre. We are seeing everything as an opportunity.'