Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A few words on Eastland's last day

Eastland Mall closes today, 34 years and 11 months to the day after its much-heralded debut on July 30, 1975. The mall's ride has been a fascinating and rocky one, with all kinds of ties to Charlotte's greater history of growth, development, traffic patterns and changing neighborhoods and identities, fraught with meaning, symbolism and implications. (I've been trying to keep up with news on the mall's fate while delving deeply into some of that in recent stories, which is why my blog posts have been few and far between for the last couple of weeks - for that, I apologize!)

It's been incredibly interesting talking to people about their memories of the mall and their feelings about its slide, and it's reminded me of the role that retail spaces can play in shaping our lives - how they help provide a sense of place, take us back to moments in time and offer not just four walls in which to make some kind of transaction, but serve as a workplace, a social space and a mirror of a community. Are all shopping centers designed and intended to be this way? Certainly not, as evidenced by plenty of disposable architecture littering the landscape. But Eastland wasn't some tossed-off, hastily constructed insta-plaza. As historian Tom Hanchett said when I talked with him about the mall last week: “The mall was thought out in a way that made it a special place, and made it a coming-together place."

I think that's part of why people remember it so fondly and have taken its decline so personally: It was designed as a destination, with entertainment options, spots to sit and relax, waterfalls and skylights and 30-foot ficus trees growing inside. Opening when it did, in the mid-1970s, when malls were ascendant in teen culture and broader society, it became sort of the de facto downtown of a suburban area that otherwise lacked a more traditionally-defined center. And indeed, it struck me that people looked back at Eastland's heyday the same way that someone raised a couple decades earlier might feel upon returning to a small-town downtown that bustled in the 1950s, but has since seen its businesses - drug stores, banks, bakeries, shoe stores, restaurants - depart for newer environs at the edge of town. It's not just that the landscape has changed physically, but what that shift evokes on an emotional level. Or, as David Wayne Evans, the mall's onetime promotions coordinator, said when I interviewed him about how he felt when he last visited Eastland, about four years ago: "I just turned 47, and when you see stuff from your life start to disappear, it's kind of a telling moment how life just changes."

At Eastland, people met their spouses, went on first dates, saw "Star Wars" for the first time, took their first, tentative steps onto an ice rink, got their first jobs, registered for their weddings, bought their first business suits - all life milestones that mean something. "It was a very magical place to go," Donna Ashcraft Pressley, Eastland's longtime marketing director, recalled last week. And no matter how the end came, that's worth remembering.

***The photos with this post are courtesy of Pat Richardson of Charlotte, who generously sent a selection of old Eastland pictures my way. He was 8 and lived two miles from Eastland when it opened, and remembered the excitement of visiting on opening weekend in 1975. "It was so new, exciting and different," he said. "SouthPark was only one level and didn't have a food court. For a teenager, Eastland was a dream come true." Even his cousins who lived near SouthPark would cross town to visit the newer, hipper mall.

Richardson fondly recalls Farrell's ice cream parlor, shopping at the Hub men's store and Spencer Gifts, taking the "up" escalator at the edge of the ice rink, watching his sister when she first got her ears pierced at Eastland and visiting the Record Bar. He also can't forget the distinctive interior design and bizarre seating at Gourmet Gardens, the food court: "It was like you were sitting on boulders." (Oh, the '70s.) Richardson also has a broader interest in Charlotte's dining, advertising and shopping history, and displays some of the very cool artifacts he's unearthed on his two blogs, Charlotte Ads and Charlotte Eats, which are well worth checking out when you have the time.

Morrocroft adds ABC Store

The "Tajmah Teeter" at Morrocroft Village has a, um, spirited new neighbor: Call it the TajhmABC Store.

The Mecklenburg County Alcoholic Beverage Control Board last week opened a new location in the 5,312-square-foot former Ruby Tuesday space in the upmarket shopping center, on Sharon Road between Morrison Boulevard and Colony Road, across from SouthPark mall. The shop carries about 1,025 distilled spirit products, according to the ABC Board.

However, Morrocroft's addition will subtract two other ABC stores from the countywide roster: The locations at 1017 Wendover Road and 6625 Carmel Road are set to shut down as a result of the new store opening. ABC spokeswoman Mary Ward said that those locations are listed for sale and do not have a firm closing date at this time. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Is Papa John's tops in satisfaction? A leading survey says yes

When it comes to fast food customer service, Papa's at the top - Papa John's, that is, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The Louisville, Ky.-based pizza purveyor topped the annual rankings, founded at the University of Michigan, based on customer evaluations of quality of products and services.

Most large fast-food chains saw their scores improve, buoyed by frequent price promotions and new menu items, the ACSI said. Pizza places have been perhaps the most visible on that front, offering pizzas for $10 and less and in other combination deals. That paid off in the rankings: Papa John's led the limited-service restaurant category with a score of 80 out of 100, up from 75 last year, while Pizza Hut and Little Caesars were close behind at 78. Domino's held steady at 77, despite the highly publicized rollout of their new pizza recipe. KFC and Burger King also saw their scores rise. In fact, McDonald's was the only restaurant in the category to drop, to a score of 67, compared to 70 last year. That put it last in the category.

I was initially all set to jump to McDonald's defense, because I think they're good at what they do - offering consistent and by no means terrible food at an inexpensive price. And they've recently introduced more products to broaden their menu, with more snack items and coffee drinks. However, that's sort of the big picture - and people's views are shaped by their personal experiences with the Golden Arches (or any other retailer). For instance, I went to a local-McDonald's-that-shall-remain-nameless last night and the following occurred: It took several minutes of standing at the cash register just to be waited on or acknowledged, even though there was no one else in line and plenty of staffers walking around in full view. The worker that did end up taking my order sneezed into her arm in the middle of making it, so she had to hand it off to another employee, who accidentally dropped the order on the ground as she was about to serve it to me, and had to make a new one. They ended up being very pleasant about it, but the whole thing was positively sitcom-esque - and suggests that maybe the survey respondents are onto something. You can find the full list, with historical data, here.

On a semi-related note: With perhaps unintentional humor, the report notes that "still, airlines remain near the bottom of all industries in the (index)." And US Airways is near the bottom of that category, with a score of 62. However, I can't exactly throw stones. Only newspapers and subscription TV have equal or lower scores, as a category. (Insert gallows-humor newspaper-industry-woes joke here.)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Free fro-yo in Myers Park today

The latest entrant into the region's growing frozen yogurt wave, Yoforia, is marking the opening of its Myers Park shop by giving away free yogurt there all day today, until 10 p.m. The store is at Selwyn Corners, the same little plaza that houses Nolen Kitchen, at 2823 Selwyn Ave., Charlotte.

A coupon for the special, good for up to 12 oz. of yogurt and toppings, can be found on Yoforia's Facebook page. The Atlanta-based chain has also recently opened locations at SouthPark mall and the Shops at Piper Glen, and joins Tasty Yo in NoDa and a new-style TCBY at Colony Place in south Charlotte in offering the increasingly popular tart fro-yo with fresh fruit and candy toppings - though some of the shops also serve sweet flavors, too. The chain that started the craze, Los Angeles-based Pinkberry, is also headed to town: It's slated to open in mid-July at Phillips Place, as my esteemed colleague Helen Schwab reported last month.

In the spirit of full disclosure and thorough investigation, I should also point out that a colleague and I ventured over to the store to check out the scene - and, ok, yes, sample the eats - earlier today, creating our own tasty treats from among 12 flavors of yogurt and an extensive self-serve topping bar. A tip based on that experience, however: Be sure to leave enough room for toppings, or else you'll find your cup overflowing, and with a less-than-ideal topping-to-yogurt ratio!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cotswold Village gets Charley's back, plus IHOP

Cotswold Village Shops is gaining a new restaurant – and welcoming back a familiar one.

Charley’s, which closed in March after a long run at the Charlotte shopping center, is slated to reopen within the next couple of weeks under new ownership, serving lunch and dinner. It will have updated d├ęcor, but a similar menu that uses many of the same recipes that the previous incarnation offered, owner Jolene Frank said. She also plans to add a few more steaks and pastas, and an expanded bar.

Elsewhere in the plaza, IHOP plans to open in the former Blockbuster space in the next three or four months, featuring, yes, pancakes, among plenty of other items, said Jay Couch, senior vice president for commercial properties with the center’s owner, Greensboro-based Bell Partners. 

That leaves the 35,698-square-foot former Stein Mart space as the center’s only vacancy, Couch said. Bell Partners is currently negotiating with a national retailer for the space, and anticipates an announcement at the end of September. The shopping center, at the corner of Sharon Amity and Randolph roads, has 273,841 square feet of space. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Growing boutique comes with a side of retail history

Women's clothing boutique Ivy & Leo, which opened in March 2009 at Founders Hall in downtown Charlotte, this weekend debuted a second location at Specialty Shops on the Park, on Morrison Boulevard across from SouthPark mall.

Despite opening in the depths of the recession, the store has thrived downtown, selling "fun, trendy clothes at an affordable price," says owner Stephanie Strause, who named the store after her two rescue dogs. She opened there because she had seen plenty of traffic in Founders Hall and figured the concept could attract interest, and that proved true, she said. However, that location is not open on weekends, and she wanted to be able to serve customers on Saturday and Sunday, with easy in-and-out access. Both shops sell dresses, tops, shoes, handbags and accessories, with dresses in the $50 to $100 range, for example.

Ivy & Leo is the trendier sister store of Julie's, a longtime Charlotte-area women's shop now in its third generation of family ownership, with six Carolinas locations. Strause's husband, Aron, runs Julie's with his father, Leonard; Aron Strause's grandfather, Julius Strause, founded the business. Aron and Stephanie Strause go on buying trips together, each searching for items for their respective stores, and the businesses also share a warehouse, Stephanie Strause said.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Whole Foods: 30 years old, still not coming to Charlotte

Upmarket natural and organic grocery chain Whole Foods is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. But one way it won't be marking the occasion: By building a store in Charlotte. At least, not yet.

With tons of gourmet and prepared offerings, as well as extensive meat, produce and seafood sections, Whole Foods remains one of the area's most sought-after - and so far, elusive - retailers. The company's stores elsewhere are veritable palaces of food, and it has long had a presence in other parts of the Carolinas, with locations in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, Winston-Salem, Greenville, S.C. and Charleston, S.C. It also recently bought an established natural grocer in Asheville, and a new Raleigh location is also in the works, according to Whole Foods' website.

The company announced plans to open its first area store more than five years ago, but a proposed location in Elizabeth fell through, and another proposed location at Sharon and Colony roads in the SouthPark area is also off the drawing board and was removed from Whole Foods' list of stores in development. The economy has played a role in the lag, as the company - like many others - has pulled back on new store openings across the board. Whole Foods has also encountered difficulty finding the right location in Charlotte, said spokeswoman Darrah Horgan, who has been kindly fielding my "When are you coming to Charlotte?" queries for several years now.

"Charlotte has certainly been a challenge for us, as far as real estate is concerned," she said in an e-mail. "We are still pursuing stores there, but nothing has solidified."

In fact, she noted, Whole Foods hasn't opened any new stores in the South since November 2007, though there are three on the horizon for 2011 - the aforementioned Raleigh store, and locations in suburban Atlanta and Nashville.

Still, Horgan said, Charlotte remains on the radar screen: "We're still looking, and still excited and interested in bringing a Whole Foods Market to Charlotte!"

So, where could it go? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Mountain Island Walmart holds grand reopening

Major renovations continue to ripple across area Walmarts, with the latest overhaul set to be unveiled tomorrow (Friday) at the Mountain Island location, at N.C. 16 and Mount Holly-Huntersville Road in Charlotte.

The store will mark the completion of the three-month project with a ceremony at 10 a.m., plus free samples and demos from vendors. As with other remodeled Walmarts, the Mountain Island store will sport the retailing giant's latest look, with a new layout, wider aisles, brighter colors, new signage and lower-profile shelving for improved sightlines.

The electronics department has more than doubled in size, reflecting the company's increased push to gain market share in that area, and will offer a more hands-on experience, with interactive Blu-Ray, video game and portable electronics displays. The store will also house an improved digital photo lab with banner and poster printing capabilities, as well as a new department called Celebration Station, featuring party supplies. The pharmacy will have a completely new format, the company said.

The outside has also been spruced up, with a new paint scheme and signage, a restriped parking lot and an expanded garden center. The store employs about 400, including about 45 positions added as a result of the renovations. 

The West Gastonia Walmart also recently wrapped up a revamp, and work is under way at the East Franklin Boulevard location in Gastonia, which is on track for a July completion.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Scented billboard aims to lead shoppers by the nose

Commuters on River Highway (N.C. 150) near Lake Norman in Mooresville may find a new aroma commingling with exhaust fumes: The smell of grilled steak, coming from a billboard designed to entice shoppers by appealing to a sense other than sight.

The Bloom grocery store chain, part of Food Lion, erected the giant sign at 1220 River Highway, between a Shell gas station and a storage facility, to promote its new brand of beef. It'll disperse the scent during rush hour, from 7 to 10 a.m. and from 4 to 7 p.m., every day until June 18, and is visible to drivers heading west, toward Catawba County. It pairs the smell with a big visual, showing a giant piece of steak and a French fry on a giant fork, and is one of the first of its kind in the country.

Bloom worked on the campaign with Charlotte advertising agency Birdsong Gregory and Charlotte-based ScentAir, a leading scent marketing and branding company. ScentAir normally focuses on applying scents to indoor environments, so the outdoor space proved a bigger challenge, the company said.

Though plenty of businesses are using scents to create ambiance and enhance their selling atmosphere, schnoz-targeted ads in public places are fairly rare. The most prominent example crumbled after one day in 2006, amid concern that the smell could provoke allergic reactions and otherwise irritate passers-by. In that case, the California Milk Processing board placed chocolate chip cookie-scented strips in selected San Francisco bus shelters. For its part, Bloom said it hadn't received any complaints and that its steak scent is safe.