La Promenade: Virginia Beach lifestyle carousel plays a strong retail game

May 27, 2020

Other News

On a ‘typical’ lockdown Saturday morning before Mother’s Day, a store manager places orange traffic cones strategically in the parking lot outside Nothing Bundt Cakes at La Promenade in Virginia Beach. The popular cake boutique preps for the pre-Mother’s Day surge with curbside attendants to greet and guide customers through “call ahead” and “new order” lanes. In March, leading up to Easter Sunday, the record number of cars waiting for curbside pickup was 15. A typical wait was under 10 minutes.

Loyal Nothing Bundt Cakes lover and United Jewish Federation of Tidewater employee Amy Cobb looked forward to the drive to La Promenade for their featured fall pumpkin specialty flavor. “The week before Mother’s Day I was working and thinking about the strawberries and cream ‘bundtlet,’” says Cobb, referring to the new featured spring flavor. “It’s one of my favorite seasonal items. All the cakes are delicious and they freeze well, too.” Not one to show up empty-handed on Mother’s Day, she ordered online the spring flavor to bring to her mother in Franklin, and was unfazed by a 30-minute wait in a parking lot line littered with fellow cake-lovers on a beautiful spring day.

If curbside is here to stay, La Promenade was built to last.

Pandemic protocol had nothing to do with La Promenade’s original building design vision circa 1986. The intention was to differentiate La Promenade from the typical area shopping center with a grocery store or drug chain anchor, and the regulation aesthetic where all stores look the same.

“We purposely went for a meandering street vibe,” says co-owner Jon Sedel. “Every store looks different and has a character of its own. “We didn’t plan it this way, but we are perfectly laid out for curbside service. The demand for curbside take-out service made by COVID-19 has worked out beautifully for Nothing Bundt Cakes, as well as Mizuno Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar—and Aldo’s Ristorante, the Center’s first adopter and leader of successful and improvisational curbside reinvention.
Despite intense challenges, the silver lining for Aldo’s co-owner Debbi Kassir is learning how much Aldo’s means to its customers. Aldo’s has been at La Promenade 32 of its 34 years in existence. The dining public’s connection to and love for this local, family business has also made it a new customer and tenant magnet for the center.
Maybe it took a pandemic for Kassir to realize how much people care. “We have the best clientele anywhere. They have been so loyal, kind, and so generous with our staff during this crisis,” says Kassir. “We’ve had to completely reinvent a fine dining restaurant into a curbside format and we still managed to have a successful Mother’s Day. Kassir and her staff immersed themselves in cautious steps for reopening safely with limited outdoor seating. “We’re reinventing the wheel every day.”

Tenants like Aldo’s are very vocal about the Jewish community standing behind their favorite La Promenade businesses with an outpouring of support and generosity.

Thirty-four years ago, the La Promenade vision was to build a luxury lifestyle destination shopping center with brand names that locals did not have to fly to, or drive through tolls, to experience.

“Why aren’t they here?” was the question driving the original La Promenade concept. When it comes to national and regional tenants, Virginia Beach was underserved. “They didn’t respect the area,” says Sedel. “We were thought of as a hamburger and hotdog town.”

La Promenade blazed a new retail trail.

“Getting Talbots wasn’t easy,” says Sedel. “We bugged them and bugged them. Listen, back then we didn’t have names like Williams Sonoma and Chico’s, but once we nailed Talbots, the others seemed to fall into place. We made the first Starbucks deal in HR. That was a dream tenant. When they opened here, there was just one other (Virginia) location in Richmond.”

Sedel acts as principal in an investment partnership between the Sedel and Snyder families, the owners of La Promenade. “Once we got brands like Talbots, Jos A. Banks, and Williams Sonoma, we filled in the gaps with some really great mom and pops.” The center was home to many local and regional boutiques and retailers that offered unique apparel, jewelry, and giftware.

Then, five years ago, the retail landscape changed and Sedel could no longer take success for granted on the upscale fashion and food-forward lifestyle path previously followed. There was just an oversaturation of retail stores. Too much overlap and competition, making it the ideal time for Amazon and the internet to disrupt the brick and mortar space.

Sedel’s timely move to health and wellness served the center well. He recognized the need to concentrate on more service-driven businesses like Massage Luxe, Anthony Vince Nail Salon, Ava Marie Beauty Salon, Club Pilates, Dr. Kaado, MD (a med spa destination), and Restore Cryotherapy, with its popular cryo treatments, IV drip therapy, and hyperbaric chamber. Sedel loves how he feels after intensely restorative cryo-treatments, but the real rush comes from knowing his nimble moves prevented La Promenade from becoming another brick and mortar statistic.

La Promenade lost Starbucks before COVID-19, but added the Williamsburg Winery wine bar, gaining an evening crowd to gather around an outdoor firepit, sip wine, and guzzle charcuterie. Other stores such as Calico and Ocean Palm persevere with loyal customers to thank.

With paranoia plaguing a vigilant public, landlords can’t be too fastidious about their grounds. “We’ve always operated as a first-class shopping center at the max level in terms in our industry. But even more so now. We perform deep cleaning of all building components, painting manhole covers, pressure washing, planting. Even the trash cans look sterile. All new. Spray it down. Clean it. Paint it.”

Turnover is inevitable.

“Some tenants won’t make it,” says Sedel. “Operating with reduced staff during the crisis, stores and restaurants must be creative and reduce overhead to maintain profitability while there’s less of demand for physical space they pay rent for. We’re trying to help them out. As they begin to re-open this summer, we will need to maintain tables outside and continue curbside, which is really a bridge-fix from one point to the next.”

A lot remains to be seen.

“Regardless, we’ll use these challenges as an opportunity to find another business or service that we don’t currently have. Food service operators will emerge from this with curbside pick-up and more grab and go. New chains and new concepts will appear.

We’ll be looking for the right ones,” say Sedel.

Aldo’s and Mizuno are among the most popular Italian and Japanese restaurants in the region. Sedel wants them to stay and is not alone. Scads of forever customers also hope and pray that these two food fixtures prove to be COVID-resistant.

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