I rarely feature a one-photo blog article, but this post is an example where I have no real choice. I took a single photo on a lark, not realizing at the time that it would generate a significant analysis that justifies other photos to help flesh out the argument. Thankfully, as is often the case, archived photos from Google Street View help complete the deal, but it would have been nice if I could have furnished those additional images myself. Alas, I don’t plan on making my way to this patch of suburbia any time soon. Regardless, the fundamental claim should be clear.
And here’s the pic:
Coming from the interior of a restaurant, it features one of those placeholder (“you are this far”) multidirectional signs. I’ve covered them in the past, whether Afghanistan or rural Kentucky. Probably others, but those are the first two that come to mind. Most people find them affable enough. A multidirectional sign such as this isn’t usually all that useful in navigating the immediate area, but it offers an interesting conception of the earth’s magnitude. They often feature distances of far-flung locations, juxtaposed with something a lot closer. This one is no different. It features the capital of Malaysia, a prominent city in Thailand popular with short-term visitors (for various reasons), and…the restrooms. Probably a few other key destinations many thousands of miles away (I can’t remember), but “Bathroom” is the one most likely to interest patrons of this restaurant.
So what is this exotic locale harboring this multidirectional sign? It’s none other than Rasa Sayang, an apparently well-established Malaysian restaurant, which probably explains the Kuala Lumpur reference. And while I certainly don’t like to transform my blog into shameless promotion of a product or business, I can wholeheartedly recommend the place. But this isn’t about the food, nor even the multidirectional sign. it’s about the choice of location. Rasa Sayang recently shifted its operation and its multidirectional sign to a mall.
The Concord Mall sits just a few miles outside the municipal boundary of Wilmington, Delaware. Unlike most malls, Concord Mall isn’t particularly close to the junction of major interstates. Sure, it sits on an important highway (US 202), and Interstate 95 is just about three miles to the east. But that’s far enough away that it doesn’t really serve as a selling point, and plenty of other intersections would have been more effective as a built-in promotional tool for the mall. Concord Mall’s big advantage is that it is just a few thousand feet from the Delaware-Pennsylvania boundary—a heartbeat away from the expansive and affluent suburbs of Philadelphia. More importantly, Concord Mall’s location takes full advantage of the fact that Delaware lacks a sales tax, so Philadelphia customers seeking to save a few bucks can go to Delaware to make their purchases. It’s not the only Wilmington-area mall to capitalize on Delaware’s zero-sales-tax status, nor even the first one that I’ve featured: the Tri-State Mall really is at a junction of I-95 and an arterial state highway (Delaware 92), yet it’s all but completely shuttered. The income levels around Tri-State Mall were significantly lower than those around Concord, and Concord opened just a year after Tri-State (1968 and 1967 respectively), stealing much of Tri-State’s thunder, so while the two were both patronized in the 1970s and early 80s, Wilmingtonians always perceived Tri-State as a marginal competitor, while Concord offered the big-name department stores and inline tenants.
Tri-State limped through the 90s with escalating vacancy, finally shedding its last anchor tenant (the notorious Burlington Coat Factory) in 2017. More or less vacant of in-line tenants since 2015, the owners sealed the interior off to the public in 2019 to make way for a warehousing company; a few retailers with exterior access survive on one side of the structure. (The YouTube channel This Is Dan Bell features a walk-through of Tri-State a few months before its last tenants left; the austere, never-updated interior cemented its status as the cheap alternative mall to Concord.) Meanwhile, Concord Mall has recently shown more than a few telltale indicators of its own collapse: Sears announced its lease termination in early 2020, closing its last location in Delaware and leaving the mall approximately one-third vacant at that time. The multi-month lockdowns imposed by COVID-19 undoubtedly exacerbated conditions. And, sad to say, another telltale indicator that Concord Mall is dying is the opening of Rasa Sayang, which relocated last summer after operating more than a decade at another shopping center a couple miles down the road.
I don’t like to ascribe negative economic conditions to a locally owned small business, especially one that I patronized and liked. But the fact remains that a restaurant like Rasa Sayang locating in the front entrance is not a big win for the Concord Mall. Thriving malls, as a general rule, encourage nationally known chains, whether specialty clothiers, jewelry, housewares, or entertainment. And this includes restaurants. I’ll concede that the average mall food court, even in a thriving mall (if such a place exists in 2022), may still feature at least one or two deep-pocketed mom-and-pops. But Rasa Sayang located in this long-vacant spot, just to the left of a prominent mall entrance. This is not the food court, where tenants subject themselves to the mall’s interior policy, including agreed-upon closing times. Rasa Sayang enjoys outside exposure from US Highway 202 and can remain open long after the mall has closed for the night. Rasa Sayang moved its multidirectional sign and all other operations into the sort of place one might expect for a TGI Friday’s or Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesday, in previous retail generations. Rasa Sayang may prove highly successful–it’s already been in the area for over a decade–but mom-and-pops are usually more hesitant to make long-term lease agreements, and the fact remains that family-run restaurants have a much higher tendency to go into arrears on rent payments than the national brands.
Difficult though it was to explore the history of this restaurant-friendly leasable space on Concord Mall’s exterior, I could deduce using Google Street View that it was vacant for a good part of the last six or seven years. Before that, the space featured a barely visible Noodles and Company, a national chain that seems quite willing to close under-performing locations; this one only lasted a couple years. And, way back in the late 2000s, the space hosted a McDonald’s…along with a Ruby Tuesday to the right of the mall entrance (though Ruby Tuesday closed years ago to make way for Grub Kitchen and Bar, a much smaller chain, which in turn closed during the pandemic).
As much as one may want to cheer for an intriguingly ethnic local eatery colonizing space amidst all-American consumerist blandness, the Ruby Tuesdays and McDonald’s are redolent of strong economic indicators: heavier foot traffic, better sales per square foot, more lucrative leasing agreements. Namdar Realty Group, the owner, purchased Concord Mall about the time Sears announced its closure, in early 2020; the company’s huge portfolio includes mostly declining malls. Using its partner, Mason Asset Management, it aggressively pursues tenants with lucrative, low-cost leasing agreements, while only investing enough to maintain the mall’s appearance—no upgrades or massive reinventions.
These are the conditions under which Rasa Sayang planted its multidirectional sign. Doesn’t sound promising, right? Well, on a Friday evening, this eclectic Malaysian restaurant seemed to be doing brisk business, even after the mall had closed. And Concord Mall is still getting by: at this date, three of its four anchor tenants are still open—Macy’s, Boscov’s, Macy’s Home. Inline tenants include familiar national chains like H&M, Foot Locker, FYE, Bath and Body Works. At least one of the other exterior facing restaurants is also a widely known chain: Bonefish Grill. For at least the next three years or so, Rasa Sayang will probably do bang-up business.
However, if Concord Mall continues down its current path, after 2025 all I can say is that I wish Rasa Sayang the best (no promo).