Elements mall has sights set on becoming a go-to place for gourmets

After weathering the global financial crisis, Elements mall is hoping it has the right mix of restaurants to create an alfresco foodie paradise, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 March, 2014, 4:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 10:31am

Civic Square, the alfresco dining space on the roof of Elements mall, didn't get off to an auspicious start. Besides having to overcome the relative isolation of its location in West Kowloon, the timing of its opening was also unfortunate.

All the restaurants were in place when operations began in late 2007, but there weren't many customers to be had. Construction at the high-end complex was being completed in phases, and the adjacent residential blocks were only partly occupied. Anchor tenants at the attached International Commerce Centre also had yet to move in.

Not long after, the global financial crisis struck, sending a chill through the economy and hollowing the ranks of financial professionals who would have been among their best patrons.

We wanted to make Elements a kind of breathing space in a metropolitan area
Betty Leong Sin-ling

These days, however, there's a pleasant hum around the square and managers dream once again that the venue will become a foodie haunt.

Restaurant options now range from fine dining Italian at Joia, Mexican fare at Café Iguana, contemporary Chinese at Kowloon Tang and casual meals and drinks at Stormies. Madam S'ate, a French-style bistro, joined the line-up in November and this month will bring the opening of Toro, a Latin-style steakhouse and gastrobar featuring a menu by Mexican celebrity chef Richard Sandoval.

For the first 18 months, though, "it was tough, like every new mall", recalls Pino Piano, director of Gaia Group, which runs Joia.

When they opened, he says, the big banks such as Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank weren't yet in there. "But after they came, we were busy all day long. We find that people start late and finish late, so we're busy from the moment we open until we close."

There have been some high-profile closures, including Olive, Australian chef Greg Malouf's venture with Dining Concepts, which closed in 2010.

However, Dining Concepts managing director Sandeep Sekhri shrugs it off it off as growing pains. "It takes a few years for a mall to mature," he says. "We were open in Civic Square in 2007, but at that time the W Hong Kong was still under construction and it wasn't until 2009-2010 [after the worst of the global financial crisis] that Civic Square took off. The rent was reasonable and we had no operational losses at that time."

The restaurant group, whose stable includes Lupa, Bombay Dreams, Mayta and Al Molo, works closely with the MTR Corporation, which owns the mall, to meet its aspirations, Sekhri says. "We're in it for the long haul."

Sheila Chan, marketing director of the Café Deco group, another long-time tenant, concurs. They liked the location and were prepared to tough it out for the first few years, crisis or not, recognising that it would take a while for momentum to build.

Head of investment property for MTR, Betty Leong Sin-ling, says people don't tend to think of malls when considering restaurant choices, but the corporation wanted to establish a cluster that would become a food and beverage destination in its mall.

To achieve that it was critical to curate an enticing line-up.

One way it has done that is to invite some of the most popular restaurants on Hong Kong Island to set up sister operations at Elements. So Tim's Kitchen has a branch, as does Mango Tree. It's the same with Le Salon de Thé de Joël Robuchon, Kowloon Tang and Joia, Leong says.

Developing Elements has been a big learning curve for everyone involved, Leong concedes.

"The first two years we had the financial crisis and the mall was in different stages of development. But by the third year we had taken off much faster than expected and everyone was surprised."

To some, the wide expanses at Elements can be daunting - the mall is twice the size of IFC Mall in Central - but Leong believes more consumers find it inviting. Unfolding horizontally instead rising vertically, the layout gives what she describes as the "luxury of space", making for easier navigation.

"We wanted to make Elements a kind of breathing space in a metropolitan area, and one of the concepts was to make it indoor and outdoor."

Civic Square was an important part of that idea, and it was incorporated into the design from the beginning to provide leisurely, all-day outdoor dining along with a big roof garden. Once the smoking ban came into force in 2007, tables in the open area became more appealing to diners, Leong says.

Even as they hoped to attract diners from across the city, she says, they sought to establish the square as a community space where family, friends and colleagues could hang out over a meal. It was hoped that placing the space within sight of the ICC would give people in the offices a visual prompt to gather there after work.

The pieces seemed to be falling into place.

"During the week, the restaurants are busy serving bankers, office workers, wealthy Kowloon dwellers and visitors," says Leong. "On the weekends it's mostly families, but not just those living above - but from other parts of Kowloon and the New Territories."

It's all part of a "natural evolution", she says. "We are understanding who our customers are and are trying to expand our vision to make Elements a foodie destination."

In identifying the right combination of restaurants for Civic Square, and the mall generally, Leong says it's about having a shared vision.

"We've developed a road map and we want to share it with operators who click with us," she says. "We want to get a good mix. [Restaurants] are also fine tuning as they go along and we give each other a lot of feedback. It's about building a hangout, a platform for foodies to connect."

For restaurateur Bronwyn Cheung, an invitation from Leong's team to open at the square was not one to pass up.

"They told us they had space in this location and asked us to put together a proposal that would be competing against other candidates, so we had to try to gauge what the landlord wanted," says Cheung, director of Woolly Pig Concepts, which also runs Madam Sixty-Ate in Wan Chai.

Cheung and her husband, chef Chris Woodyard, had lived in Elements for four years, so they were familiar with the mall and had a good idea what the client base would be.

"Elements knew what was missing and wanted a French-bistro-style restaurant. They have fine dining at Joia [and] drinks at Stormies and Grand Central, so it was filling in what was missing."

That's how Woolly Pig came up with the concept for Madam S'ate, which features brunch on the weekends as well as family-style roasts. The bistro also opens at 8am, so people heading to work can grab coffee and food to take away.

"Our aim is to make Madam S'ate a neighbourhood place and to have the service staff be familiar with the patrons so that they can call a guest by name," Cheung says.

Trying to understand the psychology of customers and anticipate their wants, however, requires continuous engagement, Leong says. "We think of different scenarios and try to fulfil those needs. For example, someone could walk into Elements, have a coffee and check their e-mail, then call up a friend who works at the ICC and arrange to have lunch with them. Or a husband who comes with his wife but doesn't want to go shopping can hang out at Civic Square with a beer."

Reinforcing their shared vision, Leong's team gets restaurants at the square engaged in marketing - besides rent operators also pay the mall for promoting the venue, a fee that ranges from a few thousand dollars to HK$10,000, depending on the scale of activity.

At Madam S'ate, which has been open for less than six months, Cheung is pleased the bistro has been doing well so far.

"It's a business, but in the end we wanted to open a restaurant because we love food, wine and hospitality," she says.