New York pastry chef Dominique Ansel, who earned a fervent following for inventing the Cronut, said Tuesday that L.A's Grove shopping center will be home to his first full-service restaurant.
Ansel, who was just named "World's Best Pastry Chef" by an international panel that rates restaurants, announced in February that his first full-on eatery would be in Los Angeles but didn't identify the location.
Luring him to the Grove was a coup for its owner Rick Caruso, who is known for developing high-end shopping centers including the Grove and Americana at Brand in Glendale.
Ansel's decision to be in a mall is also a sign of the times. As online sales eat away at business in many brick-and-mortar stores, retail property landlords are scrambling to give shoppers experiences they can't get delivered in a cardboard box.
Buzz-worthy dining venues are in especially high demand. Grove competitor Westfield Century City mall, for example, is set this summer to open the West Coast's first Eataly, a popular Italian food marketplace co-developed by celebrity chef Mario Batali.
French-born Ansel, 39, is also one of the world's hottest chefs. The New York Post dubbed him "the Willy Wonka of New York" for his crowd-pleasing confections including frozen s'mores, baked-to-order madeleines and the copyrighted Cronut, a cross between a doughnut and a croissant said to provoke swooning.
When word went out that Ansel would open a temporary "pop-up" store at Barneys in the Grove in February 2014, about 750 people lined up starting at 2 a.m. in the midst of a downpour. The turnout caught him by surprise.
"We were warned that people don't drive in L.A. when it's raining," he recalled in a phone interview from New York. "And we had a crazy line."
Grove workers brought coffee to the people waiting, entertained them with live music and set up a sound system so Ansel could speak to his fans. The turnout and the support from the Grove helped persuade Ansel to land there, he said, as did the size of the kitchen he will occupy. Ansel will take over one of the prime spaces at the Grove that has been home to Morels French Steakhouse & Bistro since the mall opened 15 years ago. Morels will close at the end of the month.
"My first kitchen was 8 by 10 feet with one table," Ansel said. "To have more space for me to express myself with a restaurant is an important opportunity for me."
When it opens in the fall, his yet-to-be-named eating house will seat 150 in an upstairs space that includes an outdoor terrace and a 10-seat private dining room. Downstairs in a bakery setting will be indoor and outdoor seating for another 70 diners. Backing Ansel will be about 80 employees.
The expansion comes with some risk to Ansel's reputation. His bakeries in New York, Tokyo and London have brought him acclaim as a pastry chef, but lunch and dinner are a new frontier. Early in his career he trained as a savory chef and since then "I have learned how to cook," he said.
It's too early to say precisely what he is going to serve, Ansel said, but "it's going to be exciting and creative food that makes people feel comfortable."
Caruso scoffed at the notion that malls are growing obsolete — visitor traffic was up 8% last year at the Grove and the Americana, he said — but acknowledged that he feels pressure to attract alluring shops and restaurants as guests' tastes grow increasingly sophisticated.
"We are working harder to find more unique offerings that are first to market," he said. Standing out in the competitive local restaurant scene is especially challenging.
"L.A. is more of a foodie town than it ever has been," Caruso said. People expect "super cool food at every price point."
Caruso's company is "particularly good at making shopping centers experiential," said retail real estate consultant Peter Lynch of A&G Realty Partners, who was not involved in the deal between Ansel and Caruso.
Ansel's high profile casts a wide net, Lynch said. "Baby boomers will respond to a name like Dominique's," he said, even though they don't visit malls much anymore. Millennials aren't typically fond of malls either, but they do crave new experiences and "love to go out and eat."
To Ansel, the move is a gamble because he doesn't think he has found a reliable formula for success.
"People ask for my marketing strategy and my PR campaign," he said, but his bakery "took off by itself" from that tiny kitchen he founded in 2011 with all his savings and four employees.
"You keep on trying and you keep on testing to keep customers excited," he said. "You cannot plan on something like this to happen."