The Downside of Upscale : In an Effort to Refine Its Image, The Oaks Mall Is Forcing Out 2 Popular Eateries


The pizza parlor with wooden benches and cheap slices will be gone soon, a dinosaur in this era of upscale eateries and refined palates.

So will the quirky Irish pub downstairs, where locals for years have found a sense of community--even if their favorite restaurant is in a giant shopping mall.

But image is important at The Oaks, the sprawling mall that opened almost two decades ago--long before this bedroom community became crowded with expensive restaurants and trendy shops.


In a bid to keep pace with highbrow competitors like the Promenade at Westlake, The Oaks mall is clearing out some of its 140 tenants, stores that don’t seem to cater to an increasingly sophisticated clientele.

The make-over started several years ago when The Oaks began attracting chain stores and specialty shops such as Nine West and the Museum Company. Management decided not to renew the leases of some less refined tenants, including fast-food stop Taco Bell.

In the coming months, the mall’s new direction will become even more visible.

A number of restaurants and stores have not had their leases renewed:

* Round Table Pizza, a fixture at the mall for more than a decade, will shut down early next year, despite the owner’s offer to spend $300,000 renovating his second-floor restaurant.

* The deadline looms even closer for Sweeney’s, an Irish-theme pub known for an inexpensive, eclectic menu of tacos, sandwiches, salads and ice creams. Sweeney’s is scheduled to close in June.

* Meanwhile, Carlton Cards will surrender its first-floor stall later this spring when its lease expires, according to the store manager. Representatives of the card company did not return phone calls seeking comment on why the store is leaving The Oaks.

To mall executives, shedding certain businesses--be they independent or chain stores--makes perfect sense. It frees up space to lure high-end shops capable of generating bigger profits.


In a city where the median household income is close to $60,000, and where shoppers bought more than $1 billion worth of retail goods in 1996, it seems upscale is the only way to go.

“You’re dealing with a market that’s very upscale,” said the mall’s general manager, Rebecca Bresson. “Overall, you’re dealing with a more exclusive client base.”

Bresson declined to discuss specifics of the lease terminations.

She said the mall is trying to attract “better quality, more upscale merchants,” like chain restaurant Johnny Rockets, which will open soon. The mall manager added that the current focus is on attracting high-quality restaurants, fashion stores and home-furnishing shops.

But to store owners and some customers, the mall’s recent moves are short-sighted. They say the less well-heeled will be forced to shop elsewhere.

John Ricci, owner of Round Table Pizza, said his lease termination is baffling.

He pays his $6,000-a-month lease on time, and the mall takes a healthy cut of his sales, which totaled $800,000 last year. Moreover, Ricci offered an additional $50,000 a year to stay. He planned to refurbish what he admits is a “tired-looking” restaurant where shoppers dine at wooden benches.

Ricci said mall executives would like trendier sit-down restaurants, like Wolfgang Puck Cafe. Those are “upscale, but more than twice the price,” of Round Table Pizza, where slices go for less than $2, he said.


“I think it’s a terrible strategy on their part. People don’t want upscale. There has to be a balance for a range of shoppers. When we tell people we’re leaving, they can’t believe it,” Ricci said.

“I think [mall executives] look at the demographics, and think that it’s a Beverly Hills-type crowd out here. T.O. isn’t like that . . . . People eat pizza, especially out here . . . . People feel [the mall is] getting a little too highfalutin.”

Ricci’s competitor downstairs, Sweeney’s restaurant, has come to symbolize the plight of businesses facing lease termination.

Like Ricci, pub owner Bud Sweeney describes himself as an ideal tenant.

He’s been at the mall more than 10 years. He pays his $4,000-a-month lease on time. He attracts people from across Ventura County with a bargain menu, nothing priced higher than $8. Customers like the booths, bar stools and oddball amenities, such as the Reader’s Digest compilations put on tables so diners can read while they eat.

“I am losing my business, and I don’t know why,” Sweeney said. “Where did I go wrong?

“You always hear that small business is the backbone of America,” Sweeney added. “Now the mall wants to take some of that backbone out.”

But Sweeney, a 60-year-old former U.S. Army captain, is not going quietly.

More than 7,000 people have signed a petition protesting the closing. A church group said prayers in the pub, calling for divine intervention on Sweeney’s behalf.


Some 150 patrons have written mall management, condemning the decision. One patron even set up a “Save Sweeney’s” Web site ( On St. Patrick’s Day, the Moorpark College Reporter published a pro-Sweeney editorial that read, “Stop giving Mr. Sweeney the mushroom treatment” (keep ‘em in the dark and dump horse manure on ‘em), and deal honorably with him . . . give him the opportunity to renew his lease at a higher rate.”

The editorial was accompanied by a cartoon showing a can of herbicide labeled “The Oaks” being sprayed on shamrocks.

“My chances of winning this battle are not that good, but they’re not over yet,” Sweeney said.

The pub owner has marshaled support from Thousand Oaks City Councilman Andy Fox and County Supervisor Frank Schillo.

Fox helped arrange a recent meeting among city officials, mall representatives and Sweeney, but he said, “We weren’t very successful in resolving [Sweeney’s] concerns.”

The councilman said an influx of high-end stores is putting pressure on smaller businesses in Thousand Oaks--and raising some serious cultural issues.


“Obviously, the higher-end businesses are coming in,” said Fox, a firefighter who noted that his salary prevents him from shopping at many local malls. “This community wants the small town feel and the big city experience. That’s the difficult balance we have to find, as a community.”

Schillo, who loves Sweeney’s tuna fish sandwiches, called the pub’s closing a blow to community life.

The local crew of waiters and cooks would lose their jobs, and a slice of local culture will vanish, Schillo said.

Eventually, Schillo said, “we won’t have any small businesses left. We’ll have nothing but outside chains.

“From a cultural standpoint, from a quality of life standpoint, Thousand Oaks loses if Sweeney’s goes out of business,” the supervisor added. “They’re like a family down there.”

Nonetheless, some store owners at The Oaks say going upscale isn’t necessarily bad business.


Gary Harman, for example, saved his shop with an expensive make-over.

Mall executives told him a few years ago that his store, Basket World, looked old and cluttered. Facing lease termination, he came up with a plan to relocate his shop, refurnish and sell a host of more expensive gifts.

“Initially, it was traumatic,” Harman said. “It takes your entire life savings to start over again.”

But it worked.

Harman said sales have doubled at his new business, Joys. The brightly lit first-floor store sells scores of collectibles, including pewter figurines, statuettes and hand-carved miniature houses priced as high as $500.

“It’s an image business, for us and for [the mall],” Harman said. “When [mall executives] saw a business plan that fit what they were looking for, we were no longer at odds with them. “We don’t mind looking like a chain,” he added. “There are still mom and pops in the store, they just don’t look like mom and pops.”

Harman said he sympathizes with Sweeney.

“It’s a shame, because he’s so well liked in the community,” Harman said. “But when you get down to it, they have a business plan, and if yours doesn’t fit theirs, they really don’t care . . . . It’s strictly a business decision for them. But for the mom and pops, it’s a rip-your-heart-out decision.”

Bresson, the mall’s general manager, said there are still plenty of independent operators in the mall and affordable places to eat. She called the changes at the mall, “a way to meet the needs of . . . shoppers, so they can stay fresh and up to date.”


Some of Sweeney’s regulars, however, say they will have no reason to come to The Oaks once the pub closes.

“I’m pretty much not going to be coming to the mall to do my shopping,” said Duane Smeckert, who was eating a chef’s salad at the pub while on lunch break from a Camarillo manufacturing firm.

Sweeney, meanwhile, is looking at properties throughout Thousand Oaks in hopes of opening at a new site. He said mall executives rejected his plan to expand his menu selection and open for breakfast.

If Sweeney’s does reopen somewhere, Sweeney said he won’t change his menu--or his image.

“I wouldn’t consider getting a big name,” Sweeney said. “Neon, flashing lights, big noise: No.”