Sheri Zippo recalls her Tampa friends' reactions when they learned she would be opening a P.F. Chang's restaurant at Westfield Countryside Mall. "They said, 'That mall, it's old and it's this and it's that,' and so I went and looked at it and I said, 'What are you talking about? It looks amazing.'"
Countryside Mall is sitting pretty, the only enclosed mall in northern Pinellas County. It views its fiercest competition as International Plaza, the glittering upscale shopping destination that's across Tampa Bay and 17 miles away.
That's why Countryside Mall has been making some big moves. Virtually everything it does is part of a strategy to compete with its biggest rival and elevate itself into a regional destination.
"The ultimate goal was to add all aspects — shopping, dining and entertainment — to the complex," said mall spokeswoman Lauren Clark. "It's a place to do it all."
Evidence of this strategy can currently be heard in the sound of hammers, saws and power drills as construction workers put the finishing touches on Pinellas County's first P.F. Chang's, slated to open next month.
It will be the final addition to "restaurant row" — a grouping of five modern chain restaurants, mostly new to Pinellas, clustered beneath the mall's 12-screen cineplex that opened 15 months ago. The new eateries' bold, colorful storefronts offer a contrast to the rest of the mall's solid off-white exterior.
Inside the mall, the most prominent recent addition is PeachMac, a retailer of Apple products and accessories. It's Countryside Mall's answer to International Plaza's popular Apple store.
A day spa, a Crocs store and two jewelers are to open this spring. And waiting in the future like a tasty promise, there's the possibility that Whole Foods Market will take over the lower level of Sears, the same way it has at a few other malls.
Where to park?
There have been growing pains. With so many of the new additions springing up on the mall's southwestern side, parking in that part of the mall's lot can be a challenge.
In response, the mall introduced $4 valet parking there in December, and its restaurants will soon be validating parking stubs, Clark said.
Now approaching its 40th birthday, Countryside Mall was the biggest mall in Florida when it opened in 1975. U.S. Homes was building the Countryside neighborhood back then, and it intended the mall to be the neighborhood's focal point.
These days, it's one of nearly 50 American malls owned by Westfield, an Australian shopping center empire. Seeking a fresher look, Westfield embarked on a $12 million makeover of the mall in 2009. Then came the Cobb Countryside 12, which opened in December 2011 as the county's first new cineplex in a decade.
"The mall is reaching out to the beach. They're trying to reach people who might normally pass by that mall to go to International Plaza," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. "They're very focused on the tourism industry as a driver of people who will be shopping there."
The mall gets all kinds of visitors. At the southeast entrance there's a currency exchange booth that takes in mostly Euros. Nearby is a gourmet olive oil store, its balsamic vinegar aged in wooden casks. Then, at the eastern end, there's a dollar store, a children's play space and a bustling food court that will soon add a Taco Bell.
A Whole New Us, say the mall's in-house marketing banners.
Here are the latest developments.
Restaurants: P.F. Chang's offers a modern take on traditional and Americanized Chinese food. The only other one in the Tampa Bay area is at WestShore Plaza in Tampa. The Countryside location is tentatively set to open March 18, said operating partner Sheri Zippo.
"There's so much detail going into the inside of it," she said. "There's a lot of woodwork."
Other recent arrivals are BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse; the gourmet burger joint Red Robin; Grimaldi's, a coal-fired pizzeria; and Bar Louie, which boasts a South Beach-style outdoor lounge.
Computers: PeachMac moved in next to the ice skating rink late last year. "We thought that was a pretty appealing spot," said company president Darryl Peck.
The small southeastern U.S. chain, which has 11 other locations, opened here based on the population and the limited access to Apple stores. PeachMac is smaller than an Apple store but carries more accessories. It also services Apple products and puts on training workshops.
Whole Foods: The health-food grocery chain announced in November that it's coming to Clearwater, but provided no details. It won't confirm that it's coming to the mall.
But as Sears downsizes around the country, Whole Foods has taken over parts of Sears stores in Colorado, North Carolina and New York. It's looking at doing the same thing here.
An architect recently showed Clearwater officials plans to put a Whole Foods in the first floor of the Countryside Sears. Sears would keep its south entrance near BJ's Restaurant, while Whole Foods would get the west entrance. The plans haven't been officially submitted at this point.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.