Paul Schott | Esaul Rodriguez has aspired to open a restaurant in Stamford for many years. Within the next month, he is finally set to fulfill that goal.
The founder and owner of the Puerto Vallarta chain of Mexican restaurants has expanded his business to Connecticut’s second-most-populous city with an establishment expected to open sometime in April in the restaurant plaza at Stamford Town Center. The new location highlights the resilience of Puerto Vallarta amid the economic disruption of the past few years and the enduring ability of malls such as Stamford Town Center to recruit dining tenants.
“Restaurants need a lot of foot traffic to support their businesses, so being at the mall is ideal because it draws so many people,” Rodriguez said in an interview at the new restaurant. “And we really like the location. We like to be around other restaurants and places of entertainment because it creates a synergy.”
Opening at the mall
Puerto Vallarta’s restaurant in the restaurant plaza, at 230 Tresser Blvd., will mark its eighth location — as well as its first establishment in a mall and its first opening since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are also Puerto Vallarta restaurants in Avon, Danbury, Fairfield, Middletown, Newington, Orange and Southington.
The new establishment has taken over a section of the restaurant plaza that had stood vacant since the departure of the previous tenant, a Rascal Flatts restaurant, which operated there from 2017 to 2018. It has imprinted its style on the venue, with a colorful interior design punctuated by features such as bold murals and a fireplace.
“The restaurant is absolutely beautiful with exquisite lighting, finishes, furniture and amenities. They spared no expense, and I know they will be wildly successful,” Stamford Town Center General Manager Dan Stolzenbach said in an email. “We’re also extremely pleased with their focus on exceptional service and food quality. We’ve deliberately chosen restaurant tenants that are committed to a top-notch dining experience, and Puerto Vallarta will most certainly deliver.”
Puerto Vallarta’s new establishment occupies approximately 8,500 square feet, with about 220 seats — making it the largest among its eight locations. The restaurant expects to generate enough customer traffic to keep the seats filled through the central location of the mall, which is a short walk from a number of office buildings and apartment complexes, a block from the Stamford Marriott hotel and a few blocks from Interstate 95 and the downtown Metro-North Railroad station.
“Our menu is diverse. If you just want to spend a little, you can spend a little. But if you want to sit down, have a good cocktail and spend time here and order something more upscale, we have that,” said Josue Rodriguez, Puerto Vallarta’s director of operations. “We have a variety of food for everybody. And here, we have a lot of offices around us, and we hope that the lunch crowd will support us because we do have lunch offerings and food that are easy to go.”
Planning to operate with about 45 full-time and part-time employees in its new location, Puerto Vallarta joins several other newcomers in the restaurant plaza. In February, New York Comedy Club opened in a space that had stood vacant for nearly three years following the closing of a Plan B Burger Bar. Adjacent to the comedy club is Brazilian steakhouse Terra Gaucha, which opened last October and succeeded a Cheesecake Factory that closed in August 2020.
The other tenants in the restaurant plaza are pizza franchise Pieology, which opened in 2017; Peter Chang Restaurant, which serves Chinese food and arrived in 2018; and The Capital Grille, which opened in 2007, the same year as the plaza’s debut. Only one vacancy remains in the plaza — the space formerly occupied by a Kona Grill, which closed in 2019.
Elsewhere in the mall, upcoming arrivals include a food hall backed by chef Todd English that will operate in an approximately 78,000-square-foot box that housed a Saks Off 5th department store from mid-2015 until the end of 2021. In the food court on the mall’s seventh level, Papa G’s Pizza plans to open later this spring.
“The mall has been going through some phases, and I think it’s going in the right direction,” Esaul Rodriguez said. “It’s evolving.”
A number of restaurant openings are also planned at other malls around the state. About 8 miles east of Stamford Town Center, at The SoNo Collection in Norwalk, Chiwa Bistro, Jacob’s Pickles and Sally’s Apizza are “coming soon,” according to the mall’s website.
“The shift to higher-quality offerings is being driven by the general public’s desire to eat healthier,” Mark Moeller, a national restaurant consultant and owner of the Westport-based The Recipe of Success, said in an email.
“Malls are also realizing that the more ‘local’ offerings they have, the greater traffic the restaurants will have.”
At Connecticut Post Mall in Milford, the upcoming arrivals will include a P.F. Chang’s restaurant.
“Construction is still in progress on P.F. Chang’s,” Connecticut Post General Manager Ken Sterba said in a written statement. “We look forward to sharing a grand opening date and plans as soon as they are available.”
Amid the new arrivals, Stamford Town Center and other malls are still grappling with headwinds unleashed by the pandemic.
At Stamford Town Center, the space being taken by Papa G’s Pizza was formerly occupied by a Sbarro establishment. Before closing in January, Sbarro had comprised one of the mall’s longest-running tenants, having operated there since 1984.
Stolzenbach referred questions on the reasons for Sbarro’s closing to the company. Messages left for Sbarro were not returned.
At The SoNo Collection, The Sleeping Potato shut down about two weeks ago, approximately seven months after its opening in a kiosk in the dining row on the mall’s third level.
“First, it is important for me to express my sincere gratitude to (SoNo Collection owner) Brookfield Properties and their Partner to Empower Program,” an initiative that supports minority business owners, Sleeping Potato owner Har’rell Chisolm said in a statement. “Although our time there has been brief, it has been rewarding in many ways. Unfortunately, The SoNo Collection mall traffic at lunchtime is very slow during the week, and it closes at 7 p.m. (Sunday through Thursday). A new brand that does not have a street presence hinders its exposure to the public and its plan to grow in other areas.”
Chisolm added that his business is planning a move to “a location within the community (that is) visible from the street and easily accessible to its patrons,” and it is “presently negotiating among three different locations, in Stamford, Fairfield and New Haven.”
Matt Seebeck, The SoNo Collection’s senior general manager, said in a statement that “our team worked to help Mr. Chisolm introduce his brand to The SoNo Collection community with the goal that he become a permanent tenant. Unfortunately, this concept did not resonate with our customers, which happens sometimes. This is why we encourage businesses to begin as a temporary agreement rather than as a permanent tenant. This very common in our industry, and we wish him well.”
Esaul Rodriguez and Josue Rodriguez, who are not related, said that while the disruption since the beginning of the pandemic has tested Puerto Vallarta, the business is resilient because it has been evolving since its founding in 2000.
Puerto Vallarta’s name refers to a city on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Esaul Rodriguez is originally from Unión de Tula, Mexico, which is about 130 miles southeast of Puerto Vallarta.
“The restaurant industry is very complex. Customer habits change, the way people see food and restaurants changes, and economic conditions change. So the pandemic just pushed us even more,” Esaul Rodriguez said. “You really have to adapt every day to be better and to thrive.”