Joseph-Beth Chain Books Big Volumes at Cafes for Readers

By Jack Hayes
Published in the June 6, 2005 edition of Nation's Restaurant News

Charlotte, N.C. – Cincinnati based Joseph-Beth Booksellers, repositioning to drive more dinner business at its bookstores cafes, debuted a 2,500-square-foot Bronte Bistro here April 29 with the launch of the company’s eighth bookstore, a 32,000-square-foot outlet in SouthPark Mall.

Joseph-Beth – now operating seven full-service bookstore restaurants and wine bars, including two in Ohio, one in Lexington, KY., and three in Tennessee-grossed more than $5 million from foodservice last year. That sum is believed to be greater than for any other independent bookseller that also sells food.

Three of Joseph-Beth’s restaurants grossed more than $1 million each last year, restaurant operations director Roger Ranalli said.

“We’ve expanded from house-made soups, salads, and sandwiches into entrées in order to garner more evening business,” Ranalli explained. “Joseph-Beth is committed to its restaurants because they are integral to the bookstores. This isn’t a test but a proven connection.”

Ranalli said the restaurants are averaging monthly growth in sales of 6.5 percent to 8 percent. Daily cover counts at the six units from 200 to 300, with an average daylong check of $10 per person. The evening check is running between $14 and $15.

Joseph-Beth began its full-service café focus in the mid-1990s, about the same time Denver-based The Tattered Cover, a three-unit independent bookseller, opened Fourth Story Restaurant & Bar in its downtown Denver bookstore.

Fourth Story, now a highly popular destination that features seasonal menus, live jazz, Monday night martini specials and banquets, garners glowing reviews for executive chef Tim Opiel’s food presentations. Opiel has been sous chef at Routh Street Café and Baby Routh in Dallas.

“We want to be a destination but not as much a concept as a place for comfort,” Ranalli said. “Because people of every food taste also love books, we’ve got a large client base to satisfy. So our kitchen and menu challenge is variety, where one person can get the Reuben and another the wild-mushroom-and-white-wine polenta.”

The task of offering such variety was handed to chef-manager Ed Hagerman, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America who is cross-utilizing ingredients to expand menu selection.

Among Hagerman’s new plates are a crab cake appetizer, a Mediterranean wrap and platter, and a “selected enchilada” – a dish featuring strips of beef placed between layers of corn tortilla and red chili sauce.

According to Ranalli, reviewers have used words like “welcoming oasis” to talk about the Joseph-Beth cafes, which serve breakfast for two hours on weekdays and a limited weekend brunch in addition to lunch and dinner. Those main meals account for 60 percent of revenues.

The Bronte Bistro in Charlotte is showcasing a quote from author Ina Garten’s “Barefoot Contessa Cookbook” that reads: “Food isn’t about impressing people; it’s about making them comfortable, nurturing them in mind, body, and spirit.”

The restaurants operate from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. weekdays and until 11 p.m. on weekends.

Ranalli described Bronte Bistro’s interiors as “feeling like the best reading room of your house.” But while they are finely appointed and boast comfortable chairs, the feel is not intended to convey fine dining, he stressed.

“The added customer service is to come in and have lunch, dinner or a glass of wine with your book. It’s a wonderful pairing because books and food are both about nurturing,” Ranalli said.

Best sellers include grilled salmon salad; baguette sandwiches with corn-crusted catfish or strip steak; baked Brie; and a new Mediterranean plate with hummus, baba ghanoush and falafel. Most dishes are ordered in combination with soup, Ranalli said.

Cookbook signings are a natural and profitable tie-in for the restaurants. Ranalli recalled highly successful “Wine, Dine and Sign” events with such authors as Jacques Pépin, Rachael ray and Giada de Laurentiis. Famed chef Emeril Lagasse recently drew 2,800 people to the chain’s Cincinnati bookstore.

“People love to come in and lunch with the authors,” said Ranalli, adding that all monthly specials are developed from featured cookbook recipes. “We get a lot of foodies for these events.”

Ranalli said Joseph-Beth is considering a second Cincinnati location, in the city’s redeveloping downtown. The chain’s other Ohio store is in Cleveland, and its three Tennessee units are in Memphis, Nashville, and Jackson. A Pittsburgh store that opened last fall is the only one without a restaurant, and that is only because of space, Ranalli said.

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