Shopping Is On The Menu Clothing Stores And Other Retailers Are Setting Up Cafes. It's A New Twist In Food Service.

Posted: March 17, 1993

After a relaxing lunch in what could be the garden terrace of an Italian villa, set amid marble staircases and Corinthian columns, a businessman heads back to his office with a new designer suit.

Later, friends meet for dinner at yet another indoor "garden" cafe. One takes home a potted plant. The other selects some cut blooms and a pretty vase, one that moments before accented a neighboring table.

Elsewhere, in a shopping mall, a couple of teens, sipping sodas and eating burgers, are seated in a cafe resembling a stylized carousel. A few feet away are the clothing racks from which the young women selected their prom dresses, now purchased and wrapped on the seat beside them.

These folks are dining and shopping in a single retail space - at BLT's in the Boyd's menswear store on Chestnut Street; at the Cafe Flower Shop at Beautiful Moments on Meredith Street in Fairmount, and at the Merry Go Round Fashion Cafe in New Jersey's Deptford Mall.

These three examples point to a new twist in food service: Dining combined with some other retail outlet, ranging from bookstores (such as Barnes & Noble and Borders) to a designer boutique.

"There's been a great expansion of restaurants, especially of fast-food chains, going into nontraditional locations," said Noel Perloff, president of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association. Indeed, restaurants have opened in such spaces as groceries, hospitals and historic sites.

But according to Perloff, who owns the Country Club Restaurant on Cottman Avenue, little is known in the restaurant industry as yet of this mingling of merchandise and food.

That may be because this new merger of retailers and restaurants is being initiated by the retailers.

One such innovator is the Maryland-based Merry Go Round (MGR) Enterprises, which owns about 1,000 clothing stores nationwide.

Back in 1987, in Aspen, the firm's now-retired founder, Lennie "Boogie" Weinglass (the Boogie portrayed in the 1950s-theme film Diner), followed through on an idea to combine a clothing store and '50s-style diner.

It was so successful, the company opened more Boogie's Diners in Chicago; the Georgetown section of Washington; Los Angeles; New York; Las Vegas, and Minneapolis.

Last year, the firm expanded the concept from the upscale and expensive Boogie's Diners to MGR's moderate-price, unisex Merry Go Round stores and opened the prototype Merry Go Round Fashion Cafe, combining clothing store and restaurant, in the Deptford Mall.

The 150-seat cafe is open after the mall usually closes and has its own outside entrance. Cooking is done on premises for a variety of starters, soups, salads and sandwiches. A good exhaust system keeps kitchen odors away

from the clothes.

"We have been in Deptford Mall for 17 years. It's been a good location for us, so we enlarged the store and added the cafe," said Paul Levine, president of MGR Enterprises' Merry Go Round Division. "Now we're looking at other locations around the country."

But why would a successful retailer want the aggravation of a restaurant?

"Sometimes I ask myself that same question," Levine responded with a chuckle. "But it's a fun concept and we feel it brings more business into the clothing store. We look for ways to expand our business and this is one fun way.

"Yes, it is difficult to make money in food," he added. "But we hired a manager who had been with the Hard Rock Cafe for some years and he oversees all of the food operations. We work together on promotions. It would be a whole lot more aggravation if I didn't have a restaurant person. Now it's tolerable."

According to Levine, the only problem with the Fashion Cafe side of the Deptford Mall store has been that many people think it is decor, a prop, and not really a restaurant.

"We are in the process of remodeling it . . . We're changing the

entrance, adding neon and awnings and an outdoor cafe."

Big stores, such as John Wanamaker and Strawbridge & Clothier, recognized early on that in-store restaurants attract customers and keep them in shopping range. But for smaller stores or shops in high-traffic malls, what's the advantage?

At Boyd's in Center City, store manager Jeff Glass addressed the question.

"We are a destination store. We have people who travel to us from New York, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Delaware. It represents a day's outing for them and we wanted to make it convenient and comfortable," said Glass. "It's convenient too for men who have to rush back to their offices. They can stop here for a quick soup and sandwich lunch."

The cafe is an architectural gem, removed from the hustle and bustle of Chestnut Street. But the logistics of dealing with a historic building and all that marble made an effective exhaust system impossible.

All the cooking is done in the Manayunk kitchens of BLT's Catering, managers of the cafe known as BLT's at Boyd's. An on-site oven allows for reheating.

When two earlier managements failed to make a go of the store's magnificent mezzanine space, caterers Bill and Lisa T. Shapiro (catch the BLTs?) agreed to take over with the provision that they also would operate a food-delivery service from the site. Now, about 40 percent of the cafe's business is in delivery.

They added an espresso bar with eight seats (bringing the total to 34), enhanced the garden-mood with a trellis, ivy and a potted plant between the tables and the shoe department. They started exhibiting artwork for sale (without commission) and scheduled special Wednesday-night programs like wine tastings. And both sides are delighted with the results.

"It's mutually beneficial, kind of symbiotic," said Bill Shapiro.

"We're limited by store hours and having no private entrance but it's good exposure being in a well-established store. And those little old ladies eating lunch might buy a scarf for their grandson."

For the Cafe Flower Shop at Beautiful Moments, it wasn't until the 5-year- old flower shop expanded, adding new quarters at the Philadelphian, that owners Russell Palmer and Stephen Janick had enough space in the original 25th and Meredith Streets location to open the cafe they'd wanted for years.

"Back when we purchased the building we thought, 'Wouldn't it be fun to have a cafe in the flower shop?' " Palmer recalled.

Now, with a new experienced chef, the 35-seat cafe serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, espresso and desserts (7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and accounts for about 60 percent of the business at that location. Meanwhile, the shop is bright with

cut flowers, arrangements, potted plants and spring bedding stock. There are vases and some gardening supplies.

And, says Palmer, "everything is for sale."

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Probably the most highly publicized examples of this new relationship of food with merchandise are the cafes and restaurants that designer Giorgio Armani has installed during the last year in his pricey Emporio Armani boutiques in Costa Mesa, Calif.; San Francisco, and Boston. Another is to open in Beverly Hills.

Though the day-to-day food operations are handled by local management firms, Armani designed everything from the wait staff's uniforms to the menus and even contributed a few recipes (his mother's).

Another unusual dining situation in this category is the Denver Buffalo Co. in downtown Denver. There, a 140-seat restaurant is paired with a Trading Post that sells western art, crafts and artifacts.

It should come as no surprise that the restaurant specializes in buffalo meat entrees, a very practical idea since the owners also raise buffalo on a 14,000-acre ranch nearby. (The food and beverage tally there for 1992 was reported at $1.7 million.)

Modern restaurateurs recognize the merits of tempting customers with items that have a higher profit margin than food.

Among the more successful of these locally is the popular White Dog Cafe with its enticing adjunct, the Black Cat gift shop. For others, selling imprinted items from T-shirts to coffee mugs has become common. And many area restaurants have exhibited artworks for sale "off the walls" as part of their decor for years.

With the generally low profit margin and high turnover rate of restaurants - many don't make it to their first anniversary - it's easy to understand the advantages from the food service side.

For retailers, however, getting into the food business has to involve more than a profit motive.

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