The Winter Institute 11 education session “Creating a Bookstore Café” offered tips and best practices from a panel of booksellers on the start-up, staffing, and overall management of a café.
Bookstore café owners who shared their experiences on the panel were Sarah Bagby of Watermark Books & Café in Wichita, Kansas; Nicole Magistro of The Bookworm of Edwards in Edwards, Colorado; and Nicole Sullivan of BookBar in Denver, Colorado. The session was moderated by Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs, New York, and Manchester Center, Vermont (the latter leases space to Spiral Press Café).
All three panelists agreed that the café business is very different from the book business, especially as relates to vendor relationships and terms.
Magistro, whose café has grown from 14 seats and a menu of pastries, coffee, and crepes in 2007, to 35 seats inside and 25 seats outside the store and an expanded “fast casual” menu of homemade soups, smoothies, and salads, warned session attendees: “With café vendors, there are a lot more delivery charges; free shipping doesn’t exist.”
Because The Bookworm is focused on organic and a healthy homemade menu, “ingredient quality is very important to us,” she added. “Those vendors all get paid cash on delivery, or seven to 15 days after the invoice date, rather than 30 or 60 days.”
Both Magistro and Bagby said their stores have a café manager who oversees staff and operations independently. Watermark’s café, which started with a menu of coffee and pastries inside the bookstore, has grown into a 30-seat operation that offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner since the store’s move in 1996 to a larger location.
“One thing we do is make sure that everyone in the bookstore and the café has a food handling permit,” Bagby said, so all staff can bus tables if the space is looking messy.
For her part, Sullivan, who has a background in culinary arts, started BookBar three years ago in May, operating from the get-go as a combination bookstore and bar/café, selling hors d’oeurves, coffee, tea, beer, and wine.
“The vendor situation is completely different from the book side. It triples the amount of paperwork that you have,” Sullivan said. “‘Food cost is extremely important to keep in line. Your waste is extremely important to watch.”
To help manage that, Sullivan, like Bagby and Magistro, does a separate inventory in the bar/café each month.
Another way to keep food costs in line, Bagby suggested, is to have your café vendors do a menu analysis.
“They can cost everything out,” she said, so if the price of one ingredient starts inching up, they can tell you. “They can find out the cost of every soup you make and every sandwich you make. You have control of your labor costs and shrinkage and spoilage, so you can really learn a lot and keep your expenses right where they need to be with minimal ingredients.”
Bagby said her sales at the bookstore and café are managed all under one business, “so even though we track sales, it all goes into the same pot and includes expenses for all of us.”
Magistro uses Booklog to track sales for both the bookstore and café but does not use Booklog to manage her café inventory. “We have been trying to figure out whether they should have the same POS system for both sides,” she said. “As we grow, those answers are becoming more and more clear.”
Sullivan said that when it comes to figuring out café or bar pricing, the cost of goods should be around 30 percent on average for the product in order to make a profit; prices can be figured from there. Sullivan uses Anthology as BookBar’s POS system for both the book and bar side of the business. This arrangement has been great for customers and staff, since patrons can buy a glass of wine at the book sales desk or at the bar and vice versa, she explained.
“This is super convenient and it also gives your customers the viewpoint that you are all one business and that’s very important to us. But it means that we do all our food costing and all of our inventory at the bar all by hand, whereas most restaurants have a POS system that does all that work for you,” Sullivan said.
When it comes to handling staff, both Bagby and Magistro say they do not cross-train; however, to increase camaraderie and synergy, Magistro holds one monthly all-staff meeting to talk about big picture issues. This, she said, has proven to be a great way for staff to get to know one another and the store’s values.
Magistro also gives café and bookstore staff members a food allowance, which helps foster creativity among the café staff as they prepare food for themselves and other staff members, and for the booksellers it provides an opportunity to offer some input on the menu.
Sullivan, on the other hand, does cross-train her staff and it has worked very well for BookBar, she said, in part because the bookstore and bar/café are located in one large space. When everybody does everything it makes scheduling and staffing much easier, she added, and since Denver is an urban environment, there are plenty of people who have both skill sets.
If she were to start over, Bagby said one thing she would do differently is to find out more about the cost and capabilities of the restaurant equipment she would need. Adding to this, Magistro noted that the most basic espresso machine can cost $10,000 to $12,000, and replacement costs keep creeping higher every year.
Sullivan added that it definitely takes a lot more capital to open a combination bookstore/café than to just open a bookstore or a café, so leasing restaurant equipment instead of buying it could help cut costs.
“If you have to do a build out to accommodate a [café] space you have to think about those extras as well,” said Sullivan, like plumbing and electrical. “You just have to be very creative and frugal.”
But when all is said and done, the panelists agreed that profitability is a real likelihood when opening a bookstore/café.
Magistro said that adding a café to The Bookworm turned good customers into even more frequent customers and less frequent customers into good customers.
“One of the reasons I like our integrated system in Booklog,” Magistro said, “is that we can keep track of those customers’ sales and so the loyalty program is built around both sides of our business; we can also crosscheck the departments. For us, it has significantly improved book sales over time by virtue of that added traffic.”
Sullivan said another benefit of having the diversity a bar adds is that it gets the store through those lean months after Christmas. When she started, Sullivan did 60 percent bar sales/40 percent book sales overall, but she was able to reach her goal of a more balanced split — 50 percent bar sales/50 percent book sales — at the end of last year.
“Bookselling for most of us is the focus; the café is there to enhance that experience,” Sullivan said. “You don’t want to run away with the whole restaurant and bar thing. It’s about creating an experience and a community space so that we can sell more books.”