What are the perks and potential pitfalls of making and serving food in repurposed spaces? And how does the space’s heritage inform customers’ experiences? Restaurant Insider caught up with three industry insiders to find out.
Jennifer Weishaupt, founder & CEO of The Ruby Slipper Café, which has cafés in Louisiana, Florida and Alabama
As New Orleans rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, Jennifer and Erich Weishaupt, both engineers with no prior restaurant experience, got the idea to open a brunch and breakfast restaurant in a former corner store in their New Orleans neighborhood of Mid-City. “It would attract people to the neighborhood and also provide a place for neighbors who are already in the neighborhood,” Jennifer says. “Restaurants are gathering spaces and focal points in a neighborhood.”
The result was The Ruby Slipper Café, which now has nine locations across the Southeast, including two in former banks, one in a former Carpenters Union Hall and one in a former McCrory’s five & dime store, where civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley famously staged a sit-in. The cafés share some commonalities, such as large chalkboards explaining the history of the building and the neighborhood. (In addition to Haley’s sit-in, there’s an urban legend that Bonnie and Clyde robbed one of the banks that now houses a Ruby Slipper, although the Weishaupts haven’t been able to verify that story).
However, Jennifer says each location has its own look and feel. “When you look at our restaurants, there’s nothing cookie-cutter about them,” she explains. “They’re all designed and decorated to fit the buildings that house them and the neighborhoods those buildings are in. … Every Ruby Slipper is unique. That’s what people really love about it.”
Jennifer’s husband, Erich, is an electrical engineer, and he handles design and construction. For one of the former banks, the interior had no remnants of the building’s past life, so Erich salvaged an old bank teller window from the same period and the carpenter build a wall around it. “That’s how we get into our semi-private dining area,” Jennifer says. “It gives it more of a feel so you would know when you walked in that this building had another life previously.”
Some of these renovation projects qualified for the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which Jennifer says required a meticulous attention to details and layers of approval. “To do a historic renovation like that or to do an adaptive reuse of an existing building, it costs a lot more than reusing an existing restaurant space that’s not in a historic space, but [it gives us the] feel we want people to have,” she says.
Jim Nawn, owner of Fenwick Hospitality Group in Princeton, New Jersey
Two of Fenwick’s properties sit side-by-side on Princeton University’s campus in buildings previously used by a small train line (nicknamed “The Dinky”) that ran to the campus. The Dinky Bar & Kitchen uses the building that used to be the train’s passenger and ticket office, while Cargot Brasserie uses the former freight and cargo building. Both names nod to the buildings’ unique heritage, and Dinky serves some food and drinks that point to the old rail line.
Renovations for The Dinky were completed in July 2016 and Cargot’s in July 2017. For the Dinky, Nawn says, “we were dealing with a small building where we were not going to get a huge number of seats, so we had to have an independent operation that could stand on its own. We decided that a bar [with elevated bar food] would be a really nice use of the space.” The bar seats 55 inside (13 bar seats; the rest at high top tables) and 24 outside.
For Dinky’s design process, Nawn says, “we kind of just dropped a bar and bar-height tables and chairs into the space in a minimal way…so as not to take away from the feel of the barrel ceiling and the wainscoting. It’s a little bit of an industrial approach, so it fit into what was already there.” The original ticket window remains as a pass-through for food.
Meanwhile, Cargot’s footprint expanded by 2,500 sq. ft. with the addition of a building next door. The former space houses the bar and café area while the new space includes a dining room and kitchen space. Dinky and Cargot complement each other because Dinky stays open later and serves as a secondary bar for Cargot.
When Colombian artisan coffee company Devoción opened a roasting plant and café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, they turned to Okshteyn, who has designed numerous restaurants and coffee shops, including Devoción’s café in Bogotá, Colombia. Okshteyn helped the company look for space, and they settled on a former meat processing warehouse. “It was an enormous refrigerator for a meat-processing facility,” he says, “so I just saw an amazing blank canvas. The first step was to clean everything out and get down to the raw bones of the space because that inherently has character and authenticity, both of which are two big components of the Devoción brand.”
While coffee roasteries are often hidden from customers’ view, Okshteyn chose to put Devoción’s roastery front and center as customers enter. “What a great opportunity to celebrate that whole part of the process,” he says. “It’s so important to the story.” The creation process is not only part of Devoción’s story but also the story of the neighborhood. “Williamsburg is traditionally a manufacturing area that has a rich history for waterfront commerce,” Okshteyn says. “The Domino Sugar factory is just down the street.”
Past the roastery, customers see a “15-foot-by-15-foot living wall [evoking the greenery of Colombia], which is the backdrop to the retail space and you’re surrounded by the authentic brick and wood that was there from the time that the building was first built,” Okshteyn says. “At the end you have the support spaces, a small kitchen, restrooms and a maintenance room where they fix equipment.” A mezzanine above contains the sales and marketing office above.
In addition to refurbishing the exposed brick, Okshteyn used reclaimed countertops and cabinets, which he says helped cut costs and imbue the space with character. “Authenticity is inherent; it’s built into the process,” he says.