Two years ago, executives at Firehook Bakery & Coffee House, a Chantilly, Va.-based chain of 10 bakery-cafes, made a tradeoff. They gave up the right to decorate their newest restaurant and put their name on the door in exchange for a location that received 170,000 visitors last year.
The restaurant, a 40-seat cafe at The Phillips Collection, a private art museum in Washington, D.C., does indeed have an artistic look. Soft gray walls in the dining area offset deep-red walls in the ordering area. Black-and-white photos of Duncan Phillips, the collector who founded the museum in 1921, and his family adorn the walls, as do prints by Degas and Cezanne. The cherrywood furniture and cabinetry have simple, elegant lines.
An oversize opaque glass lighting fixture illuminates the seating area, which overlooks a sunny sculpture garden featuring works by Ellsworth Kelly and Barbara Hepworth.
Firehook executives weren’t afraid to give up control over the restaurant’s look. “We were comfortable they’d be making good choices,” says Pierre Abushacra, Firehook co-founder and CEO.
A Fresh Start
The plan to open a Firehook cafe at The Phillips Collection began two years ago, when the museum embarked on a three-year, $27 million renovation, which included a new wing. Phillips board members were familiar with Firehook’s reputation: Washingtonian magazine selected Firehook’s bread as the best bread in D.C. So board members originally asked Abushacra to manage an existing cafe, located in the basement of the main building. “I said we’d do it after the new building opened,” he says.
The museum hired architects Cox Graae + Spack of Washington for the renovation and the new wing, both of which house components of the cafe. The serving area, storage and kitchen are in the renovated section, an 1897 Georgian Revival mansion that was Duncan Phillips’ home. The seating area, which overlooks the sculpture garden, is situated in the new space.
Working with Phillips board members, the architects chose colors and furnishings for Firehook that complement the rest of the museum. Phillips uses brick red and dove gray in its marketing materials; coincidentally, so does Firehook. Arts and Crafts-style chairs, tables and cherry-wood cabinetry don’t exactly match the main building’s Victorian look, “but they’re sympathetic to it,” says Don Gregory, associate principal at Cox Graae + Spack. He planned on using furniture by the well-known maker Thos. Moser; however, cost and durability both proved problematic, so he chose another manufacturer.
Gregory’s sole challenge in designing the cafe was figuring out where to put the entrance. All involved favored a street-accessible entrance, but “that was a nonstarter with the community,” he says. “They didn’t want the cafe to be a destination location.” The cafe entrance is located just off the museum entryway and directly across from the museum-shop entrance.
Alas, customers looking for Firehook might face a challenge: While signage inside the cafe boasts the Firehook name and logo, modest lettering in the museum foyer refers to it as “Vradenburg Cafe,” the previous concept in the space. Because the museum won’t allow Firehook to have signage outside the cafe proper, the Vradenburg Cafe sign is there to stay for now.
More for the Money
Because the cafe was part of the renovation, the museum paid for the buildout and the furniture. Firehook supplied the equipment such as coffee urns, display cases, a panini grill, bread oven, and refrigerated and dry storage. Most of the baked goods, salads and sandwiches are made at a central facility in Chantilly and then delivered to the restaurant.
Firehook spent $50,000 on the location; a typical buildout costs between $250,000 and $300,000, according to Abushacra. He expects the cafe to gross $800,000 a year, slightly higher than the average Firehook’s $750,000 annual sales. Because the cafe is run as an independent operation, Firehook had to apply for a business license and is responsible for staffing. Phillips gets an undisclosed percentage of gross sales.
The museum location presents a few challenges for Firehook. First, Abushacra is hiring employees more carefully. After interviews, Firehook brings potential employees to the Phillips to observe their reaction. “We are looking to determine if they have an appreciation for the environment and the art in the building,” he says. Background checks are more stringent, and employees at the Phillips location are issued special badges for access in and out of the building.
Another difference: Phillips Collection has the dubious honor of charging admission in a city where most art museums are free. As a result, it doesn’t get as much traffic as the National Gallery and other free museums in the city. “It’s not your typical museum,” Abushacra says of the Phillips, which specializes in 20th-century and contemporary art.
That may change. With the renovation and with the return of Phillips’ Renoir collection, which just returned from a four-year tour around the world, Firehook expects more visitors to the museum and, therefore, more customers. The first weekend the Renoirs were on display, the museum saw 800 to 1,000 visitors a day.
With any luck, the steady foot traffic will give Firehook another challenge–feeding hoards of hungry art lovers. At least one fan was looking forward to the bakery’s opening: “We know their reputation in terms of food and service,” says Gregory, “and we can’t wait til it’s finally open.”
CONCEPT Firehook Bakery & Coffee House
LOCATION Washington, D.C.
DESIGNER Cox Graae + Spack, Washington, D.C.
OPENING DAY May 5, 2006
AREA 1,800 square feet
AVERAGE CHECK $8
UNIT VOLUME $800,000 (company estimate)
EXPANSION PLANS 1 or 2 a year
Morning Glory Muffin: carrot muffin with apples, walnuts, raisins, coconut and spices, $1.35
Turnovers: puff pastry filled with apples or cherries, $1.50
Croque Monsieur: ham, baby Swiss cheese, tomato and mustard on Firehook’s bread, served with a side of mesclun, olives and cornichons, $6.95
Roasted Veggie: eggplant, zucchini, caramelized onions, red peppers and smoked mozzarella, $6.95
Greek Salad: romaine lettuce, cucumbers, tomato, kalamata olives, red onions, green peppers, feta and lemon-oregano dressing, served with bread, $6.25
BROWNIES & BARS
Chocolate Fudge Brownie, $2.25