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Business Observer Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022 2 weeks ago

New owners of storied cafe have high hopes for 2022

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Sharon Carole aims to attract new customers without sacrificing the tradition and history of the Bijou.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Restaurant: One of the more storied restaurants in downtown Sarasota’s eclectic fine-dining scene, the Bijou has been a go-to spot in Sarasota’s theatre and arts district since 1986. At 1287 First Street, the 134-seat eatery, in a restored 1920s-era gas station, encompasses multiple dining areas, including two courtyards for dining al fresco.

Sharon Carole, owner of The Realm Restaurant Group, purchased the Bijou from owner and Chef Jean-Pierre “J.P.” Knaggs, who founded it with his wife, Shay Knaggs. The Realm also operates downtown Sarasota’s Sage Restaurant, nearby on First Street. Financial terms of the sale, announced in May, weren’t disclosed.

The restaurant underwent significant renovations and restorations after Carole bought it. That includes the removal of several walls to create a more open space, the relocation and restoration of the classic bar, the addition of garden views from every table and bringing in a new baby grand piano. It reopened Nov. 16. “This building has so much charm and character,” Carole says. “I think the piano really gives us that something extra to stand out.”

Courtesy. The Bijou Garden Café underwent significant renovations in 2021.

Opportunities: The core of the opportunity, Carole says, lies in taking advantage of the patrons who attend performances at the nearby Sarasota Opera House and Florida Studio Theatre. The renovations are geared toward that opportunity, as are other things Carole is considering, such as an open mic night. “My goal is to make it a late night spot,” Carole says.

Some menu staples remain under the new owners, while Christopher Covelli, who Carole brought on as executive chef, is adding items inspired by the garden with more greens, vegetarian and vegan options. The opportunity there is to make the restaurant more attractive to a diverse and younger crowd. “The menu has a French and Californian influence that will very much match the setting of the building,” Covelli says in a statement.

In addition to the updated building and menu, another mix of new and old comes in employees: many veteran staffers are still there, including Jeffrey Knaggs, son of J.P. Knaggs, who was recently promoted to facilities manager. “It is a wonderful feeling to work with an amazing group of people who care about the business just as much as my family did,” the younger Knaggs says in a statement.

Threats: Since Carole is in the restaurant industry, one obvious threat, given the sector’s labor woes, is maintaining a full staff. In December, Carole says she sought to hire six to eight people, adding to a staff of 20. “We’re doing OK,” she says, “but we really have to beef up staff for season.”

If not necessarily a threat, a blessing-curse is the location. While the arts district location, on one hand, is a distinct opportunity, Carole says “being on First Street is always an interesting challenge. We don’t have the type of place on Main Street that people could just walk into. We have to work much harder to be noticed and that’s a challenge. But I like a challenge.”

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