Baltimore restaurants combine with retail, entertainment

These hybrid restaurants pair records, books and bikes with food.

Opening a bike shop or a restaurant alone would be risky. But Marla Streb and Mark Fitzgerald never wanted one or the other, so they combined them into one at Handlebar Cafe in Fells Point.

"My husband and I joke, it's like two super-losing propositions," Streb said. "It's like both of them are high risk, right? We're like, 'Hey, let's put 'em together!' We're super risk-averse."

Handlebar Cafe is one of several new hybrid concepts that have opened their doors in Baltimore, combining restaurants with retail and entertainment. Baby's on Fire, a record shop-cafe, opened in Mount Vernon last summer; Bird in Hand, a bookstore-cafe in Charles Village, debuted in November; and CineBistro, a dinner-and-a-movie theater, opened last month in Hampden.

The idea isn't new, but it's growing. It's a model that allows entrepreneurs to pull from different revenue streams and a wider customer base, rather than relying on one niche.

Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association, said it's part of an evolving trend of restaurants finding a foothold in nontraditional spaces and setting themselves apart from competitors, especially as they look to attract younger consumers looking for more than food.

"The restaurant industry is very competitive — always has been, always will be. So sort of adding that extra draw can always be a good idea," she said. "Consumers are not just looking for a meal to fill their stomachs these days. They're also looking for an experience."

Handlebar opened quietly the last week of December serving coffee and gradually ramped up its restaurant offerings before opening its bike shop Friday.

The cafe offers craft coffee and beer, wood-fired pizzas, burritos and other hearty fare with Latin American influences in an industrial space where guests park their bikes inside or outdoors while they eat.

"We're a restaurant, so we're supplementing the slow periods," said Streb, a world champion mountain biker. "Bike season is definitely slow in the winter, so we're supplementing. They complement each other."

The thought was the same at Baby's on Fire. Owners Shirlé Hale-Koslowski and David Koslowski have journals dating 15 years with lists and sketches tracing the roots of their plans for the record store-cafe. It opened in June, combining the passions of the husband-wife duo.

Koslowski, who spent 15 years in marketing and web design, was looking for a change of speed from the corporate world, and Hale-Koslowski, a personal chef, needed a commercial kitchen to grow her business. Both enjoyed listening to vinyl records and played in a band together. When they saw a void in Mount Vernon for a record store, Baby's on Fire was born.

"We've always wanted to combine the things that we love," Koslowski said. "She's a chef, so we love really good food. We love coffee and drink and people and community and also music — we're both musicians."

Rents aren't getting any cheaper, so it makes sense that restaurants are looking to capitalize on their retail space by offering more than food, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago research and consulting firm that tracks the food industry.

The trend applies in reverse, too. He's seen banks serving coffee, for example.

"If you think about Cracker Barrel, 20 percent of their sales are coming out of the front of the store," Tristano said. "It's becoming more and more common, but what we're starting to see is a lot of non-restaurants from a retail environment offering food items."

Koslowski said he was surprised from the start how many records the shop was selling. The food, coffee and vinyls each account for about a third of the sales. Weekends and holidays see heavier record sales, while the cafe is filled with more diners during the week.

Named for a Brian Eno song, the cafe carries 2,500 to 3,000 records — mostly used, and some new. The cafe serves Stumptown Coffee alongside casual breakfast and lunch fare such as mac and cheese, paninis, soups, pastries and bagels.

The records are set in central bins, with two-top tables lining the walls.

At Bird in Hand, it's the opposite set-up. About 2,500 books line the walls, and tables and couches sit between them, immersing customers who are sipping coffee and studying.

"We never want it to feel separate," said Lauren Pavin, Bird in Hand's general manager. "So even sitting here in the cafe, the colors of the books mix with all the colors of the tiles and it kind of just feels all as one. You don't feel like this is a separate entity."

The concepts that merged to inspire Bird in Hand — Artifact Coffee and the Ivy Bookshop — exist on their own successfully. But Bird in Hand attracts different clientele, who have in turn shaped the menu and retail offerings.

Pavin is also general manager at Artifact, where she sees more customers ordering basic drip brews and pour-over coffees. At Bird in Hand, the customers skew younger — including many students — and they tend to order more specialty drinks.

"It's a learning process, from the second you come up with the idea, until you open those doors, until its first two months that you're running," Pavin said. "You're adapting to your environment."

The shop is also tweaking its book selection to meet customers' needs: adding more textbooks, for example. And in a couple weeks, the shop will add a section of coffee and cocktail books alongside cookbooks handpicked by chef Spike Gjerde, one of the shop's proprietors.

"He personalized some bookmarks on [the shelves], which I think is pretty great, and it just shows kind of the attention that we're putting into this," Pavin said.

The shop was inspired by Louie's Bookstore Cafe, a beloved Mount Vernon staple that closed in 1999.

Meanwhile, Handlebar was modeled after bike cafes in San Francisco that Streb, a Baltimore native, and Fitzgerald visited while living in California. They moved back in 2011 with plans to introduce the concept to Baltimore and add fuel to the city's burgeoning bike culture.

So far a good mix of customers have come to Handlebar for the food and a mutual love of cycling, Streb said. Because the bike shop portion of the business didn't open until Friday, many of the early patrons came for the food and drink.

Holden Weltmer was among the culinary customers on a recent Tuesday night.

"I came for the beer," he said, adding it was his first time at Handlebar. He had a sandwich, too.

Weltmer tutors English at the Esperanza Center nearby in Fells Point, and he'd passed the cafe several times before stopping in. He said he doesn't bike, but he was curious what Handlebar had to offer.

Still, Streb said Handlebar has drawn bike enthusiasts, too. After all, most people learned to ride a bike at some point.

"That kind of fun, that nostalgia really lends itself to people wanting to come back," Streb said. "And the food's really good."

Thomas Pons, a chef who caters special events in the Washington, D.C., area and lives near Patterson Park, said he sees how spaces like Handlebar appeal to a broad customer base, particularly families. He was also enjoying a beer at Handlebar last week.

A friend of Fitzgerald and Streb, Pons said he watched Handlebar develop during the last several years. He said he thinks the concept is following in the footsteps of restaurant hybrids in other cities.

"It seems to be the way of the future," he said. "It's not unique to other cities."

Now open, the bike shop portion of Handlebar Cafe offers bikes ranging from $250 to $11,000, as well as repairs and gear that is "Marla-approved" from brands that have endorsed her throughout her racing career. She'll be in the shop most of the time, too, making sure customers are comfortable and even offering to take novice cyclists out on local roads and trails.

"No other bike shops can offer a world champion leading rides," she said.

And most of them don't serve pizza and beer, either.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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