A few months into construction of Austin’s new Central Library three years ago, staff members began to look for a restaurateur to step into the 3,786 square feet of commercial food space that was planned as part of it. The city issued a nationwide request for proposals to operate a café.
But no one was interested.
So the city tried again, hiring a consultant to promote the space for four months in 2014. After that, they got a taker — but only one — Austin’s Elm Restaurant Group.
The group — which operates such local favorites as 24 Diner, Easy Tiger and Italic — is set to have City Council approve its lease agreement Thursday. The company is planning a “Cookbook Café” in the new library that, true to that theme, will have a changing menu compiled directly from cookbooks available for library checkout, said Lauraine Rizer, Austin’s officer of real estate services.
The city will give Elm $450,000 for improvements to the space, and then will recoup $2.3 million over 10 years in rent. The restaurant will include a walk-up coffee bar and table service, with locally sourced food, Rizer said. Elm representatives declined to discuss the idea, because they said it is still in the proposal stage.
All events held in the new library will be required to use Cookbook Café for catering and drinks, according to the agreement coming before the council. The $126.6 million library, which will open sometime next year, includes a performing arts center as well as space for weddings and cocktail mixers.
Though events have already been booked for the library, it remains undetermined whether the Cookbook Café will have a full bar and liquor license, Rizer said. It will definitely have a wine bar.
“We haven’t explored a lot of that, because we want to take the concept to council,” she said.
It’s unclear why there was so little interest in the space. Several other local restaurant groups declined to comment or said they didn’t remember seeing the request for proposals. Rizer said some expressed concerns about whether enough people would come to the library wanting to eat.
The location, off Cesar Chavez Street and West Avenue, fronts Lady Bird Lake, Shoal Creek Trail and Second Street, just blocks from City Hall. The Cookbook Café hopes to include a service where people could check out picnic baskets for an afternoon, Rizer said.
It’s unclear how many companies communicated with the city about the project, but staffers answered six questions during the first proposal process. One asked about visitor and catering projections. The Library Department responded that it expected the new library to draw 1,800 to 2,500 people daily — three to 10 times the crowd at the existing one — but had no idea how much catering would be needed.
Another asked what vendors needed to do ahead of the proposal process with regards to a LEED Silver, the environmental status Austin is requiring for the library. The staff response said what a LEED certification was and why it was important, but it didn’t say what was necessary in preparation of the proposal.
CBRE, the company hired to market the space, took three companies to tour it, according to city materials, but only Elm submitted a proposal. CBRE will earn a $65,000 commission.
Elm’s proposed restaurant is different from what was advertised in the request for proposals. That originally asked for companies to submit proposals for an upscale cafeteria-style food space without table service. It also said other companies might occasionally use the catering space, while the agreement now under consideration would give Elm exclusive catering rights at the library.
Rizer said she’s glad to have Elm likely take the space.
“This is a proven group,” she said. “(We’re) excited about having a restaurant that matches the theme of the library. That wasn’t a requirement; they came up with that on their own.”