Barring special events with catered foods, retail jewelry store owners don’t often offer much than the usual hor dourves or easily-butlered comfort foods – until now. At Birks’ flagship store in Montreal, the esteemed retail jeweler is serving gourmet foods and deserts as well as hosting high tea each day in the same retail space where fine jewelry and giftware are sold.
With 33 stores under the Birks banner in Canada, and another 29 Mayors stores in the United States, you’d think Birks & Mayors, Inc. had enough to contend with in managing day-to-day operations. But like many retail jewelers in North America, Birks management was looking for ways to bring in more foot traffic and keep customers in their stores longer.
When Birks’ Divisional Vice President Niccolo Rossi dined at one of Montreal’s famed Europea Restaurants, he enjoyed the fine dining experience so much he wondered if he could bring fine dining and fine jewelry together at Birks’ flagship store.
The opulent store, with its fine dark woods and milky white marble, opened in 1879. Given the unique design of the 16,000-square-foot store, most of its retail space is on the street level with the exception of an upper-level mezzanine area. Over the years the mezzanine’s 3,000 square feet of space has functioned as a retail area, a service counter or has simply been underutilized.
But Rossi toyed with the idea of a higher purpose for the mezzanine space. Still savoring his latest meals at Europea, he invited the restaurant chain’s top chef Jérôme Ferrer to evaluate Birks’ mezzanine area. Ascending to the top of a stately marble staircase, the gastronomy expert agreed Birks’ flagship mezzanine area would be an ideal space to bring together fine dining and fine jewelry. And, Birks Café Par Europea was born.
“For Jérôme, Birks’ flagship store was a good fit,” says Eva Hartling, director of public relations and events for Birks and Mayors. “It’s an upscale restaurant combined with upscale jewelry.”
Chef Jérôme Ferrer and his business partner Francis Reddy.
Positioned as a resto-boutique, Birks Café Par Europea operates with Ferrer signing on to a business agreement for Europea Group to rent the mezzanine space from Birks, while the famed jeweler owns the marketing rights to Birks Café. Quebec TV host Francis Reddy joined Ferrer as partner on this culinary adventure.
With the legal matters settled and the construction finalized, the store opened in mid-September. The actual grand opening is scheduled for November 4, giving the renowned chefs ample time to fine-tune the Café’s menu.
Current menu offerings are going over very well. Gourmet fish, lamb and duck main courses are already becoming fast favorites with customers. Café specialties include the signature “potage”: a cream of butternut squash with curry, coconut milk and tofu; as well as the club sandwich made the Ferrer way with chicken breast, fresh herbs, ricotta cheese and prosciutto chips on the side.
What’s unique about the Café itself is all of the food is prepared offsite. “The Café only has a prep kitchen to warm food up to proper serving temperatures and allows the chefs and kitchen staff to put the finishing touches on dishes,” says Hartling. “Final preparations of serving true gourmet food on-site at the flagship store without creating cooking odors that some people may not find appealing, such as fish dishes, is a definite plus.”
Monday through Friday lunch is served from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM. A range of appetizers (such as Gourmet salad Mesclun, a salad with grilled vegetables, wild coriander leaves or Eumatimi farm beef, made with gravlax lentils, confit ginger, honey flavored tamari sauce) and main course meals (including rice noodle salad made with glazed magret duck with sesame seeds and wasabi, jasmine olive oil or sole fillet cooked in a papillote filled with olive and tomatoes, zucchini and thyme, galanga infused bouillon) are available during these hours.
The dessert menu is just as impressive. Hand-made sorbets and ice-creams are tasty favorites, but the Café also serves up a number of luscious baked goods. Macaroon cookies in pastel colors and deep rich chocolates topped with micro-thin flakes of 24-karat gold are presented to customers in elegant serving dishes and plates, adding to the luxury experiences customers can take in. Cool desserts are served in tall shot glasses to give a polished and professional fine dining look to just about every item on the menu.
But what has become a hugely popular for the Café is afternoon high tea. Starting at 2:00 PM and ending at 6:00 PM on most nights, and 9:00 PM on Thursdays and Fridays, customers can enjoy time-honored high tea service, including traditional after-lunch desserts and even cucumber sandwiches.
“Although it’s not as mainstream as it once was, high tea is still a Canadian tradition,” says Hartling. “The afternoon tea is actually starting to make a comeback, being served in trendy boutique hotels around Montreal and other cities.”
High tea at Birks Café Par Europea offers a reinterpretation of the traditional service provided at five-star hotels, but is more accessible in a resto-boutique setting. “High tea is really becoming popular in the Café in the short time it’s been open,” says Hartling. “Jérôme was looking to recreate the British tradition of high tea and has definitely put his own touch to this afternoon service. And, as the Café doesn’t serve dinner, so the high tea menu offers a range of foods and snacks to feed hungry customers later in the afternoon.”
Gourmet foods, tempting desserts and high tea are doing much to bring in new customers and are giving regular Birks’ customer more of a reason to stay in the store. In looking back on the initial proposal to open the Café, Hartling brings up how retail merchandising and eating go hand-in-hand, be it food courts in the US and Asia to upscale restaurants in Europe, namely famed fine dining establishments at Harrods in London (including their new Ladurée outpost, the French pastry shop renowned for their to-die-for macaroons).
But it’s more about just serving food in a retail environment. As luxury has become redefined over the years, combining luxury dining with luxury products is simply common business sense. Desserts and foods are served on sterling silver trays and plates customers can purchase in the store. What’s unique to Birks Café Par Europea is actually seeing their giftware products in action. At best, most jewelers can only do that with a Waterford vase brimming with fresh-cut flowers.
When customers enter the Café, the presentation of foods, menu items and visual merchandising elements are very close to how they appear in the retail jewelry space downstairs, or for any other retail jewelry store for that matter. Large, high-resolution images of food items are the main subject matter in lighted displays that look much like a retail jewelry store’s designer galleries.
In looking ahead at the grand opening of Birks Café Par Europea, so far management is pleased with the decision. The Café is attracting new customers, giving existing customers new convenient dining options, and, of course, combining two luxury experiences under one roof is working according to plan.
Montreal’s flagship store’s agreement with the Europea Group is a test of sorts to see if other such pairings of fine foods and fine jewelry can be done in other Birks’ markets. Some early indicators that the Montreal experiment is working are a large number of positive customer reactions and reviews.
Having access to restaurant fare has its perks. Food and beverage service areas in an average retail jewelry store can’t compare to the fine food and high-end drinks that are only a staircase away. “Customers do appreciate the giveaways from the Café,” says Hartling.
And, with Christmas and Valentine’s Day on the horizon, Birks is already thinking of ways to leverage special events and customer giveaways from the Café. “We’re currently working on a romantic dinner concept for Valentine’s Day,” says Hartling. “We want it to be a very luxurious, intimate and romantic meal for certain couples.”