With the Cody library’s cafe losing tens of thousands of dollars a year, Park County officials want to know: Could a private business do it better?
Last week, county commissioners put out a request for proposals, seeking a vendor to run the library cafe now known as the Biblio Bistro. The county will accept proposals for leasing the space through Jan. 12.
Commissioners are calling for proposals that offer “a variety of beverages and food” and continue to give library visitors a place to read, use the internet and conduct personal business.
“Park County will evaluate proposals based upon the effectiveness of the perceived performance of each vendor as it relates to the library’s specific requirements,” says the request.
Commissioners will consider how much money each vendor is willing to pay to lease the space, but that’s just one of four factors — along with the vendor’s past experience, their proposed menu and marketing plans and the date they’d start operating.
Interested entrepreneurs must have at least 12 months’ experience of owning, managing or operating a similar type of cafe or a restaurant.
Commissioners discussed scrapping that requirement, but “I think part of the reason for putting some time limit in there is to prevent somebody who has a grand idea that, ‘I might go into the restaurant business,’” said County Attorney Bryan Skoric.
A draft version of the request for proposals required prospective proprietors to submit some financial
information to demonstrate the viability of their plans, but commissioners ultimately nixed that.
“It’s just hard to hold them accountable, and how do we make the decision on the financial statements with parity?” asked Commissioner Jake Fulkerson. “I’d just hate to throw in a financial requirement for these people when we don’t for any of our other tenants.”
Later in the discussion over what information the county should require, Commissioner Tim French offered that, “I think this is going to take care of itself, because if somebody outbids everybody else and they don’t make it, you know, they’re out in short order; they can’t pay the rent.”
The library-run Biblio Bistro has always been seen by county officials as an amenity for patrons rather than a money-making venture. To avoid competing with private businesses, commissioners prohibited the Bistro from advertising. The hope was to eventually break even, but the cafe has only been recouping about half its costs in recent years — losing between $47,000 and $55,000 annually.
Things culminated during this year’s budget process, when the library board had to slash its budget for new books in order to cover the Bistro’s losses. (The library is still purchasing new books, as usual, but it’s drawing from reserve accounts to do so.)
That prompted Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden to ask library leaders, “What’s more important to you, buying new books or keeping the Bistro open?”
After his comments and the Bistro’s continuing losses were highlighted in the Tribune and other media outlets, library officials asked commissioners about privatizing the cafe.
“The fact is, we can no longer support it and still be able to support other library needs,” Park County Library Board Chair Greg Bevenger told county commissioners in late July.
Services at the Bistro were scaled back in August in anticipation of a change and Park County Library System Director Frances Clymer and Skoric hammered out a draft RFP over the last few months.
Commissioners made their final tweaks on Tuesday, Dec. 5.
Tilden wanted to make sure the requirements related to restaurant experience rather than ownership, saying he wouldn’t want to discourage an entrepreneur.
“Colonel Sanders, he wasn’t in the restaurant business before he started Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Tilden said.
“He actually was,” Commissioner Loren Grosskopf corrected, but Tilden said that, regardless, “you’ve got to start somewhere and maybe there’s somebody that’s been involved and has experience managing a restaurant, or being a waiter in a restaurant, and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to try it on my own.’”
In their proposals, vendors must describe their history of employing and managing food service operations to “ensure high-quality, smooth, timely attentive and customer-friendly service.” They need to provide three examples of past catering, restaurant experience or other operations to demonstrate their qualifications. Proposals also need to include a list of the key people who’d be involved in the operation.
A successful bidder will be required to keep the space clean, be properly licensed and to carry their own liability insurance. Whoever takes over the cafe will only be able to be open when the library is open, though employees will be able to enter early and/or leave late through a side door.
The restaurant should have a fair amount of foot traffic to draw from: People passed through the library’s front entrance more than 145,500 times in the last fiscal year, according to county data.
It will be up to the vendor to maintain the county-owned equipment provided with the space — including to replace any equipment that fails. Park County, meanwhile, will cover the utilities; county officials have said they have no way of separating the cafe’s electrical and heat usage from the rest of the building.
Commissioners said they’ll entertain an initial lease of as short as one year or as long as three years.
Vendors interested in leasing the Biblio Bistro space are encouraged to attend a walkthrough on Friday, Dec. 22.
Commissioners expect to consider the proposals at their Jan. 16 meeting. Fulkerson joked that, if there are two competing proposals, commissioners may want to bring the vendors in “and have a cook-off or something — or have them both bring in brownies or something.”