Browsers Café will unveil an entirely new look and name this summer after more than a decade selling books and operating as a coffee house.
The University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union has approved a $725,000 renovation that will transform the top floor of the Memorial Union Building into a modern restaurant and café by day and versatile event space by night.
The project will be funded using the USSU student infrastructure fee, which levies $111 each year from full-time undergraduates and $55 each year from undergraduates taking fewer than three courses per term.
Construction is expected to begin early April and finish by mid-May, taking just six weeks.
The union hopes to capitalize on the demand for a venue that can host weddings, banquets, performance art and campus club bookings, says USSU Business and Services Manager Jason Kovitch.
“The existing business plan of Browsers saw a decline in book sales of 30 to 40 per cent over the last few years and we knew that was sort of drifting away from us,” Kovitch said at the Feb. 1 University Students’ Council meeting.
“At the same time, we didn’t have a coffee business that could exist on its own and generate the type of revenue we need to sustain that space.”
In fact, revenue gleaned from book sales at Browsers has nosedived from about $350,000 in 2003 to just $100,000 in 2011, according to a financial spreadsheet obtained last year by the Sheaf.
For the current fiscal year, Browsers is projected to sink nearly $18,000 into the red.
The renovation will rid the space of its large bookshelves, add booth seating and relocate the bar that snakes along the side of the space to the far back near the washrooms. The new bar will include coolers for bottled drinks, four draft beer taps, food displays, an espresso machine and a small oven.
Customers will be served at their table and food will be brought upstairs from Louis’. In addition, there will be a handful of short-order items exclusive to the upstairs, such as grilled paninis, salads, pizzas and baking. Self-serve coffee will no longer be available.
In recent years, Browsers has averaged about $90,000 annually in food and beverage sales.
“We’re quite confident that within the first year… we will be able to double that,” Kovitch said, adding that events like weddings and holiday parties can sometimes bring in up to $10,000 each.
“Without any advertising or anything, we already have three weddings booked this summer,” he said. “So that just speaks to the demand for this space.”
The space will seat 150 guests for dinner and an additional 100 guests for receptions.
The new space will also allow customers to eat and drink when Louis’ closes early, which is often the case when performers need to do soundcheck prior to a concert.
Kovitch plans to use existing Louis’ staff to fill the additional three to four hours of labour the new space will require per day.
Justin Wotherspoon of SEPW Architecture drafted the new design for the USSU. He previously worked on the $29-million Place Riel renovation and the last major renovation to Louis’ about a decade ago.
He was given just 10 days in December to come up with the design as the USSU is scrambling to have the space available by summer.
“We needed to come up with some sort of concept and design that still works as a coffee shop by day with food services, and a full-service bar and special venue space by evening,” Wotherspoon said.
A major component of the design, he said, was to “class up” the space by blocking the entrance to the washrooms with the bar.
“A lot of money actually ends up being put into the bar,” he said. But there will also be upgrades to the lighting and flooring to give it more of a “fine dining” feel.
The renderings are “very early,” Wotherspoon added, and are meant simply to give a basic understanding of the direction of the design.
The new name for the space has been chosen, according to USSU General Manager Caroline Cottrell, but will be kept under wraps until Browsers operations end and renovations begin.
USSU Vice-President Operations and Finance Steven Heidel began fleshing out the plan early in his term after last year’s executive started the project. Initially there was talk about refitting the space into a childcare centre.
“We could not get over the legal technicalities of turning that space into a childcare space,” he said. “The building is too old and also it’s right above a bar. Having a childcare space there just wasn’t possible. So I think this is the best option.”
Once finished, Heidel wants to see student groups use the space for parties, steak nights, galas and banquets. He says the space will be a less expensive and more convenient option for fundraisers than, for example, the Sutherland Hotel and Tequilas.
“It’s a very nice, bright space up there,” he said. “So we just want to keep that atmosphere.”
Renderings provided by the USSU