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Fake books serve as decor inside the Barnes & Noble Kitchen in Eastchester, New York
Barnes & Noble [Official]

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Can $26 Short Ribs Save Barnes & Noble?

Facing stiff competition from Amazon, the bookstore chain’s latest Hail Mary is in-store restaurants

Clad in a denim apron, a server rattles off a list of cured meats and their origins, including La Quercia prosciutto from Iowa. But the charcuterie assortment, strewn with Marcona almonds and a glisten of olive oil, is not on offer at the latest neighborhood restaurant touting shared plates and craft cocktails — rather, it’s on the menu at a suburban Barnes & Noble.

The newest Barnes & Noble Kitchen — a restaurant concept the bookseller began installing inside its retail stores in late 2016 — opened earlier this year in the bougie Dallas ‘burb of West Plano. Also on the menu are housemade barbecue potato chips topped with crumbles of Pt. Reyes blue cheese, and a $19 plate of roast chicken that comes with a side of carrot-kale slaw. (The most popular dishes vary from location to location, but staffers say that the chicken, along with avocado toast, a turkey panini, and a grilled cheese-tomato soup combo, are among diners’ favorites.) At the restaurant’s bar, staffers pour pints of local beer and pull espresso shots.

There are now five Barnes & Noble Kitchens in the U.S., including the one in West Plano. The first opened in Edina, Minnesota in November 2016, and the company has since added four more outposts, all in affluent suburbs. (The newest is in Ashburn, Virginia, located in the richest county in America.)

Barnes & Noble, which opened its first store in New York City in the late 19th century, has suffered a major slump in recent years: In March, it reported its ninth consecutive quarter of declining sales. Times are tough for bookstores in general. In the U.S., they brought in $684 million in October 2017, nearly a 40 percent decrease from a decade ago, according to Census Bureau data cited by the New York Times. Amazon, surprisingly, is now the fourth-largest brick-and-mortar bookstore chain.

So, it seems that hawking $12 avocado toast and $16 brisket burgers is Barnes & Noble’s latest attempt to stay relevant in a space that’s increasingly losing business to online retailers like Amazon. But entering the restaurant business, with its notoriously low profit margins and high rate of failure, is an unlikely Hail Mary for the nation’s largest bookstore chain.

Blonde wood galore at Barnes & Noble Kitchen in Edina, Minnesota
Barnes & Noble

At the West Plano location of Barnes & Noble Kitchen, the food is real, but the books, strangely enough, are fake. Resting atop wooden shelves that jut out from the back wall, they have neither pages nor titles, functioning merely as decor. To find the real books, diners need only push back their blue upholstered chairs — which, appropriately, resemble furniture that might be found in a public library — and stride to the opposite side of the bar. Smaller than a typical Barnes & Noble, with a book selection largely focused on best-sellers, the entire West Plano store occupies approximately 10,000 square feet. Half of that is devoted to the bookstore, and the other half to the restaurant, with its quiet color palette of wood tones and serene blues.

Over the past decade, more and customers have abandoned store experiences like these for online shopping, lured by convenience (hello, Prime shipping), vast inventories, and frequently, lower prices. “Books are a category that lends itself very well to digital,” says Barbara Kahn, marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “Amazon has really figured out the book buying business and completely dominates it. It does everything you can do in store, online — there are even digital books you can [flip through], it has twice the assortment of products, and it’s cheaper.”

When shoppers can order just about anything with one click and have it delivered to their door in a couple days — or a couple hours — why bother shopping in person at all? That’s a quandary that retailers across the spectrum are facing, and they’re increasingly looking to what analysts call “experiential retail” in an attempt to drive customers into brick-and-mortar stores. According to market research firm NPD Group, “The idea is that a retailer offers consumers a chance to buy an experience rather than just an object or service. Or to put it another way, the consumer buys a memory.”

Barnes & Noble’s book selection may not be enough to get shoppers to abandon the gloriously lazy convenience of Amazon’s one-click ordering — but the company is hoping that the promise of a meal shared with friends or family will.

The charcuterie plate at Barnes & Noble Kitchen
Barnes & Noble Kitchen

“Honestly, we all just want to feel special when we go into a store,” says Taylor Coyne, senior retail analyst at JLL. “It’s all about cultivating that experience, and the warm and fuzzy feelings you get when you shop and you buy something that you’re really excited about [versus shopping online]. That is a really special feeling that retail can tap into.”

So are in-store restaurants a way for Barnes & Noble to give its customers something Amazon can’t? “Frankly I think Amazon can do anything Amazon wants to,” Kahn says. “If Amazon doesn’t want to do something, there’s generally a reason,” she points out, acknowledging that restaurants typically operate on very thin profit margins.

Other retailers have looked to enhance their #brands with restaurants, too — Urban Outfitters, Restoration Hardware, Tiffany & Co., Tommy Bahama — but perhaps none are facing as big a disruptor in their respective fields as Barnes & Noble is with Amazon.

“With so much competition these days, retailers really need to market their brand,” Coyne says. “The more brand awareness they can cultivate, the more brand loyalty [they’ll win]. If you can get people to really connect with your brand and enjoy your product — well, that’s how you’re going to really succeed. You can’t kind of just be washed away.”

Put another way, if a customer has a memorably great dining experience at Barnes & Noble Kitchen, next time they need a book, they might consider making the trek to the store instead of resorting to Amazon Prime.

But according to Kahn, the most effective in-store experiences both reinforce the retailer’s brand and offer shoppers “an experience that people would go out of their way to take part in” — think cooking classes at Williams-Sonoma, makeovers at Sephora, or yoga at Lululemon. Barnes & Noble’s in-store restaurants may not be unique enough to convince shoppers to get off the internet. “I don’t really see the synergy, unless there’s a long line at the restaurant” so people are forced to shop while they wait, she says.

The bar overlooks the book selection at Barnes & Noble Kitchen in Plano, Texas
Barnes & Noble

Kahn mentions Barnes & Noble’s longstanding in-store cafes, which serve Starbucks coffee alongside pastries (and desserts from the Cheesecake Factory, in some locations), as a concept that “makes more sense” inside a bookstore. “Those are easy places to sit down and skim through a book or magazine,” she points out.

But coffee shop culture has shifted in recent years: Patrons are now more likely to sit solo and work on a laptop than to read a book or congregate with friends, and sipping a latte surrounded by laptop squatters doesn’t exactly make for the kind of in-store experience that will encourage customers to return. (Several of Amazon’s IRL bookstores also contain coffee shops.)

Barnes & Noble’s venture into full-service dining is also reflective of the overall shift toward incorporating restaurants into spaces traditionally dominated by retail.

Chef and restaurateur David Chang recently spoke to CNBC about this movement, saying, “I remember trying to find leases [for his first restaurant in 2004] and people were like, ‘No. We don’t want a restaurant in our building. It’s going to decrease the value because of problems with smells or whatever. And now, everyone wants a restaurant. Restaurants now are anchor tenants in buildings.” According to real estate firm CBRE, today restaurants occupy between 20 and 40 percent of a typical shopping center, versus 10 or 15 percent a decade ago.

“It’s not just a phase,” says Coyne. “Eating and drinking is so much of how we end up spending time with our friends and family. So, I think [Barnes & Noble] is absolutely tapping into a trend that’s very real.”

But while online customer reviews for Barnes & Noble Kitchen have been largely favorable, the restaurants aren’t exactly generating a ton of buzz. Unlike the thoroughly branded dining experience at, say, Tiffany & Co., the food and atmosphere at B&N Kitchen seem like they could be found just about anywhere. While the restaurant’s website is peppered with relevant literary quotes — such as Virginia Woolf’s “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” — that theme isn’t enforced inside the restaurants themselves (except for those weird faux books), giving the dining spaces a decidedly generic feel that seems unlikely to catch on with customers in an already-crowded restaurant landscape.

Barnes & Noble

Tiffany’s hit NYC restaurant has the major benefit of being a luxury brand that’s all about aspirational aesthetics: Diners who can’t afford a $25,000 diamond necklace can instead Instagram their fancy afternoon tea service at the in-store Blue Box Cafe, served on robin’s egg blue china for the relatively low price of $49. In the case of Urban Outfitters, the brand looked to established chef names — Ilan Hall, Marc Vetri — in order to fill seats at its in-store restaurants. (Neither Hall nor Vetri are still in business with UO, though the latter did end up selling his restaurant group to the retailer.)

And as Barnes & Noble continues to lose business from Amazon (which reported more than $60 billion in sales for the most recent quarter, compared to Barnes & Noble’s $1.2 billion), it’s also getting squeezed from below: Indie bookstores are booming, thanks in part to a direct backlash to the kind of cold, impersonal experience provided by digital giants like Amazon. Unfortunately for Barnes & Noble, it lies somewhere in the middle: It’s not big or tech-savvy enough to give Amazon a run for its money, but it’s too big and corporate to compete with the kind of smaller, quirkier indie stores that develop loyal neighborhood followings.

Barnes & Noble declined to answer questions about its restaurant venture and is staying tight-lipped on any future expansion plans for now, but it did acknowledge that the Kitchens are still in the experimentation phase. “Our customers have loved these new restaurants, and we are continuing to learn from them as we innovate and test new store offerings,” a spokesperson said via email. (In addition to the handful of full-service Kitchen locations that are now open, it also debuted a fast-casual version of the concept in Virginia late last year.)

In the meantime, it seems diners aren’t exactly flocking to scarf down $22 plates of salmon at Barnes & Noble’s restaurants. A staff member at the Plano store said there’s “typically never a wait” for a table, even during prime weekend dinner hours, while a host at the Folsom, California, location said waits during peak meal hours never exceed five minutes. In other words, it remains to be seen just how many diners will decide to follow up their in-store avocado toast with a new book purchase.

Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior associate editor.

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