Library cafe's new boss has a history of success

When Bernie Dillman opened the Regal Beagle pub and restaurant in Dunedin more than 20 years ago, people predicted the business would fail.

When he severely injured his leg almost eight years ago, doctors told him he would probably lose it and walk with a cane the rest of his life.

So when asked why he thinks he can make the cafe in the downtown Main Library succeed when three operators in the past four years haven't, Dillman just laughed.

"I think I have the personality. I give people what they want and I don't overprice anything," says Dillman, 59, a Palm Harbor resident. "I'm going for volume rather than price."

It's a philosophy that made the Regal Beagle, which opened in 1986 and offered "the best hamburgers and sandwiches around," successful, he says.

Coming out of semiretirement, Dillman and his 28-year-old daughter, Angie, expect the same when they reopen the library cafe in late July.

He says he'll offer colorful menus, hot dogs, beef sausages, hot and cold sandwiches, coffee, sodas, salads and more. When the library is open, he'll be open. And he's going to be putting fliers all over town so people know they can place orders to go.

In short, it sounds like he's really opening a restaurant, not just a cafe. And that's something downtown needs, city leaders say.

Dillman also says he's going to take a more hands-on approach. Unlike his predecessors, he's planning to keep the cafe open throughout the entire day, even if it means hiring another person.

"Closing it won't help the business at all," says Dillman, who will call the cafe BD's.

Unlike the last few operators, Dillman has a lot of experience. After selling the Regal Beagle "for an offer I couldn't refuse," he decided to take a year off before opening another restaurant.

That year, though, turned into four after he broke his leg in several places and shattered his ankle when he fell off his boat while cleaning it.

After going through rehab —he now barely walks with a limp, let alone a cane — he opened Bernie's in Palm Harbor. That restaurant shut down about a year ago when new owners bought the strip mall where it was located.

He thought he'd retire, but the itch to work returned.

He recognizes, however, there will be challenges.

He'll be the cafe's fourth operator in four years. And the others have struggled.

But some city leaders believe the previous owners didn't have enough drive and didn't keep the café open late enough to succeed. It also wasn't properly advertised.

However, its customers were definitely upset when it closed, saying it offered a nice perk to the surrounding area. They also said the city's initial proposal to replace the cafe with vending machines was outrageous and impersonal.

When Clearwater opened the $20.2-million library on Osceola Avenue in 2004, officials hoped the cafe would lure visitors for lunch and to check out the community bulletin boards.

Located in the west terrace with 60-foot-tall ceilings, the cafe's atrium also has wireless Internet access.

The last owner was 24-year-old Matt Behms, who closed several months ago to move to the east coast. He said he got about 100 customers and day and made a small profit.

When he shut down, some city officials wanted to do away with the cafe, saying it lacked continuity. But after the public outcry, the City Council decided to give it another shot.

The city charged Behms $400 a month in rent and 3 percent of his sales once he reached $3,000 a month, which officials said happened only a few times. He had a three-year commitment.

Dillman will pay the city $500 a month rent and 5 percent of whatever he makes monthly after the first $2,000. He has a five-year commitment.

Some City Council members, including Paul Gibson, question whether the amount is too much. Since the city isn't underwriting the operation and the revenues for the city wouldn't be that great, he wonders if they should charge Dillman at all.

"I think it's going to be difficult to operate the cafe profitably and I would have been in favor of a more generous deal," says Gibson, adding that the council may renegotiate his contract later. "I want to provide a service to the library patrons rather than make money."

Dillman says he's not too worried.

He's heard the naysayers before.

>>Fast facts

When it's open

The cafe at the city's Main Library on 100 Osceola Ave. is scheduled to reopen between July 20 and Aug. 1.

The new cafe will be open when the library is open. The library's operating hours are Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and

Sunday: 1 to 5 p.m.

Library cafe's new boss has a history of success 06/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 6:52pm]

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