When Café Bonin shuttered its doors at 128 E. Main St. earlier this August, foodies say it left a void in downtown’s upscale-casual dining scene. It was the lone, locally-owned place that offered moderately priced dinner specials ranging from $12-$13. It also hosted live jazz and other music on some weekends.
Outside commitments and family obligations forced the owners to close the Cajun/Creole restaurant after five years of operation. The future of the former restaurant is now uncertain.
“I miss it,” said Dr. Marlene Richardson, who co-owned and operated Café Bonin with her husband, Jeff. “The restaurant was very successful and certainly hit a need in Campbellsville. There’s nothing like that here now.”
The Richardsons eventually plan to sell the 80-seat, 2,000 square-foot restaurant as a turn-key operation, but finding the right buyer to fill the local niche could be a challenge.
“It needs to have an owner/operator — someone that can be hands-on,” Richardson said.
While she said the historic building has piqued interest from a few potential buyers, some believe the initial capital investment, coupled with overhead costs, staffing issues and the sluggish economy, could deter potential restaurateurs from re-launching the site as an upscale-casual restaurant.
Campbellsville also is “centrally isolated,” said Tracy Phillips Gibson, daughter of Pat and Tracy Phillips and a Taylor County native who graduated with a culinary-arts degree from Sullivan University in Louisville.
“I feel that location plays a part in the local dining scene,” she said.
Gibson left the area about 12 years ago and now works as a chef at Bell House Restaurant in Shelbyville — a small town about 28 miles west of Louisville, whose dining scene draws from the proximity of its larger metro neighbor.
Unfortunately, Campbellsville isn’t accessible by an interstate or parkway, Gibson said, and it’s also 80 miles from any major metropolitan area.
While Campbellsville University and nearby Green River Lake draw thousands to the area annually — the spending habits of those outsiders can be fickle and largely dependent on tourist and academic seasons or short-run cultural events.
“So, you have to rely on surrounding counties to be successful in restaurants,” Gibson said. “Some people will drive for good food. But for some, it’s not worth it.”
If the price-to-quality balance isn’t right, many likely will opt for a chain, or seek less-expensive fast-food options.
There’s nothing wrong with that, Gibson said, but “you do a disservice (to children) by not exposing them to different foods and different methods of preparation. Kids don’t establish table manners. They don’t know how to behave in a place without distracting energy.”
In its five-year stint, Café Bonin managed to achieve regional appeal, attracting a diverse crowd of diners who are now forced to drive to Elizabethtown or Bardstown for a similar dining experience.
“We had a great clientele — wonderful locals. A lot of people would come from out of town,” Richardson said.
Any future downtown restaurant must recapture that crowd, she said.
It must also do something else: satisfy the appetites of locals.
“People in this area are hungry for fresh, healthy alternatives to the frozen stuff that everybody else is serving,” Richardson said. “We prided ourselves on the highest quality of food.”