Bellingham restaurateurs prepare to open cafe in challenging location

Bellingham restaurateurs prepare to open cafe in challenging location
The cafe space inside the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building has been a challenge for past tenants. Artifacts Cafe & Wine Bar, owned by several local restaurateurs, will open in the space on Nov. 17. [Oliver Lazenby photo | The BBJ]

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Filed on 09. Nov, 2015 in Features, New Business, News

The Whatcom Museum’s Board of Directors has had a hard time keeping a tenant in the tiny cafe in the Lightcatcher Building at 250 Flora St., home to the Family Interactive Gallery. Three restaurants opened and closed inside the 600-square-foot space in the Arts District in the last six years.

Despite the space’s history, the board has high hopes for its new tenant—a cafe and wine bar operated by local entrepreneurs with successful ventures on their resumes.

Jeff Wicklund, who opened Purple Smile Wines in Fairhaven in 2005, will open Artifacts Cafe & Wine Bar on Nov. 17. Wicklund and the rest of the ownership team think versatility will make the space work—Artifacts isn’t just a cafe and wine bar, but a home base for Wicklund’s well-established wine club and a space for private events and parties.

The museum board was impressed by Wicklund—who is known as “Wick” to friends and associates—said Christina Claassen, marketing and public relations manager for the museum.

“It’s certainly a challenging space,” Claassen said. “Because Wick already is known in the community and has had success with Purple Smile and his son has the Real McCoy, people were favorable to his proposal.”

Wicklund’s son, Brandon Wicklund, owns The Real McCoy Home Bar & Kitchen two blocks west of Artifacts at 114 Prospect St. Brandon Wicklund is a partner in the business, and the Real McCoy kitchen will serve as a commissary kitchen for Artifacts. Other partners in the business are Jim McClure and Lisa Michelle-Thomson.

Wicklund closed Purple Smile Wines in 2014 after rent increased, but still runs the wine club that was the foundation of Purple Smile. He has been looking for a new space since Purple Smile Wines closed.

Past businesses in the museum space struggled with its size, Claassen said. It’s small kitchen almost necessitates having an off-site kitchen for food preparation.

A cafe called Twofiftyflora left the space late last year. Owner Arlene Mantha still operates Twofiftyflora out of a commissary kitchen on Railroad Street, but is now focusing on catering and wholesale baking, she said.

“The space is gorgeous and we loved being there but it did not have a suitable kitchen to support our growing catering and baking,” she said in an email. “We had to get an additional commissary kitchen and it was a lot of back and forth.”

Other recent restaurants in the space included Cheese Meat(s) Beer and the Light Catcher Cafe.

In addition to the versatility and connections that Wicklund hopes will make Artifacts thrive, he thinks he has a different philosophy than previous tenants, he said.

“A business shouldn’t rely on museum traffic, they should be bringing business to the museum,” he said. “It’s very symbiotic. There isn’t a really cool museum in the world that doesn’t have a wine bar.”

Wicklund is a “cork dork” who started working with wine in 1996 when he opened a Snohomish County wine shop called Wicked Cellars.  Nine years later, he moved to Bellingham to open Purple Smile Wines.

At Purple Smile Wines, Wicklund’s wine club accounted for about 75 percent of revenue, he said. He hopes the club will be similarly important at Artifacts.

Wicklund picks several wines a months from around the world for his wine club members. At monthly wine pick-up nights, Wicklund holds wine tastings and members compare notes on their favorite bottles.

“They want to be immersed in the world of wine and they want someone to be the tour guide,” he said. “I‘ve devoted a big chunk of my life to that pursuit.”

At it’s peak, Wicklund’s club had about 500 members. After closing Purple Smile Wines, Wicklund continued his wine club under the name Wicked Wine and Supper Club. He is currently rebuilding membership and has about 40 members, he said.

Artifacts’ menu has an emphasis on convenience and items that can be taken to go, a concept that’s well-known to chef Lisa Michelle-Thomson. Thomson helped open Peqish, a fresh made grab-and-go food business in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in 2014. The store’s pre-packaged food had a twist—it’s handmade with an emphasis on fresh ingredients.

The Artifacts staff will serve most menu items in Mason jars, which the menu refers to as “pots.” They will serve hot pots such as ziti and cheese, and beef and bean chili; soup pots, including spicy Asian pork vegetable soup; as well as sweet pots, nibble pots and salad pots. Artifacts’ website calls this system user-friendly, eco-friendly and low waste.

The cafe, which is furnished with wine racks reaching toward a tall ceiling and long tables looking out over the building’s courtyard, can seat 17. Space in the Lightcatcher Building’s courtyard and on the sidewalk on Grand Avenue more than doubles the inside seating.

The Lightcatcher Building’s namesake 37-foot-tall glass wall wraps around the cafe’s courtyard seating. Wicklund looks forward to introducing customers to the light catching wall and the unique space, he said.

“It’s a grossly under-appreciated and underused facility,” he said. “It’s beautifully done.”

Artifacts will be open from “10 a.m. until close” Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to five on Sunday, Wicklund said.

Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or olazenby@bbjtoday.com

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bGk+PHN0cm9uZz53b29fc2xpZGVyX2hlYWRpbmc8L3N0cm9uZz4gLSBSZWNlbnQgbmV3czwvbGk+PGxpPjxzdHJvbmc+d29vX3RoZW1lbmFtZTwvc3Ryb25nPiAtIFRoZSBKb3VybmFsPC9saT48L3VsPg==